America, the soft-rock band formed in London by a pair of Army brats, is music’s brown-headed cowbird. Known for laying eggs in other birds’ nests, the brown-headed variant has a knack for coloring them to resemble the spawn of their unwitting hosts. Throughout their career, America has used the warmth of well-established trends to hatch their own hits.
Their first, “A Horse With No Name,” shamelessly mimicked Neil Young’s sound. Since Young was between albums – “Harvest” was close to release but stalled for a variety of reasons – the confusion helped sell a lot of America records. That they also had the same manager didn’t hurt either. From the Byrds (“Don’t Cross The River”) to the Eagles (“Sandman”), America laid a tenuous claim to a lot of musical nests.
The band’s latest release includes a retrospective live disc that exhibits the sweep of America’s artistic plundering. For the main focus of “Here and Now,” however, they play it more honestly, with an all-new (to America, anyway) disc of material.
Remaining America members Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley enlisted Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Americana stalwarts who have no problem mining the past in search of a contemporary sound wrapped in postmodern swagger. In addition to those players, they hired the production team of Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) to usher their sound into the millennium.
The results are, surprisingly, quite fresh. That’s due in large part to Schlesinger and Iha’s hard work poring through hundreds of demos to find an hour’s worth of good new material. “Ride On” features nimble guitar work from Adams and nicely layered harmonies from Messrs. Bunnell and Beckley. Their cover of “Golden” is a kind of tribute in reverse. The My Morning Jacket original was a throwback to troubadours like Ian Tyson and Glenn Yarborough. It’s the kind of song that America might have purloined had it been available in 1971.
“Always Love” strips the jangle from the Nada Surf original, though with dumb/sweet lyrics like “hate will get you every time,” making the song sound more like Bread than Cake has a certain logic.
“Chasing The Rainbow” has a slowed-down stop/start guitar opening familiar to anyone who’s heard “Ventura Highway,” but enough extra texture to keep it interesting. “Love and Leaving” is a nicely balanced ballad that echoes hundreds just like it. Beckley’s nasally delivery of the line “the ghosts in here are all competing/over one more song about love and leaving” gives the impression that for all their history of theft, America has a sense of humor.