Fans of singer-songwriter Jeff Larson have long known that he’s carved out his own niche in the realm of “California music,” whether as a solo artist or with collaborators including America’s Gerry Beckley and The Beach Boys’ Jeffrey Foskett. Now, Larson is looking back with a 20th anniversary reissue of his proper debut album, Watercolor Sky, available on both vinyl and CD from Feral Cat Records and Vivid Sound Japan, respectively. With summer in the rearview mirror, now is the perfect time for fans to look back to this sun-dappled gem, too.
This expanded edition follows last year’s splendid reissue of Larson’s 2009 album, Heart of the Valley, as well as The Best of Jeff Larson, and as the latter didn’t include any tracks off Watercolor Sky, the reissue is particularly welcome. This Watercolor is painted in gentle strokes, with impressionistic words and summery, jangly melodies (with both acoustic and electric textures) perfect for the beach day in your mind.
The opening track “Nothing But Air” introduces both the artist’s soft and crisp melodic sensibility as well as his penchant for lyrics that aren’t obvious but are frequently affecting. It was co-written with Jeffrey Foskett, who also produced the album with Gary Griffin. (Both men are also heard on the album as instrumentalists, and Foskett on the soaring harmonies, of course.) The vocal style on the track is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, but the opaque yet accessible turn of phrase to describe the positive vibrations and lack of negativity from a loved one is pure Larson.
The breezy “Definite Blonde,” riding along on a guitar-and-organ-powered groove, is just one of the numerous sing-along tracks here, and one of the pieces to observe the opposite sex. “Shades” is another, an evocative ode with gorgeously cascading Beach Boys harmonies to a lady who, “up on the boardwalk/she alters every man.” More low-key is the tender, shimmering, piano-led “Song for Renee,” and heartfelt, melancholy “Plain to See (I’m Gone)” with its unexpected instrumental textures and yearning harmonies. California itself comes under Larson’s microscope on the wistfully pretty “Coast” as well as the album’s closer, “Summer Fades.”
Gerry Beckley, Larson’s longtime collaborator on Heart of the Valley and numerous other projects, penned “Annabelle,” which characterizes Larson’s deft but not derivative fusion of the styles of America and The Beach Boys. Beckley also plays piano, keyboard, bass, and guitars on the beautifully melancholy track. In addition to Foskett and Griffin, Larson is supported on the LP by Bob Gothar on electric guitar, while Hank Linderman guests on “Annabelle,” and Rich Campbell and Jim McCarty add bass and drums, respectively, on “Plain to See.”
Two bonus tracks have been appended to the Vivid Sound CD edition: the release-quality original guitar/vocal demo of “Plain to See,” and one outtake, the ballad “Girl with Uke.” John Blakeley guests on lap steel, bass, electric guitar, and appropriately, ukulele on “Girl with Uke.” Mike Romanowski has nicely remastered Watercolor Sky for LP and CD, and brief, new liner notes have been provided by Larson, Foskett, and Griffin. The vinyl edition – which emphasizes the innate warmth in the music – is pressed on blue vinyl, and a download card is included, as well.
One of the strongest tracks on Watercolor Sky, “King of Summer,” seems to be a tribute to the California spirit itself – a musical spirit epitomized by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, not to mention America, Fleetwood Mac, and so many others. Paying loving homage while carrying the tradition onward, Larson has grown as an artist and a songwriter since the days of Watercolor Sky, establishing time and again his own place in that sun-flecked line of artists. Both familiar and original, Watercolor Sky represents one of the first steps of that ongoing musical journey.
Jeff Larson, Watercolor Sky (Vivid Sound VSCD 3952/Feral Cat, 2017)
- Nothing But Air
- Definite Blonde
- Song for Renee
- Plain to See (I’m Gone)
- Touch of June
- King of Summer
- Summer Fades
- Girl with Uke (previously unreleased) (CD only track)
- Plain to See (Guitar/Vocal Demo) (CD only track)
Tracks 1-10 originally released on New Surf Limited, 1998