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Rediscovering America

The '70s band releases its first new material in two decades, thanks to an infusion of youth.

January 17, 2007|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

The band called America never quite had it all. There were radio hits and concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and an army of young fans hungry for its easy, breezy folk-rock in the 1970s. But the band never completed what singer Gerry Beckley calls "the troika" of pop success: America never had street-cred.

America was a trio of singer-songwriters barely out of their teens when they scored their first No. 1 single with "A Horse With No Name" in 1972. Their knack for catchy melodies led to more hits that same decade: "Ventura Highway," "Sister Golden Hair," etc. But the tunes were wistful and soft and apolitical, and they were utterly dismissed by the nation's finest rock critics.

Soft rock was the sensitive domain of Lobo and Bread, popular but disposable ear-candy for elevator rides and the clock radio. Likewise, America's music was "lame" (Rolling Stone, 1972). It was "meaningless" (The Village Voice, 1975) and maybe too much like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And yet it's turned out to be the guilty pleasure of many from the alternative nation in ways that America could not have imagined.

That's one message from this week's release of "Here & Now," America's first major-label album of new material in two decades, and produced by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins). Joining them on the album are such nascent champions of credibility as Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller and members of My Morning Jacket and Nada Surf, each embracing the music of America without irony.

"To think that we actually influenced some musicians coming up, who are now successful and have great followings, that's really a very flattering thought," says singer Dewey Bunnell, 55, from his home in the woods of Land O' Lakes, Wis. "I'm really thrilled about that. It's an exciting reality."

On one level, the revelation is something like the '90s reunion of Fleetwood Mac, another classic-rock act once reviled by the first generation of punk rockers in the '70s, only to be called an inspiration to a later generation of alt-rockers, including Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and Courtney Love.

Within America (a duo since the departure of Dan Peek in 1977), Beckley followed the twists and turns of pop music, tuning in daily from his Sherman Oaks home to "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW-FM. And one group that caught his attention was Fountains of Wayne, acclaimed for its rich songs of smart, melodic pop. So Beckley reached out to Fountains singer-songwriter Schlesinger.

"I realized we had real similar sensibilities," says Schlesinger, 39. "We liked a lot of the same records. We had a lot of common ground and it was a very easy rapport from the beginning. But mainly I'm a fan of melody and the kind of songwriting that these guys do -- just writing on acoustic guitar and piano. That's not as common these days, but it's still something I enjoy listening to a lot."

They agreed to collaborate on a new America album, and Schlesinger brought in Iha, another fan of the band's hits and his partner in Stratosphere Sound, their New York recording studio. After recording two demo songs there, America signed to Burgundy Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music.

"To be honest, right from the start, having Adam and James was paramount and had everything to do with us getting the attention that it got," says Beckley, 54.

America had slowly faded from view in the years after the band's last Top 10 hit, "You Can Do Magic," in 1982. There were more albums, including two releases of new material on small labels in the '90s, but with little impact. America continued to tour, playing more than 100 shows a year, headlining theaters, county fairs and casinos, making a good living on the road while understanding that the hit-making days were probably behind it.

"We got the live show in shape and honed down," Beckley says. "The private plane had to go. The semis had to go. But we made that thing work. So as the sales dropped off, we continued to be able to fulfill the demand as a gigging band."

The new album was recorded on days off from the road. The result is faithful to the band's early folk-rock days, with a bit of modern popcraft and energy from their young collaborators. There is nothing as achingly cute as 1973's "Muskrat Love," (which the Captain & Tennille navigated into the Top 10 three years after America's version), but instead is focused on songs of reflective, mature pop.

"I don't really decide to work on stuff based on how cool it is," says Iha, who also plays guitar on several tracks. "It's a timeless sound. I don't know if they're going to play Coachella soon, but I love it."

The songs on "Here & Now" are not so different from the early recordings of America, a partnership now in its 36th year. "They got pegged as 'soft rock' or whatever, but I never really heard it as that, as much as singer-songwriter-based music," Schlesinger says. "To me that's no different from Paul Simon or the Beatles or a lot of other stuff that I love."

"The bottom line is, sing about your heart and soul," Beckley says. "And stand or fall, when that album comes out, you can say that was of you."

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