ANOTHER DODGER BLUE SKY is crowning L.A./the city of angels is blessed every day,” Brian Wilson sings in “Morning Beat,” one of a dozen songs that specifically mention California on his new album “That Lucky Old Sun.” A song cycle inspired by a tune from 1949, childhood memories and missed opportunities, disc is a unique insider’s perspective that’s as much a take on Wilson’s past as on his hometown.
Southern California as a muse was relatively unheard of prior to Wilson’s region-defining work in the Beach Boys. For all the definitions Wilson has provided, from “Surfin’ Safari” to “Surf’s Up,” “That Lucky Old Sun” — written with old pal Van Dyke Parks and his keyboardist Scott Bennett — stands as his most thorough definition of what it is to be an Angeleno.
But considering its position as a musical epicenter, Southern California has lost its luster for the natives. In song these days, L.A. is almost always presented in a nostalgic light, with reminders that while this city of reinvention has had its golden moments right now we’re not living in one. Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther, two of SoCal’s finest chroniclers in the ’70s, say as much on their new albums, as does Wilson.
Prior to the rock ‘n’ roll era, the perspective on California was strictly from the outside. Anyone writing locally came off as a real estate speculator: Did Bing Crosby sing “San Fernando Valley” to get a hit or boost land values? “Pico and Sepulveda,” a Dr. Demento favorite recorded in 1947, was likely one of the first honest appreciations of Los Angeles as something other than a sunshine-drenched playland. In hindsight this obscurity performed by Felix Figueroa was the “I Love L.A.” of its era.
On “Time the Conqueror,” which is being released today, Browne closes his eyes and visits the Laurel Canyon of the late ’60s in the wistful “Off of Wonderland.” “There was a change in the air,” he says, invoking Martin Luther King by name, the Eagles and John Kennedy by inference. “It was love everywhere.”
That’s about it for specific nostalgia on the album, although a trio of protest songs convey a distinct sense that the visions of youthful hope have been blurred by too many bad decisions — a point he makes less directly but just as distinctly as Wilson.
YOUTHFULNESS WAS NEVER much of a concern for Souther, one of Browne’s former running mates when Southern California’s country rock was in its formative stages. Souther’s character-driven songs connected feelings of liberation, adventure and fearlessness — the Eagles recorded his “New Kid in Town” and “Victim of Love,” among others — and those characters return on his first album in 23 years, “If the World Was You.”
Amarillo, Texas-raised, Souther has long been concerned with people affected by borders, emotional as well as physical. His new single, “The Border Guard,” is practically an assimilation of all his ’70s and ’80s work. Sweet harmonies and an easygoing beat dominate the disc with musical accents — 1950s jazz, bluegrass and Latin rhythms — rarely heard within a soft-rock context. While Browne’s album lacks the melodic hooks of his ’70s work and Wilson’s newest compositions are an extension of “Smile,” Souther embellishes the sonic footprint of his classics “Black Rose” and “You’re Only Lonely.”
A few generations have followed the ’70s pioneers — a short list that includes Warren Zevon and Tom Waits — and punks who railed against suburbia. Ry Cooder set his recent combination novella/album “I, Flathead” in the high desert, and his previous record covered pre-Dodgers life in Chavez Ravine. Dave Alvin has been the region’s most impressive chronicler in the last two decades, his focus often on the people in the fringe areas that ring Los Angeles County.
But the last L.A. songwriter to reach iconic status, Beck, has ignored geography in his lyrics, although his ever-shifting styles mimic the clutter of cultures one encounters on a drive from the beach to the east side of downtown. If his latest album, “Modern Guilt,” has a connection to Los Angeles, it’s in the ethic of build, discard and rebuild. Would Beck reinvent his music so often were he not an Angeleno? No matter: Songs provide maps to time and place, and right now, the creatives are not proving much guidance.
We’re waiting for the eclipse to end.