On two new releases, California singer-songwriter Jeff Larson has dynamically showcased the multiple facets of his musical personality.
Five Hours to L.A., a Japan-exclusive CD release on the Vivid Sound label, is a revised and revisited version of Larson’s 2000 release Room for Summer, meaning that some songs have been dropped, and others have been added, to make a new listening experience. It features many of his close musical collaborators including Jeffrey Foskett, Gerry Beckley, and Hank Linderman. As always, Room for Summer evokes many figures of California music history while retaining Larson’s own, original voice. Expressive vocals float over shimmering guitars and textured harmonies. Think America, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and even a touch of Eagles in a blender, with a crisp, modern sensibility and not a whiff of pastiche, and you’ve got an idea of the mellow, melodic sounds on display here.
The gorgeously reflective “Carol Ann” was the first (but not the last) appearance of Gerry Beckley on a Larson record. While the America co-founder provides recognizable background vocals, Larson’s own soaring, yearning lead recalls Beckley’s tender style. The seemingly effortless pop of “All the Sudden Cool” and “Room for Summer” sits alongside the quieter moments such as the touching “Lauren,” inspired by the passing of a friend’s niece. A sweeping, instrumental version with orchestra of the latter is another highlight here.
The passage of time is a recurrent theme, whether on the jangly soft rocker “Sarah’s Mother,” with its rich and sunny harmonies, or the sad “Lot to Learn,” which would have fit comfortably on an early America LP. The ironically uptempo “The Word Go,” written and performed by Larson and Foskett, foreshadowed the pair’s fine collaborative album from earlier this year, Elua Aloha. Another frequent collaborator, John Blakeley, co-wrote the lustrous, Eagles-esque “Goes Without Saying,” another movingly wistful reflection.
A rare cover shows up here, too, in the form of Stephen Stills’ Buffalo Springfield tune “Questions,” a fine and far from overexposed choice to reinterpret. (The track was originally included on the Five Way Street tribute to the band.) The previously unreleased “Ten Floors with a View” bears the subtle eastern influence of having been written in Japan, as Larson reveals in his track-by-track liner notes. Two live bonus tracks performed by Larson and Linderman in 2012 have also been appended including “February Passing Through” (replacing the studio version from 2000, titled “Valentine Note”) and “Carol Ann.”
Yesterday’s Dream is the striking new joint album from Larson and Blakeley on the NCompass Music label. Underneath the stark cover art by Ron Nagle (Bad Rice) is what might be called Another Side of Jeff Larson and John Blakeley. Written by both artists individually and collectively, it’s spare, moody, sometimes elegiac, and always compelling. The varied musical settings are unexpected, too, incorporating instrumentation such as mandolin, lap steel, and cello; Larson and Blakeley are joined by such top-notch musicians as Scott Matthews on drums, Jeddrah on background vocals, CPR’s Jeff Pevar on percussion and bass, and Wolfgang Wein on cello and bass.
Songs like the entrancing “Renaissance Man,” the country-rock stomping “Two Hours” (with Jeddrah’s tight harmony complementing Larson’s lead), and haunting “Always the Mystery” (also featuring Jeddrah) are tinged with an edgy, if not bleak, darkness. A surf-rock sound is conjured on Blakeley’s instrumental “Day Trip,” while a breezy bluegrass sound is evoked on Larson’s “Star Filled Sky” (with his cohort on mandolins). A quiet, understated beauty graces “The Calamar Trees,” as Wein’s cello creates a baroque backdrop. Jeffrey Foskett appears on “Coastal Moon,” with Blakeley’s hypnotic bass anchoring Larson’s driving rhythm. Another Beach Boys associate, Randell Kirsch, sings on “High Strung” and adds some of the album’s richest harmonies. “Goes Without Saying” is reprised for good measure.
Larson and Blakeley’s Yesterday’s Dream is a spellbinding collection of delicate melodies bringing to mind a ruminative evening by the sea. Finely-crafted and understated, it warrants repeated listening as it burrows deeper under the skin.
Five Hours to L.A. is available via Amazon U.S. and finer import retailers!