If you think you know all of the exits off that mythical Ventura Highway, think again. Omnivore Recordings has just released a new collection straight from the America archives, and it's filled with unexpected treasures. Heritage II: Demos/Alternate Takes 1971-1976 follows up the first volume from 2017 and proves itself a more than worthy successor. This collection could well be subtitled The George Martin Years. While its two earliest tracks return to the period of the band's sophomore album, 1971's Homecoming, the lion's share of demos, works in progress, and alternates is drawn from sessions for and around two albums helmed by the legendary Sir George: Holiday (1974) and Hideaway (1976).
The opening track, Demo # 2 of the Dewey Bunnell-penned "Cornwall Blank," is a companion to the rehearsal take presented on America's Archives Vol. 1 (2015). Like that rehearsal, it features Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek on guitars backed by Joe Osborn and Hal Blaine of The Wrecking Crew. Bunnell's haunting and stark meditation conjures a striking psychedelic mood with its hazy melody and free-associative, back-to-nature imagery. Sharp-eared listeners familiar with the final take on Homecoming will notice a minor lyric variation and more significantly, the lack of the group vocal arrangement. A session at London's Trident Studios, also in 1971, yielded the acoustic guitar jam entitled "Jameroony." At almost thirteen minutes long, it's varied enough to be an enjoyable listen even for those only acquainted with the band's flawless, compact songcraft.
Jumping ahead to 1974, Heritage II premieres two of its most powerful tracks. "Mandy" is a previously unreleased Gerry Beckley ballad from the era that established the singer-songwriter as one of the most affecting melodists in pop music. The demo begins with Gerry at the piano before it develops into Beatle-esque orchestral splendor. His use of the ARP 2600 synthesizer adds a spacey texture to the gorgeous composition which Beckley sings at his sweetest.
It's followed by a track-and-background-vocals-only mix of Holiday's top five Pop/No. 1 AC hit "Tin Man." It's revelatory as it places in sharp focus the nuances of the tight instrumentation (played by Dewey, Gerry, and Dan plus George Martin on piano and Willie Leacox on drums) and shimmering, intricate vocals. The ultimate karaoke track, it's wholly transporting. As a song still played on classic hits radio today, it's easy to take a song like "Tin Man" for granted. But stripped of its impressionistic lyrics, one can even better appreciate its soaring, free sound and little flourishes like Martin's graceful, jazz-influenced tickling of the ivories.
The re-evaluation of Holiday continues here. The mix of Dan Peek's "You," like "Tin Man," isolates elements from the released track to offer a new perspective on it, emphasizing those dit-dit-dit backing vocals and the majestic strings. Two Beckley demos won't fail to impress. His McCartney/Gilbert O'Sullivan-esque charmer "What Does It Matter" hasn't yet acquired its harmonies and nostalgic production ("Everybody sing along now...," etc.) but shines in its simplicity. "Mad Dog" segues from the demo into the track mix with backgrounds; like "What Does It Matter," the bouncy Macca influence is undeniable, yet Beckley evokes it without resorting to pastiche. It's a delightful testament to his own unerring musical and lyrical gifts. The Japan-only single of Dan Peek's "Simple Life" (written for a Japanese clothing company of that name's television commercial featuring Peter Fonda) was issued on 45 with his Holiday hit "Lonely People." The alternate mix here is subtler than the final version, dialing down the Beach Boys-style harmonies and the lush strings.
Heritage II moves onto Hideaway with a demo of Beckley's "Lovely Night" in embryonic form, before the bright arrangement emphasized its reggae sound and roots. Peek's AC chart-topper "Today's the Day" is stripped down in its alternate mix, with key changes being audibly called and no harmonies. Yet the buoyant melody of his optimistic anthem still stands out. (The brief snippets of studio chatter throughout the album add to the fly-on-the-wall feeling.) Bunnell's "Amber Cascades" invited comparisons to "Tin Man" with similarly abstract, even spiritual, lyrics and an upbeat melody beautifully evoking southern California in the sunshine. This stripped-down mix emphasizes its own character as it lacks the ethereal harmonies and orchestration of the finished track. Bunnell also penned "Letter," a straight-ahead rocker drawing on the time-honored themes of infidelity and betrayal. The alternate mix here is a potent reminder of this underrated gem in the band's discography. Dan Peek's "Jet Boy Blue" is distilled to its very essence. It's heard in a vastly different alternate mix sans the final production's sound effects, harmonies, and opening percussion.
This release continues the golden anniversary celebration of this great American band. Last year saw the debut of the 3-CD Rhino anthology 50th Anniversary: The Collection. Later this year, America will release an expansive new box set through their own America Records label. Half Century features 7 CDs of rare archival recordings, including numerous unreleased tracks spanning 1970-2000, a live concert, and radio interviews with the band members. On DVD, Half Century has home movies from America's early years of 1972-1975. Watch this space for more information on this deluxe collection.
Heritage II: Demos/Alternate Takes 1971-1976 is housed in a six-panel digipak. [A vinyl edition will also arrive on Record Store Day, currently scheduled for June 20.] Gerry Beckley has provided the introduction for this set compiled and edited by Jeff Larson, and produced for release by Brad Rosenberger and Larson. Michael Romanowski at Coast Mastering has mastered, and the sound is consistently strong. Two photos from Henry Diltz round out this essential package. (And once you finish "Jet Boy Blue" (Track 13), don't grab the CD out of the player quite yet...there's still more to enjoy!) Especially during these challenging times in which the world is staying at home, music can provide much-needed solace. This breezy listen is a welcome escape to the fantasy Southern California of America's classic years. It's a trip well worth taking.
- Cornwall Blank (Demo # 2)
- Jameroony (Acoustic Guitar Jam)
- Mandy (Demo)
- Tin Man (Track Mix with Backing Vocals)
- What Does It Matter (Demo)
- You (Vocal/Strings Excerpt)
- Mad Dog (Demo/Track Mix with Backing Vocals)
- Simple Life (Alternate Mix)
- Lovely Night (Demo)
- Today's the Day (Alternate Mix)
- Amber Cascades (Alternate Mix/Take 3)
- Letter (Alternate Mix)
- Jet Boy Blue (Alternate Mix)
All tracks previously unreleased