Colin Hay
   
American Sunshine
   
   

Release Date: August 18, 2009
Produced by: Colin Hay
Format: CD

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08/21/2009
Mark Squirek


 

He has always been a very good songwriter, but with American Sunshine, Colin Hay honestly reaches a new level. There is a sharpness to his observations and his lyrics, a warmth and intimacy to his voice and a tremendous confidence in both his songwriting skills and musicianship that makes this album a bench water mark in his career.

The voice, familiar to so many of us from his work with Men at Work, on Scrubs and a few notable soundtracks, has grown the most.  Always a strong singer, age and experience have done wonders for Hay. He can move from being a direct story-teller to nostalgia, regret or joy in a single beat.

The album, not-so-subtly, celebrates the music from his adopted state of California while still retaining Hay’s originality and wit. Musical sunshine falls out of the album from the first notes of the opener, "Oh California." The clear, bell-like tones of the opening guitars are matched by the hand-slap beat of congas. For just a second you think you are going to down to the beach of Kokomo. Your mind almost subconsciously adds the Beach Boy harmonies. Then the congas drop out and Hay begins with an honest and direct admission.

"I thought I’d never reach the water
I had to cross the desert and the great divide
Drinking only golden promises
And white lines in my eyes
And all the sons and daughters
Followed all the signs to paradise
Believing only dreams and promises
With starlight in their eyes
Oh California
Yeah it’s the one big love that you cannot end
Oh California
Well it’s not like before but we still can pretend."

Within the first minute and a half he has updated "The Last Resort" (by the Eagles) and established his own voice. By not going for the obvious through the addition of California-style harmonies (piling them on like The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, or Beach Boys) so soon, he keeps the focus on what he is telling us. The song floats on as he talks about the state with “a broken dream in every grain of sand” but at the end, when he admits that he can’t leave, you understand completely.

Unlike others who condemn the state, Hay isn’t passing judgment. He is just showing us what he loves. We can make up our own minds. Hidden inside the heart of the song is his quiet admission that he had to come, even though he saw the tears in his father’s eyes when he first dreamed of leaving his native land. (Hay was born in Scotland but moved to Australia at 14).  

While he is listed as the sole producer, the support Hay receives from the crew around him adds much to the feel of the album. His wife, salsa musician Cecelia Noel, showers beautiful harmonies in exactly the right places throughout. The two have toured together for a few years and the connection between their voices has become intuitive. In other words they bond, but stay out of each other’s way.

Michael Georgiades (he has worked with Bernie Leadon years ago) helps with the writing of a few of the songs and adds some wonderful, crisp guitar work across the album. Hay has said in a few interviews that this is a guitar album and he wasn’t kidding, But it is the type of guitar album where the guitars embellish the song. The song doesn’t exist as a jumping off point for the guitars.

This is especially notable on the second song, "Prison Time." The guitars emerge from a swirling background and, while never detracting from what Hay is telling us, neither do they ever move from the center of the song. Hay takes the lyrical idea of obsession, softens it up and turns it back in on the singer. We all have some one we miss but for Hay he honestly wants to know what happened to the one he misses. And it is clear the person he is addressing doesn’t see it that way. It is one of the best examples of the strong production found throughout the album.

The album is filled with exquisite moments such as the opening guitar riffs of "There’s Water Over You" and "No Time." The highway drive of "Broken Love" is John Lee Hooker, and ZZ Top meets Lindsey Buckingham. Somehow, with all the guitars going on, it never devolves into a massive guitar solo while one foot rests on the monitor. Funny enough, in the middle of it all you would swear Ray Manzarek is trying to break on through. "I Can’t Get Up Out of This Bed" or "Baby Can I See You Tonight?" would serve Mark Knopfler or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss well.

Yes, I am mentioning a lot of other artists in the review. And I will mention a few more in another paragraph or so. By invoking the names of others you may know I hope to persuade you to go out and buy yourself one of the best-written and produced albums made this year. This is not the type of release that will fall in your lap. You have to make an effort to go get it. If you do, you will be rewarded well.

Most know Hay, if they know him at all, from Men At Work. In the last 20 odd years he has built up a solo career that deserves to be heard. This is man who, early on in his life, topped the charts on both the radio and TV, played for  massive audiences at the US festival and other places, traveled the world as a star and somehow, with all the temptations and ups and downs he has gone through, he has quietly created a body of work that, if it doesn’t match what Dylan, Newman, Simon, Zevon, Young and other critical success stories have done, it comes close. 

If you think I am kidding about the Zevon mention, listen to "Pleased To Almost Meet You" and tell me it couldn’t have found a home on Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. Take a moment to listen to "I Came Into Your Store" and you will hear some of the same steps that Paul Simon has walked in the middle of his career. This is not to disparage Hay. Like the others and their respective influences, he is his own as a writer

If American Sunshine had come out in 1976 it would have been the best CD that Asylum/Elektra released that year. There is strangely haunting echo of that label’s best throughout much of the album. With artists such as Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Jackson Brown, Tom Waits and Warren Zevon, the label was so closely associated with California at that moment in history that, for many listeners of the era, it defined California as an entity. Just like the Beach Boys, The Mamas and The Papas, and The Byrds did a decade earlier.

Hay has taken the best that the state of California (and by extension America) has to offer, complete with heartbreak, loss, love and acceptance, and has created his best work ever.

The extra half star is for for making me believe the rhyme of Wilhelmina with ballerina.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 



 
     
     
     

 

 

   
 
     

 

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"Even though most of the people I knew in my youth are gone, I still reach out to them..." Norman Maclean - Paraphrase

"...we should enjoy every sandwich." -- Warren Zevon
"Buy the ticket, take the ride." -- Hunter S Thompson
"...you best wake up 'fore tomorrow comes creepin' in...: -- Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad)
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." -- Kurt Vonnegut
"Because they wouldn't let me go for three..." -- Woody Hayes (OSU)
"Show me peaceful days before my youth has gone" -- Neil Diamond (Serenade)