The Explorers Club – Together (2016)
*****½ (5½ stars out of 6)
Consider this; if you think about the phenomenal success the Beach Boys had in their hey-day – and the esteem in which Brian Wilson is still held by today’s musicians – the lack of modern bands playing original music easily recognizable as ‘Beach Boys-like’ is puzzling.
Whereas you still have a gazillion bands mining the Beatles-sound, it’s much rarer to find new and original releases mirroring the sunkissed harmonies and playful pop perfection of Hawthorne’s finest.
Sure, there are tribute bands out there performing Beach Boys or Jan & Dean hits, but only a few bands seem to have truly based their very existence on the sort of golden 60s California sound the Beach Boys perfected; Britain’s Surfin’ Lungs have been at it for decades, Italy has the aptly named Sunny Boys, the Dukes of Surf out of Hawaii give Mike Love a run for his money and there’s my own band, Surf School Dropouts from Denmark.
All of these have come up with cool songs in a Beach Boys-vein but in my humble opinion none can touch the incredible enigma that is the Explorers Club.
I first came across these guys in 2006 – or was it 2007? – when a few songs on their MySpace account got the attention of hardcore Beach Boys fans. To this day, ‘Don’t Forget the Sun’, which graced their 2008 debut album ‘Freedom Wind’, is one my all-time favorite songs. ‘Freedom Wind’ was a fantastic first offering from the talented band and the 2012 follow-up ‘Grand Hotel’ didn’t disappoint either.
What was so great about the second album was the fact that the band broadened their sound to also encompass the late 60s & early 70s soft pop sound that followed in the wake of the Beach Boys glory days – think the type of stuff A&M Records put out as an example. In time, the more diverse ‘Grand Hotel’, sound- and genre-wise at least, has become my favorite of the two albums. But both are must-hears for any connoisseur of great pop, Beach Boys fan or otherwise.
And now,… finally!… we have a third Explorers Club album coming out! I’ve been looking so much forward to this release ever since I got a bit of background info on it from main songwriter and band leader Jason Brewer in an interview for Cue Castanets last year. You can read our discussions here:
So,… the album,.. how is it?
Well, for one thing, it’s clear that the current incarnation of the Explorers Club has returned somewhat to the familiar grounds of the debut album, their feet firmly planted in Brian Wilson’s sandbox, ready, willing and able to delight listeners with hooks and glorious harmonies.
The sounds contained within the album rarely veer off the path laid out by the Beach Boys, but not in a way that makes the songs come across as mere pastiches. I’ve always been extremely impressed by the way the band picks up on the best parts of the Beach Boys oeuvre and puts its own unique spin on it.
It’s also clear that the band has been very hard at work recording these songs – lots of things going on in every song and neat little details popping up in the mix upon close listening.
And those harmonies,… stunning harmonies sounding so effortlessly and naturally yet undoubtedly must have required a lot of fiddling around to come up with the perfect vocal wrapping. I know – I’ve been there with the Dropouts! It’s an integral element for the song with the harmony arrangement somehow almost taking up as much time to come up with as the song itself! For this third album, the Explorers Club has concocted some stellar vocal arrangements that are guaranteed to bring a smile to everyone in love with vocal harmony.
Although the album works really well as a whole and the quality is top notch throughout, there are a few stand-out tracks I’d like to highlight in my review.
For starters, lead-off single ‘California’s Callin’ Ya’ is so Brian Wilsonesque it’s almost eerie. It has the same type of modern take on the doo wop sound as can be found on Brian’s ‘Soul Searching’ or ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio.’ Catchy with a capital C then; it’s no wonder this was singled out for a release on its own.
I’m also very fond of the extremely catchy ‘Once in a While’ which has a tag to die for. A tag, of course, was the Beach Boys’ own term for a type of ending that twisted the melody of the song in question a little bit, ensuring that the dying 10-30 seconds had a distinctly different feel than what had gone before,… and was all the more memorable for it. It’s something the Explorers Club has done to perfection on many of their past songs and it works great again here.
‘Perfect Day’ breezes by in less than two minutes but you’d be hard pressed to find a classier, more beautiful little number with close harmony all the way through as its backbone. Close your eyes, listen and dream away – this is timeless in much the same way as those iconic Four Freshman records, Brian Wilson wore out the grooves on in his room before changing the pop game.
Another gem is ‘Quietly’ which comes with yet another tag with tasty falsetto and some dreamy sections throughout the song where the drum fills give off a distinctive ‘Pet Sounds’-vibe. It’s difficult to point out a truly favorite track among all these songs, but this may be the one for me. Fantastic stuff!
If you’re a fan of the cosmic fart-synth sound of ’15 Big Ones / Love You’-era Beach Boys, you’re bound to love the pop grandeur that is ‘Don’t Waste Her Time’ which features longtime-Brian Wilson band member Darian Sahanaja joining the band on keys. This majestic song, which Jason Brewer co-wrote with the great Andy Paley, has come out earlier in a more classic 60s pop arrangement. I do prefer this earlier version, but the song is clearly too good to just gather dust as a single-only release so it makes sense that it’s on here – and it works very well in its updated setting.
If I should offer a bit of criticism, it would be that some of the songs at times reveal their inspiration a little too obviously; title-track ‘Together’ is clearly modeled after ‘Wild Honey’-era Beach Boys while ‘Be Around’ oozes ‘Friends’-vibes right down to its waltz-tempo. It doesn’t ruin my listening experience, but some may find that this sense of ‘what is it this song reminds me of…’ can be a bit overwhelming.
Also, parts of the production can at times sound a bit slick and polished compared to the previous two albums – ‘Gold Winds’ is a good case in point. But who am I or anyone else to judge that, really? I’m sure that the Explorers Club has succeeded in getting just the sound they set out to nail in the studio, – like it or not. Above all, this is clearly a labor of love.
A fantastic release then and one that doesn’t let down. Any fan of good pop music should really check this out.
Please, support the band so that we can begin to look forward to a fourth record from them. Hopefully sooner than later! We need someone to fly the flag for classic 60s pop and timeless harmony in the music world today.
Besides buying the album at the usual outlets, you can order it directly from the band here: