I’ve been to Southern California exactly once, for something like nine days when I was thirteen. I was in the midst of an obsession with the SoCal pop punk scene, and naturally thought I would have an immediate affinity with the place. I did not. San Diego had one nice park, Los Angeles was just a sunny city where rich people lived; Tijuana was awesome in a seedy way. I really liked the fact that there were seals at the beach.
I haven’t been back since, but despite my lack of connection there certainly remains a large swath of people who seem to love this place. It’s bright, warm, and laidback, which is great if you’re into that sort of thing. It doesn’t necessarily bother me, and wouldn’t interest me except for the fact the California sound has steadily been making a comeback in rock for a year or two now.
The California Sound has roots extending back to the early 60s with the surf rock of early Beach Boys and Jan & Dean and the psychedelia of The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. The next generation coalesced around a chewy folk nougat center, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, CSNY all have a “California Period.” Also the Eagles, who I mention only out of obligation.
The late Seventies hard rock and punk were too hard, and the sound got drowned out. I thought it might have been gone forever until I heard Dawes and Blake Mills. Both seem to personify the singer/songwriter tone. Then Ryan Adams, Beck, and Jenny Lewis release three albums to critical acclaim that had a liberal dose of the warm sea air. Adams as the outsider in the bunch (he’s from North Carolina), is not alone, Kurt Vile and the War On Drugs have that summer feeling that belies their East Coast roots.
Beck and Lewis are natives, and so are Wavves and Best Coast, (the two most California band names); Dawes and Blake Mills. Joining them is Tall Tales & The Silver Lining, a band whose album Tightropes is the essential oil of the most recent wave of the California Sound.
The album starts off a little Vegas by way of the Killers: the keys pipe over the backbeat in a non-descript way until the guitar and vocals really kick in. Once they do, there is no mistaking what part of the country is being emulated. Surfer-bro vocals* pop over a slightly faded guitar with single coil pick ups and the tone knob dialed back a hair or two. The drums, to their credit are never in your face, but are always a presence, while the bass provides some of the most impressive musical lines throughout the album when he’s not working the 4s.
(*At times, it will be said that he sounds like Tom Petty, and Tom Petty is nothing else wanted to be a Surfer or a Country boy, or both at the same time. I personally think the voice is more Jackson Browne or Jason Lytle, or Jason Lytle doing a Jackson Browne impression)
Do-doos and aahs abound. Tremolo, chorus, echo, and heavy reverb are the effects of choice. Tightropes is light and it is airy. It is laidback and it is groovy. But there is one key characteristic of this album that makes this album so essentially California: waves.
Every song on Tightropes is so persistent, each verse so similar but different enough, that it’s like waves crashing on the beach. Each song has a distinct phrase the gets repeated in the chorus or pre-chorus: “Afraid to love again.” “Let it Go” (which is not that one Disney song). “She leaves us both alive.” “Get me high and I ain’t coming down.” I think you get the gist. There is even a song called “Waves,” which may or may not have been a subconscious nod to the motif that supports each song.
You can argue that because the California Sound is so persistent, this even works for the whole album. Each song feels like it mimics the previous song in some way, so much so that in describing the first song, there was no need to describe any of the other songs. Each song has something unique to add to the landscape, without altering the formula too much. For some this will be a bad thing, but sometimes a band dials in on a sound and it really works for them, and they can build an audience around that sound (e.g. The Ramones and the New York Punk Sound).
My one gripe with the whole album is that the final song, “Losin’ It,” sounds a bit much like Neil Young’s “Birds.” But if anything, this is just another link in the chain that is the California Sound. Young, a Canadian, bought a home in Topanga Canyon and recorded the album After the Gold Rush in Los Angeles. I’ll never understand the appeal, but if Neil Young does, I guess it can’t be all bad.
Article by: Christopher Gilson