More than fifty years have passed since John Phillips so vividly encapsulated the California myth with The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” but the Golden State continues to inspire artists with its promise of eternally sunny days. The strains of “California music” are as varied as the state’s regions, from surf to punk to psychedelia to country to metal. Despite changing times and changing tastes, however, richly melodic pop-rock has never gone out of fashion in California. Two recent anthologies from veteran artists (and collaborators) Jeff Larson and Jeffrey Foskett showcase their original, contemporary sounds that recall the finest and most enduring pop of the 1960s and 1970s. The Best of Jeff Larson and The Best of Jeffrey Foskett have both been recently released by Japan’s Vivid Sound label, providing ideal introductions to both artists’ impressive bodies of work.
The melodies on The Best of Jeff Larson are usually soft and gentle as a breeze, but that quality shouldn’t – and doesn’t – disguise the fact that its nineteen tracks are graceful, often reflective and genuinely compelling musings. These songs ponder relationships, travel and moods, as the artist accurately puts it in the liner notes, and all are distinguished by his expressive voice as a singer, lyricist and melodist.
Songs have been culled from the albums Room for Summer (2002), Fragile Sunrise (2002), New Antiques (2005), Sepia (2004), Swimming in the Make Believe (2006), Left of a Dream (2008), Heart of the Valley (2009), The World Over (2012), plus one previously unreleased track. As aptly referred to in the title of New Antiques, Larson’s compositions are in the classic mold, and familiar without ever being derivative. Mellow yet passionate vocals glide over crisp, shimmering guitars, tight instrumental settings and dreamy layers of vocals, making for soft rock in the best sense of the phrase: rock that’s subtle in its delivery but no less authentic.
Of course, no artist gets by without a little help from his friends, and there’s an A-list cast of players here including Hank Linderman, Jeffrey Foskett, Robert Lamm, Timothy B. Schmit, and America’s Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell. Emphasizing his ongoing, longtime collaboration with Larson, Beckley sings on eleven of the tracks here, and plays on four of those eleven. But it’s Bunnell who’s heard on the beautiful close harmony with Larson on the opening “Hand Me Down,” from Swimming in the Make Believe. It sets the tone for this collection.
On “You Remind Me of the Sun,” Beckley and Foskett join Larson on soaring harmonies that can’t help but remind of The Beach Boys even as the melody and production have a pure rock and roll flavor comparable to Jackson Browne’s best. Though the ballads here are particularly striking, there are many other uptempo moments such as Larson’s “Southaways,” and “Minus Marci,” penned by Larson, Beckley and actor-musician Bill Mumy. Larson and Beckley co-wrote the previously unreleased song here, the touching rumination on heartbreak called “Once a Day.”
Gerry Beckley has contributed a couple of his own compositions interpreted by Larson. The title track of Heart of the Valley is gorgeously atmospheric. The song may refer to the California freeway known as the 405 (which indeed runs through the heart of the San Fernando Valley) but its appeal and accessibility transcends Southern California, however important that geography is to Beckley and Larson’s DNA. The ballad “Calling” is vintage Beckley – noticeably the work of the man who wrote “I Need You” and “Daisy Jane” in its warm, rich melody as rendered by Larson. California also figures prominently in “Ghosts of San Miguel” and “Where is Indio CA.”
The textures throughout The Best of Jeff Larson are varied. Female backing vocals by Jeddrah (Schmit) on “Approaching Midnight” and “Your Way Back Home” bring a new flavor, as does the sleek, lightly contemporary production of “Hazy Sunshine,” which also features Erik Andrews on an evocative trumpet solo.
One of the most heartfelt selections here is titled “Monday Clouds, Tuesday Rain.” But most of The Best of Jeff Larson is, without a doubt, all sunshine. Vivid Sound’s release contains a booklet with full credits and an introduction from the artist. It makes for a fine appetizer for this fall’s anticipated release on the label of a remastered and expanded Heart of the Valley.
Jeffrey Foskett appears on six tracks on The Best of Jeff Larson, but takes the solo spotlight on his own anthology simply entitled The Best of Jeffrey Foskett. The artist has been keeping the summer alive for decades as a member of The Beach Boys’ extended musical family. After a long stint serving as Brian Wilson’s musical right-hand for Wilson’s solo tours and endeavors, Foskett is back with Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and co. today as a member of The Beach Boys. His love and mastery of the band’s sound is evident throughout the seventeen sun-kissed tracks – both originals and well-selected covers – on this collection drawn from his solo records.
The Best suitably begins with what could be Foskett’s mission statement: an energetic rendition of Rick Henn’s “I Live for the Sun,” originally produced by Wilson family patriarch Murry for his post-Beach Boys group The Sunrays in 1965. Foskett takes the lead with his signature falsetto and also plays guitars, bass and drums. Another member of The Beach Boys’ family, Gary Griffin, handles the keyboards (and also co-produced many of the tracks here). Pete Anders and Vini Poncia’s 1965 Trade Winds hit, “New York’s a Lonely Town,” is undoubtedly the best surf song ever written about the Big Apple, and Foskett does it justice with a faithful yet fresh and heartfelt revival. Equally dreamy are the versions of Ronny and the Daytonas’ gorgeous “Sandy” and The Marmalade’s haunting “Reflections of My Life.” There’s one Brian Wilson/Mike Love composition, too: a solo recording of “Little Honda” (a song he continues to play onstage with The Beach Boys) by way of The Hondells’ version. And though Foskett is rightfully associated with the SoCal sound, there’s a nod to the Bay Area via The Syndicate of Sound’s rocking “Little Girl,” and even a look across the pond with The Dave Clark Five B-side “I Miss You.”
Many of the strong original songs here are naturally indebted to the sound of The Beach Boys. Per Foskett in the liner notes, “Through My Window” jump-started his solo career following his first stint in the band. Co-written with Michael O’Rourke, “Window” has an irresistible Pet Sounds-era flavor (particularly “I Know There’s an Answer”). The same team wrote the yearning “Mary Ann,” rendered in beautiful a cappella style.
There are numerous cuts here in a less overtly “California” vein as well. One highlight is the prime, catchy power pop of “It’s My Fault” (performed with Randell Kirsch, Robby Scharf and Bo Fox of Foskett’s early band The Pranks). Foskett tips his hat to power pop practitioner Marshall Crenshaw with a happily fleshed-out version of the Crenshaw demo “My Favorite Waste of Time” also showcasing Kirsch. The late Doug Fieger, of The Knack, co-wrote and sings and plays on “Baby It’s You,” as good as any of The Knack’s classic tracks. Foskett brings rich harmonies and Pet Sounds-style percussion to a vivid, contemporary production of Bill Lloyd’s “Cool and Gone,” and songwriter Lloyd is also represented by the bright “No One Knows (But You).”
The jangly, uptempo “The Word Go” was co-written and performed by the Foskett/Larson tag team, and it positively whets the appetite for their joint album due to be released next year. There’s another special collaboration here, “Emma,” on which Foskett joins his voice in harmony with Gerry Beckley and adds a tasty dollop of 12-string guitar. This release includes a booklet with track-by-track liner notes (in English) written by Foskett.
There’s more on the way from Larson and Foskett; in addition to their collaborative album to come, Larson is looking forward to a crowd-funded vinyl reissue of his 1998 debut album Watercolor Sky as well as the aforementioned expanded CD reissue of Heart of the Valley. In the meantime, if you’re looking for timeless, heartfelt and melodic pop, these two anthologies shouldn’t be missed. You can peruse track listings and order links below!
- Hand Me Down
- You Remind Me of the Sun
- Heart of the Valley
- Ghosts of San Miguel
- Where Is Indio CA
- Minus Marci
- Approaching Midnight
- Carol Ann
- Monday Clouds Tuesday Rain
- Hapless Sky
- Changing Colors
- Your Way Back Home
- Once a Day (previously unreleased)
- Half Moon Bay
- Play Through
- Hazy Sunshine
- Windblown Mind
- I Live for the Sun
- Thru My Window
- Cool and Gone
- It’s My Fault
- New York’s a Lonely Town
- Maryanne (Vocals Only)
- The Word Go
- Little Honda
- My Favorite Waste of Time
- No One Knows (But You)
- Reflections of My Life
- Baby It’s You
- Little Girl
- I Miss You