America – The Warner Bros Years (review)

America – The Warner Bros. Years – 1971-1977 (Warner) review

You’ve heard the hits – now dig a little deeper

America was one of the biggest bands of the early Seventies, placing six singles in the Top Ten. Yet their albums were also successful – with their first seven studio records hitting the Top Thirty. These have been compiled, along with their Live album, in the new America – The Warner Bros Years – 1971-1977.

Their debut album is great from top to bottom, and what sets it apart is the driving element from the acoustic guitars – something that they would lose on later albums. So, tracks like the churning “Riverside” and “Three Roses” have an energy that uplifts these otherwise mellow songs. For much of the record, they come off as a softer Crosby, Stills & Nash, especially with the tight harmonies on “Children.”

A note about production: Beatles’ producer George Martin, who would work with the band extensively in the Seventies, remixed many of their early hits for the album History: America’s Greatest Hits. Honestly, the original versions are superior. So hearing the dark “Sandman” and the ubiquitous Neil Young homage, “A Horse With No Name” in their LP form is a real treat.

Starting the trend of naming their albums with the letter “H,” Homecoming kicks off with the cascading “Ventura Highway.” Other standouts include the 12-string “Don’t Cross the River, and the gorgeous, piano-based ballad, “Saturn Nights.” “Cornwall Black” showed that America had a harder side, with some great electric lead work, while still keeping the fine harmonies. “California Revisited” was a re-recording of “Everyone I Meet is From California,” the original b-side to “Horse With No Name.”

Their cover of “Muskrat Love” on their next album, Hat Trick, has always been a head-scratcher. It’s just a really goofy song, a lot better suited for Captain & Tennille (who took it to the Top Ten in 1975). The group was stretching out, as in “Wind Wave,” which builds to an excellent string-laden chorus, and “Submarine Ladies,” which features a prominent banjo. The title track is an attempt to squeeze as many different melodies into one song as would humanly allow. Near the close of the album, “Green Monkey” is a surprising rocker.

Because their previous LP yielded no hit singles, producer Martin was enlisted to right the ship, and his influence is felt right away. “Tin Man,” with it’s Latin feel, was their strongest single in years. The album cuts were better too – “Another Try” had a Sgt. Pepper-era tempo, complete with trumpet that recalls “Penny Lane.” “Lonely People” featured a harmonica and ethereal backing vocals. “Hollywood” recalls the percussive, acoustic numbers on their debut, but does contain some dated synths. “Baby It’s Up to You” is excellent, so is “Old Man Took” – Martin adds lush strings to the latter. Much of the record recalls mid-period Beatles.

The slow-building “Daisy Jane” was an odd choice to open up their next record, Hearts. Yet, it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece; the strings that Martin adds really elevates things. There were attempts to stretch their signature sound with mixed results – “Woman Tonight” had a reggae feel, but the rocking “Half a Man” sounded forced. The phenomenal “Sister Golden Hair” would place the band back at #1 for a final time.

Hideaway was definitely an attempt to break the soft-rock boundaries: “Letter” featured horns and a more muscled sound. Both “She’s a Liar,” and “Don’t Let it Get You Down” rocked harder than the band had done before. Yet, it was the ballads “Amber Cascades” and “Today’s the Day” which were the standouts.

Harbor featured the Beach Boys’ homage “God of the Sun,” which was surprisingly not a hit, while “Are You There” has a almost rap vocal delivery over a jazzy accompaniment. “Now She’s Gone” was a decent rocker.

Part of America’s appeal over the years was the pristine production on their studio albums. So, Live is an interesting listen. It’s actually a little unnerving to hear these songs played less-than-perfect. Although the heavily orchestrated version of “Horse With No Name” is worth checking out.

Each album is faithfully presented in a mini replica of the LP – even including some of the inner sleeves (although reading the teeny tiny lyrics is impossible!).

If you’re familiar with their hit songs, there’s plenty of great album tracks to justify picking up America – the Warner Brothers Years. —Tony Peters