Really, the concept of an artist, established or otherwise, churning out a covers record pretty much amounts to: “because I can, that’s why.” America is no exception – fourteen albums in, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley clearly have acoustic-flecked, reedy-voiced, lite-rock MOR compositions to spare. Still, Back Pages pays tribute to songwriters both old and young – it’s twelve cover songs, essentially, and if the concept of twelve cover songs by America either excites or repulses you, well, there’s your review of Back Pages right there.
Except maybe not. True, Back Pages is an entire record of the guys who sang “Sister Golden Hair” singing other people’s songs; but there’s something unfailingly pleasant about it. Perhaps it’s the crisp production; perhaps it’s the fact that, while America is in their fourth decade of their bland brand of folksy rock being the butt of snobby jokes, Bunnell and Beckley sound undeniably terrific here, versatile, evocative, distinctive, and, perhaps most importantly, beautifully blended. The way these two wind around each other in song is fantastic, whether recasting themselves in the Simon and Garfunkel roles for a delightfully rousing take on “America” or meeting for a harmony summit on the chorus of Mark Knopfler’s “Sailing to Philadelphia”. Also notable is this: these are two talented individuals, regardless of whether or not you appreciate their songs. Here, America gets a chance to flex their performance and arrangement muscles without having to bother with putting more rote America originals into the marketplace. Snicker if you will, but that’s exactly what makes Back Pages palatable to those of us who never were able to get down with America proper.
That said, the album’s standouts are fairly spread out. Opener “America” is positively striking, and sets a tone that the rest of the album can rarely match; a surprise take on the Gin Blossoms’ “Til I Hear It From You” fares well, and perhaps not surprisingly, since a glance back at the ’90s reveals the Blossoms as the unopposed America of their decade. Elsewhere, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” gets a pleasant workout, and the New Radicals’ superlative “Someday We’ll Know” emerges as the most eminently cover-able song since “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”; Gregg Alexander’s unbearably poignant lyrical and musical structure has already yielded fantastic returns – an evocative Hall & Oates rendition a few years back did this particularly well – but the bottom line is that it’s a song so good that Mandy Moore and the dude from Switchfoot couldn’t even ruin it, try as they might.
In fact, the only time Back Pages truly falters is when America covers too many of its contemporaries. They’re so startlingly adept at reinterpreting the new jacks that covers of James Taylor and Neil Young seem far too passe; they fare much better with Jimmy Webb’s “Crying in My Sleep”, but then, anyone who couldn’t score with a Webb composition doesn’t really deserve to be making records. In the end, Back Pages may not be essential listening, but as America goes, one could do a lot worse.
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