Al Jardine's many devoted fans have been patiently waiting for quite a long time to hear "A Postcard From California" and I firmly believe that the end result is well worth any perceived delays. This album not only showcases the appreciable talents of Jardine himself, but also presents the listener with an impressive line-up of stellar guests, many of whom have had a long association with The Beach Boys. Not only did Al successfully garner the participation of surviving band mates Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks, but he also managed to include the heavenly voice of the late Carl Wilson. Even Glen Campbell (briefly a Beach Boy himself) adds immeasurably to the title cut and he's just one of several other music industry luminaries who delight the listener. But this isn't about The Beach Boys, it's about Jardine and his own ability to create something truly special.
The first seven tracks are woven together into what I would call a "suite" that flows from song to song, paying homage along the way to Jardine's beloved California. My personal feeling is that this is the heart of the album and is a standalone work, in and of itself. In these tracks one can find a deep love for, and appreciation of, this remarkable state and what I appreciated most was the timeless nature of the writing. While the title cut takes us back to the post-World War II time period, and to the origins of how the Jardine family ended up emigrating from Ohio, the very next song brings us to the beauty one can find here today. "California Feeling" is one of those long lost Beach Boys songs that were only recently released officially, first by Brian Wilson in 2002 and now by Al. What captured me was how the same song could be interpreted in two such different ways. As beautiful as Wilson's version is, Jardine adds his own unique stylistic touch (with revised lyrics) creating a piece that makes one yearn for the California sun.
Next up in this initial suite is another lost song called "Looking Down The Coast". I had previously heard this gem many years ago on a very poor quality bootleg that only made me want to see The Beach Boys give it the treatment that it deserved. A lyrical and compositional gem, it manages to blend the grandeur and magic of the central California coast with the less-than-honorable exploitation of its past inhabitants (not unlike Carl Wilson's "The Trader"). The very meaningful song closes with a soulful transition into the absolute jewel of the entire album . . . . .
"Don't Fight the Sea", described as "a whimsical look at the futility of man's attempt to control his environment", might just be the holy grail that die hard Beach Boys fans have been dreaming of. From top to bottom, this beautifully crafted "new" song sounds like something the band might have recorded in their heyday . . . and there's a very good reason for this. The Beach Boys began work on it back in the late 1970s but for whatever reason, the project was shelved. Carl's vocals were added years later and Al decided to resurrect the master tapes and try to finish the song for his new album. The results are nothing short of stunning, with Al and Carl trading verses on the lead and a simply breathtaking backing vocal track throughout. This song was most assuredly destined to become a "Beach Boys" classic but it just happened to take three decades to make it all happen!
I've never been a big fan of spoken word pieces but I have to admit that "Tide Pool Interlude" (Track 5) really made me smile. Designed to serve as an introductory segment for a trio of tracks that culminates with a self cover of his 1973 tour de force "A California Saga", it was Jardine's selection of his friend, actor Alec Baldwin, to perform the recitation that really made it work for me. Baldwin's fabulous voice is perfectly suited to this task and his delivery and timing are spot on. Add to that a beautiful instrumental backing track and, strangely, this decidedly corny tribute to California became a highlight of the album for me. From this brief track to an even shorter one, "Campfire Scene" playfully steers us toward his "Holland" era masterpiece with a vamping vocal opening that he shares with none other than David Crosby and Neil Young. A banjo reminiscent of a Disneyland ride leads into the familiar words, off key at first but quickly shifting into gorgeous harmony. Then comes the actual song and I honestly believe Jardine may have topped his original Beach Boys version. He takes the first and third verses while Neil Young deftly handles the middle one. This is an absolute treat to listen to and is a perfect way to close out the initial seven interconnected songs on the album.
From here, things start to slip a bit with the inclusion of another cover, this time "Help Me Rhonda". Like a previous reviewer, I don't believe this song fits at all into the general theme of the collection. On top of that, I don't think this song is one that's begging to be redone. It was a fine piece in its day and Al's original performance helped to make it a classic. I'm just not sure it needed to be revisited, especially here. I will say that if you happen to be a harmonica fan (which I'm not), you may enjoy this track.
As quickly as the momentum slipped, it seemed to return in the gorgeous song "San Simeon". Opening with ultra-lush vocals, Al paints a lovely picture of this pleasant and often overlooked seaside town. America's Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell add their appreciable talents to this track, as do Jardine's very gifted sons Matt and Adam. Very pretty!
Next up is "Drivin'" and, as the name implies, it's a great song for the car. It's hard to go wrong with Brian Wilson and the America boys sharing lead vocals and I particularly appreciated their not-so-subtle reference to a couple of their own songs. David Marks offers a superb guitar solo and be sure to listen to Al's talking near the end. There's a reference to "409" and he also manages to slam BP for their recent oil spill debacle. Rarity hunters will be pleased to know that a second version of this song exists where Texaco is referenced, rather than BP.
Track 11 is another cover, this one from The Beach Boys' "Love You" album. "Honkin' Down The Highway" was never my favorite song from that album and that album was never my favorite BB offering. That said, Al managed to add new life to this harmlessly upbeat song and, as with the previous track, there's a fun reference to an old classic, this time "Little Deuce Coupe". Brian, Matt, and Adam are on board again on this one.
The final piece on this album is called "And I Always Will" and it's a beautiful love song, possibly written for his wife? A very lovely way to close out an outstanding collection.
My only real regret about "A Postcard From California" is that "California Dreamin'", originally slated for inclusion, was left off the final line-up. I had heard rumors that it simply wasn't finished in time for the release date but that may not be true. All I can say is that the sound bite Al had on his web site led me to believe it was going to be a real jewel. I believe David Crosby performed on it, as did John Stamos. My hope is that Al eventually finishes it and offers it as a CD single.
Thank you Al for giving the fans exactly what we always knew you could create!