THE EXPLORERS CLUB
The Explorers Club; To Sing And Be Born Again; Rarities (Goldstar and Bandcamp)
A triple burst of albums released this year by American retropop outfit The Explorers Club, has brought their melange of a bit of psych, a big burst of tunes, out-of-their-time instrumentation and lush arrangements - and that’s just the album of originals, before we get to the two sets of covers – into focus.
Inevitably this package has sent me into a history dive, as I’m sure they, clearly students of the form, would want.
Among the many quirks of music in the 1960s was a period late in the decade when, just as rock began to explode into a bunch of sub-genres like psych, proto-glam, roots, country-rock, hard rock etc, pop found itself centered in the weirdest place.
The melodic, song-focused, deliberately attractive end of the business was suddenly stretched between the freaks and the kids, the pomp and the personal, the elaborate and the simple, the cool and the uncool. It was possible to have a lot of the same music liked by 10-year-olds, 17-year-olds and 40-year-olds, and have them played on multiple genre radio formats.
It didn’t last – it couldn’t last with that disparate clientele – but it was bizarre and bright and, often, bloody marvellous.
Here you might find the baroque stylings (in Regency dandy clothing, and instruments such as quasi-harpsichord, cellos, low horns) of The Left Banke, and Harpers Bizarre, the theatrical, sometimes bombastic extension of it in artists such as Scott Walker and (god help us) Englebert Humperdinck (where orchestras were deployed with energy), and the softer, simpler other side of it, which would flourish in The Carpenters, Glen Campbell and even Brasil ‘66.
Equally important in the mix was the layered and elaborate pop of The Beach Boys and The Zombies, and those in thrall to them such as The Turtles and Autumn, and the sweetened buzz of anonymous/interchangeable bubblegum acts like The 1910 Fruitgum Company and The Archies (which theoretically were aimed at a super young market, but worked just as well with the super-stoned older set).
Then there were those acts trying to bridge styles and genres, like The Monkees and The Executives, and finally, the vocal-driven, trippy harmony groups such as The Association and The Free Design, and the carefully designed commercial side of it in The Fifth Dimension and The Cowsills.
If you’re wondering by now, this is relevant to The Explorers Club because in a perfect world, this band (essentially Jason Brewer and a revolving troupe of contributors) would have existed smack bang in the middle of that weird sweet pop.
The self-titled fourth album from Brewer and friends begins with Ruby, which opens like The Turtles’ Elenore (lone keyboard, slightly forlorn single voice extolling her virtues, drums for light accentuation) and bursts into a sunshine explosion of a chorus. One Drop Of Rain follows and has a smooth velvet suit effect: lush backing voices and horn easing into a sophisticated veneer of strings and light groove, then a middle-eight of Bobby Goldsboro-smooth before we’re back into the groove, now packed with guitar, strings and cooing voices.
(Mind you, if you want chocolate-coated smoothness, even Bobby G wouldn’t top Dawn, a song seemingly made to be sung on a variety show with wistful backdrop, a couple of dancers and a look down the camera that says, “you’re my Dawn there at home. Yes, you.”)
Going for baroque complexity, Somewhere Else takes off immediately into slim-hipped outer space before making the first of its changes into a Beach Boys waltz section (with “ice cream melt”) and then into an arms-flinging-dance of a guitar solo, a bit of psych dreaminess, and then some escalating guitar excitement. While in complete contrast, the smoothed out Don’t Cry is a line of skivvied boys doing Burt Bacharach (in the flugelhorn and piano), Brian Wilson (in the vocal glides) and Jimmy Webb (in the denouement), with the even prettier Mystery bringing New York to California for a half autumn/half spring moment.
In a boon to reviewers everywhere looking for reference points, Explorers Club do the heavy lifting with To Sing And Be Born Again, released earlier this year, and Rarities, which arrived late in the year. These two collections work as carefully constructed homages to Brewer’s heroes/influences/touchstones which come with the expected gems but also, thankfully, some slight surprises.
On To Sing …, alongside the energetic duo of Boyce & Hart’s boisterous I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite (must check if this was offered originally to The Monkees), Paul Revere & The Raiders’ stomping Kicks, and some impossible to kill songs like The Turtles’ She’d Rather Be With Me and Bacharach/David’s This Guy’s In Love With You, there is a lesser known pretty from The Zombies’ classic Odessey & Oracle album, the sad/hopeful/dreaming Maybe After He’s Gone, and the soul-rich lushness of Can’t Find The Time, originally done by Orpheus, as well as Danny (Three Dog Night) Hutton’s sweet Roses And Rainbows and the wistfully drifting Didn’t Want To Have To Do It, originally done by The Lovin Spoonful.
Rarities (which may be only a Bandcamp release) is a slightly different beast, bringing together covers and originals, including songs from three long unavailable Explorers Club EPs. So Vanity Fare’s bubblegum-ish Hitchin’ A Ride and Bacharach/David’s Walk On By share space with Brewer’s heart-on-the-sleeve (and cleverly orchestrated) Don’t Waste Her Time, and what may be his nod to the Four Seasons, Anticipatin’. Meanwhile, Dennis Yost’s gentle house band-ready Stormy nestles alongside Brewer’s Carpenters-ready Sweet Delights and Weight Of The World.
Hearing the cover-rich albums next to the originals set brings up an unexpected response. While Brewer’s songs aren’t in the same league as the stone-cold classics, they actually feel much fresher and revealing – not just revealing of him but of the styles attempted.
The new versions bring an audio and performance replication that is an impressive exercise, but in the end, these are a slightly sterile experience because they are homage rather than reimagining. Note perfect takes are fine; flawed reality turns out to be better.