America / The Autumn Defense / The Broken West

America / The Autumn Defense / The Broken West

C+

America

Album: Here & Now
Label: Burgundy
B+

The Autumn Defense

Album: The Autumn Defense
Label: Broadmoor
B+

The Broken West

Album: I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Label: Merge
C+

America

Album: Here & Now
Label: Burgundy

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C+

The Autumn Defense

Album: The Autumn Defense
Label: Broadmoor

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C+

The Broken West

Album: I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Label: Merge

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Aside from Bread, America may be the most routinely and unfairly maligned of the '70s soft-rockers. Yes, America ripped off Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—especially Young. And yes, America's long association with producer George Martin smacked of an unearned assumption to pop royalty. But America is also responsible for enough breezy pop to fill the terrific greatest-hits album History. And on the live second disc of Here & Now, the band zips through every track of that album with revelatory vigor. Unfortunately, those revelations come at the expense of Here & Now's studio disc (produced by hip fans Adam Schlesinger and James Iha). America's cover of My Morning Jacket's "Golden" sounds sturdy and grand, and the balmy "Indian Summer" and "Look At Me Now" waft past amiably. But the majority of Here & Now is blandly saccharine, and when the genial "Walk In The Woods" at the end of disc one gives way to "Ventura Highway" at the start of disc two, it's easy to hear the difference. One is merely nice, and the other profoundly winsome.

The legacy of America survives best in young bands who play what some online music categorizers have called "yacht rock." Wilco multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt epitomizes the sound with the self-titled third album from his band The Autumn Defense, which threads together "mellow gold" '70s AM and the brighter sides of Elliott Smith and Matthew Sweet. Some of the record is too generically soft, but the soulful "Feel You Now" and the hazy, piano-based "Where You Are" follow the passive-aggressive "Where do you want to sleep tonight, baby?" come-on mode that Bread and America practically patented. And while The Autumn Defense lacks the deeper sense of purpose of a neo-soft-rock band like Midlake, the insinuating "This Will Fall Away" and the pristine "Simple Explanation" run deeper than homage.

Similarly, the Wilco-esque L.A. quintet The Broken West brings a sunny sound and shaggy West Coast attitude, but with more straight-ahead rock drive than the Top 40 placeholders of yesteryear. The band has its Ozark Mountain Daredevils side, as heard on I Can't Go On, I'll Go On songs like the slow-building "Hale Sunrise" and the laid-back "Abigail," but even there, breathy vocals and gentle strumming get a garage-y overhaul. The knock against bands like America is that they always sounded sweatless, as though their songs flowed out with inhuman ease. The Broken West sounds like old-style AM pop with muscle and guts—an America sporting three days of stubble.

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