Sundial “1968 – The Birth Of Americana?” (Independent, 2018)

Coming in just under the wire for a golden jubilee  celebration of all things good and great in 1968, Australian band Sundial have a grand conceit contained within this album. They contend 1968 was the year which birthed Americana. Ostensibly the album is a very fine collection of songs released (or penned, perhaps) in 1968 and in the extensive liner essay they have a good stab at justifying their claim – quoting Jon Savage, writing in Shindig magazine, “1968 was the official start of Americana in the US, with the release of The Band’s Music From Big Pink and The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo during the summer.” But rather than delve into all of that (comments below welcomed) let’s just concentrate on the songs they’ve chosen and the delivery thereof.

There are 15 songs here and rather than go for the usual suspects Sundial have dug a bit deeper in their quest to sum up 1968. We do get Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ which is given more of a piano led delivery than the guitar rush of the original and Neil pops up again on ‘I Am A Child’, delivered here pretty faithfully although there is a very fine comfort blanket of warm synth sounds coddling it. Likewise, Young’s sparring partner Steve Stills’ ‘Helplessly Hoping’ captures the essential harmonies of the original while a Dobro adds a rootsier tone. Meanwhile it’s nice to see that Gene Clark gets some due as ‘Train Leaves Here This Morning’ (from the 1968 album, ‘The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark’) makes an appearance. Note that Clark wrote this song with future Eagles’ member, Bernie Leadon, and see some Americana (or at least country rock) threads appearing. Dylan is represented by ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ from his ‘Nashville Skyline’ calling card and he’s there in spirit of course on The Band’s ‘I Shall Be Released’, a fine version of which closes the album.

OK. None of the above should raise any eyebrows (aside from some quibbles about whether some of them belong to 1968) but the remainder are much less obvious. The Bee Gees ‘Got To Get A Message To You’ is surely a harmony pop song and it’s sung here as such (although the liner notes do point out that’s essentially a murder ballad). The Gibb brothers do have a place in the Americana universe but that’s due to The Burritos’ magisterial reading of ‘To Love Somebody’. More surprising is the inclusion of ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’, a Bacharach/David composition recorded by Herb Alpert and which sat at the top of the charts for several weeks in ’68. Regardless, here it’s given a sweet arrangement which recalls Brian Wilson (or more probably Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas).

By now it’s probably best to forget the original premise and just enjoy the excellent recreations of the songs chosen for the project. ‘Reason To Believe’, ‘Everybody’s Talking’, ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Carolina On My Mind’ are all present and they all roll off the line with Sundial’s very pleasing arrangements making for what is, at the end of the day, a superior collection of cover songs which is eminently listenable. Strangely enough, the one song which doesn’t immediately register is their cover of a song which was a big hit in Australia, Buzz Cason’s ‘Adam And Eve’. It’s the tale of a murderous pair (a la Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate as portrayed in ‘Badlands’) and the original is an odd baroque styled folk pop song and here it remains a bit of an oddity.

A fine covers album which dares to ask if Americana music began in 1968. Debate...
7/10

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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