Everything in culture is recycled and reused sooner or later. A few years ago 80s fashions were all the rage again. Now I walk around and people that look as though they’ve stepped out of an Alanis Morissette video. This is especially true of the image-obsessed capitalist marketplace we all live in today, where pictures, words, sounds, and ideas are recycled ad infinitum in the almighty quest to make a buck. But culture is not the only thing that is recycled; the same goes for politics, which according to political scientist Arthur M. Schlesinger, operates cyclically, oscillating between conservative and liberal ideas over time.
In the same vein as Schlesinger’s work, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats created his own cosmology of the world that consisted of gyres, cyclical revolutions of time that culminated in golden ages every 500 years. Though our lives may be too short to consider such long-term changes in human society, we do have the ability, especially in such a quickly moving age as our own, to look at the constant recyclings of culture that appear around us.
Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Otheim, who was playing keys for Karl Blau on his tour. After the show we chatted about keyboards and synthesizers, and he mentioned that he was part of another project called Heatwarmer, in which he plays keyboards, writes, and arranges. When I asked him what it was like, he told me to imagine channeling the soul of Michael McDonald, the unforgettable husky-voiced crooner that led the Doobie Brothers in the late 70s and early 80s.
Soon Otheim would relocate to Los Angeles. It was an understandable move for the singer, especially since Los Angeles has become (or maybe it always was) the world capital of nostalgic art homage. Drugdealer is also based in Los Angeles, as well as his Laurel Canyon-channeling sidekick Weyes Blood. Still Parade, Mild High Club, and countless other musicians with retro sounds also call L.A. home.
The cover of Drugdealer’s new album “Raw Honey” is a bit confusing. Although it’s a pretty overt reference to the avant-psychedelic self-titled album by The United States of America, the music isn’t actually that reminiscent of the cult record. Most of the music places us effortlessly on a blanket of retro sounds that hearken back everything from The Carpenters to Roy Orbison (with a powerful vocal performance by Dougie Poole). The only real similarity between the two albums is their collaborative nature.
Los Angeles is the rightful home of these nostalgic fools. As the birthplace of the homegrown, heart-baring music that took the world by storm in the early 70s, it’s the perfect place to dig in and write a few sunny tracks about loneliness and relationships. Michael Collins and his cohorts deliver exactly this, though not with enough flavor to make it really stand out as anything more than a satisfying pastiche of a vague time in American pop music.
The album’s first track is the only one that truly finds a unique sound. As a result, opener “You’ve Got To Be Kidding” overshadows everything else you’ll hear on “Raw Honey.” Balancing out those elements of old and new on a tight wire of jazz-inflected groove, the track manages to sound both reverent and fresh at the same time. The song starts with the sound of a revving engine, bringing to mind those visceral sound effects that were popular in that era (think of the sound of a motorcycle that appears at the end of Billy Joel’s hit “Movin’ Out.”) Bringing in a choir of schoolchildren over the delicate balance of harpsichord and guitar hearkens back the serious compositional power of period-piece filmwork, while also cultivating a mood that unfortunately dissipates over the rest of the record.
I already went over the power of nostalgia during a previous review of Leon Bridges’ most recent album “Good thing.” When any artist begins looking to the past too heavily they risk becoming lost in it. It’s one thing to want to capture a time, a mood, or a feeling through a spirit of adventure and homage. It’s another to give in completely to nostalgia, to lose yourself so completely to the idea of a time or era that your music becomes paint-by-numbers exercises instead of reimaginings and reworkings that breathe new life into the past.
Eras, when looked at retrospectively, always seem different from how they actually were. Even with the endless amount of information accessible through the internet, all we really have is bits and pieces of what it was actually like in that time – the day to day struggles, the political landscape, or the cultural realities and norms that people followed. What we get when try to reproduce an era of music is only an approximation.
Drugdealer understands this, marketing himself as “reducing, reusing, and recycling the traditional fabrics and threads of pop music and weaving them into something both contemporary, reverential, and timeless.” The problem is that he mostly misses his own mark on “Raw Honey,” becoming lost in the very era he is trying to recycle and reuse.
For such a reverential exercise as this, beginner’s luck seems to play a bigger part than we think. For that reason and many more, this album doesn’t quite stand up to “The End of Comedy,” which had a devil-may-care playfulness that “Raw Honey” struggles to find. Framed too much in the nostalgic narrative, many of the songs lose steam and come off, in the end, as frivolous pastiches.
Songs like “Honey” and “Lonely” seem like they could be lumped together with a handful of throwaway songs from the early 70s. Still, the fact that these songs so effortlessly capture sound of the times is impressive, as if Drugdealer and his league of collaborators had closely studied the tropes of the era until everything from the instrumental accompaniment to the background vocals sound ripped straight from vinyl B-sides.
The strongest songs on “Raw Honey” are the ones that Drugdealer sings himself, lending the songs an intimacy and uniqueness missing on collaborative tracks. This is why artists like Slow Dancer can channel Yacht Rock moods while still reimagining the era. Once Drugdealer rediscovers that imaginative place again, the sky (as the 70s tropes would make us hope) is the limit.