America – ‘Homecoming’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Released in November 1972, ‘Homecoming’ was America’s second album… and it had a tough act to follow, their 1971 debut spawned the international hit ‘A Horse with No Name’, which remains to this day the group’s most widely recognised song.

Originally a four-piece performing under the name Daze in London, the group soon boiled down to members Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek, all sons of US servicemen stationed oversees who met when their respective families were based in West Ruislip, near London, hence the name. Having dropped one unlucky member, who must now feel like the fifth Beetle, Beckley, Bunnell and Peek took the name America having been inspired by their original nationality and an Americana jukebox in the cafeteria of the warehouse where Peek and Bunnell worked.

With ‘Homecoming’, America were determined to avoid what they call the ‘sophomore jinx’, a highly promising debut album followed by mediocrity, so when work began on their second album, America pulled out all the stops to achieve their aim. The group decided to produce the album themselves, but their numbers were bolstered at Los Angeles’ Record Plant Studios by two session veterans, Hal Blaine and Joe Osborne, accomplished percussion legends who contributed not only their musical skills, but also considerable experience.

Since Beckley, Bunnell and Peek all possessed enviable song writing skills, it was agreed that each member would contribute three songs to the album, with the tenth being a cover. The selection of that tenth track was not an easy one, but in the end the group settled upon ‘Head and Heart’ by English folk songwriter/performer John Martyn, which was first released in 1971 on one of his own albums.

Even allowing for Martyn’s contribution, ‘Homecoming’ is typical America and the group at their best; gentle folk rock ballads with an edge, typified by the use of duelling electric guitars over what is primarily an acoustic background, together with the unmistakable lead vocals of Bunnell and Beckley and sweeping multi-layered harmonies. In light of present-day production techniques, one could be forgiven for assuming that the elements of many tracks were likely to have been over-dubbed, but aside from the occasional additional vocal track, the entire album was recorded ‘live’ as an integrated performance, rather than each instrument and vocalist being laid down individually.

Homecoming’ charts the band’s 1971 return to California and the journey from their small-town beginnings to the world stage. It has an innocent and youthful feel, two qualities that also helped their first album to such great success, and captures the carefree mood of the early 70’s and the romance of the West Coast. To my mind, America’s style became jaded in later years as the group’s members grew more cynical, which is probably why ‘Homecoming’ is remembered with such fondness.

Rhino’s DVD-Audio release manages to recreate much of that 1970’s ‘feel’, largely because of the superb disc artwork – the cover and the still images that accompany each menu and track. The original album photography by Henry Diltz has been lovingly restored and is presented beautifully by Greg Allen of GAPD, to the point where it even outshines the original gatefold album cover. The menu options and navigation buttons are seamlessly integrated, so if nothing else, ‘Homecoming’ attains gold stars in the areas of presentation and design.

When I first began listening to the disc’s 96kHz 24-bit DVD-Audio track I found it particularly difficult to come to terms with just how good it actually sounded; the original recordings are thirty years old and if, like me, you’re used to hearing tracks such as ‘Ventura Highway’ played on the radio or from vinyl, appear to be nothing short of a revelation in comparison. There is no hiss and no distortion, nor are there any of the typical frequency response limitations usually associated with vintage material. Quite the opposite in fact, some tracks, ‘Moon Song’ being a prime example, boast low frequencies extending down to almost a sub-sonic level.

Particularly startling are the fidelity of both vocals (either lead or accompanying) and guitars, each being of particular importance to the success of this disc given their role in America’s musical style. ‘Cornwall Blank’, a song similar to ‘A Horse With No Name’ features extended, deep and integrated bass that possesses quite a kick, beneath a pair of duelling electric guitars conveyed with an exceptional sense of space and envelopment. Only when percussive elements are particularly forward in the mix does the age of the original material become apparent, cymbals are just a tad harsh as are, to a lesser extent, the rhythm acoustic guitars of ‘California Revisited’, but the overwhelming impression is of an astonishing feat of restoration by the Warner/Rhino team.

The disc’s 3/2.1 surround mix is an active one, much use is made of both surround channels although the centre is reserved largely to provide a minor ‘fill’ between front left and right with only the occasional discrete effect. ‘Only in Your Heart’, for example, features an early synthesiser which pans from hard centre to right rear, but that’s an isolated centre event. When ‘Homecoming’ was recorded, Stevie Wonder was also at work in an adjacent studio; he and producer Robert Margouleff happened to be using what was at the time the world’s largest synthesiser, so America members managed to enlist their help programming the electronic instruments used (sparingly) on their own album.

Vocal harmonies, together with acoustic guitars and some elements of percussion have been spread around to the sides and rear of the acoustic space but in a restrained manner, although if your surround loudspeakers are located far behind the listening position some elements may border on the distracting, specifically during ‘Head and Heart’ which subjectively, appears to be the most aggressive mix. I wouldn’t let this one negative put you off however, since the additional channels heighten the listening experience far more than they detract from it. I was enthralled by the surround treatment afforded to ‘Moon Song’, where instruments gather from all directions then combine with a deep, atmospheric bass-line and panned vocals. Likewise the guitars of ‘Cornwall Blank’, one positioned half left and the other midway between right front and right surround.

For those only equipped with DVD-Video hardware, ‘Homecoming’ also carries a Dolby Digital 3/2.1 mix which fares well against its loss-less competition, but falls a tad short in the areas of bass definition and perceived soundstage depth. The packaging also indicates the presence of a DTS track, but I couldn’t find it on the disc itself; there isn’t a sound format menu and my Meridian 596 DVD-Video player simply displayed a puzzled question mark icon when I attempted to select the format manually, which usually indicates there are no alternatives present. Either the DTS track didn’t make it onto the disc, or it’s simply impossible to find.

As for supplementary material – all of which is also available to those with DVD-Video players – there is an extended gallery of Diltz’s photographs, song lyrics and a brief audio-only interview with Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell which provides and all-too-short insight into the making of the album.

The missing DTS track aside, ‘Homecoming’ is another winner from the Rhino/Warner back-catalogue. Once again they’ve managed to resurrect an aged recording and present it with astonishing fidelity. This particular example also benefits from an interesting surround mix and some of the finest disc artwork seen to date which, coupled with the classic material on offer, enable me to award a heartfelt ‘must have’ recommendation.