Album Review: Blaine Campbell and the California Sound

Blaine Campbell is that rare artist who simultaneously makes music that wears its influences upon its metaphorical sleeve and does so while creating that music in a way that allows it to stand on its own merits. The last time I encountered Campbell’s distinctive sound was when I heard (and reviewed) his 202 release, Under the Tidal Wave. If you don’t care to read that review now, I’ll save you some time and remind you that I love it. So I was delighted to receive a vinyl copy of his latest, self titled release.

The Brian Wilson / Wrecking Crew textures that characterized Under the Tidal Wave are once again evident on Campbell’s latest release. His understanding of the supremely accessible (yet densely layered) songwriting is on brilliant display here. A lyricist of considerable merit, Campbell writes songs that are relatable but never dumbed-down. There’s a strong emotional content to these tunes, discussing relationships, love and even social issues without getting mawkish or preachy.

But one (if s/he wishes) can choose to ignore the content of those lyrics and instead focus on the vocal arrangement and crystalline instrumental work. Hints of groups like Wondermints and artists like Harry Nilsson crop up all over the place. But Campbell’s work somehow feels fresh and new, not especially derivative. Certainly, if one appreciates Explorers Club, they’ll find a very similar mindset at work on Blaine Campbell and the California Sound.

Campbell applies a light touch with production filigree, instead placing emphasis on melody. The vocals are most always out front, where they belong. There aren’t any weak tracks on the set, but a few merit special mention. The instrumental “Soñadora” features some TJB-styled trumpet with a bit of Spanish guitar work reminiscent of Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66. And bossa nova textures inform “It’s Never Enough.” “Come Close to Me” is redolent of Surf’s Up era Beach Boys; that bass guitar is straight outta Pet Sounds.

“Summertime in the Sunshine” is a slice of AM radio gold. The delightful sitar on “Rise” finds the group moving in a popsike direction with excellent, period-correct results. It also rocks, something that listeners might not expect. Also rocking is “Runnin’ Away,” a tune that proves that Campbell and his associates can indeed bring the crunch if they so choose.

The anti-handgun “Some Kind of King” has a bouncy melody that stands in contrast to its lyric, but the whole thing still works. And perhaps the best arrangement on the entire consistently great set is “At the End of the Day.” It strikes a perfect balance of wistfulness, melancholy and pure pop values. An instrumental reprise of “The California Sound” is a delight, with subtle use of synthesizer, shimmering vibes and strings. The record closes with “Between Us,” a winsome Brian Wilson pastiche that leaves the listener wanting more from this superb group.