Under Blue Skies (Expanded) by ArmstongRelease date: June 27, 2019
Label: The Beautiful Music
It’s late September and you really should be back at school… but you’re not. You’re out at the grill, cooking up one last summer barbeque, flipping hamburgers and sipping on a brew. The evening breeze is getting a little cool — ok, it’s cold, but that means fewer mosquitos, right? It’s a little chilly for the pool, but everyone’s laughing and glasses are clinking as if it were barely July. You’ve got a waterproof Bluetooth speaker on the table blasting out tunes, and this just might be the best party of the year.
The album on that speaker? No surprise if it’s the retro-inspired Armstrong’s Under Blue Skies (Expanded), this year’s sunny-summer-in-an-MP3 package.
A re-release from The Beautiful Music (Canada) and Country Mile (UK) of the original 2007 album, Under Blue Skies (Expanded) delivers a lavish 20 tracks — you won’t have to pay attention to your iPod for a while. Eight songs are new or alternate versions. The new tracks (some recorded around the time of Under Blue Skies’ original release, others years earlier) have a slightly grungier vibe, but that adds needed texture to an otherwise rather same-y album. Playing an album on shuffle disrupts an artist’s original intentions, but with a playlist nearly doubled in size from the original, shuffling might even the tone in an appealing way.
The first three tracks are standouts. ‘Love Hate Passion and War,’ the opener, blends ‘60s harmonies with ‘70s beachy guitar. The catchy ‘Crazy World’ makes slightly on-the-nose references to ‘60s and ‘70s hits, but you’ll be singing along to the chorus in no time. Equally infectious, ‘Baby You Just Don’t Care’ will be playing in your head days after you last listened. The retro vibe is thorough here: ‘Gratitude’ is reminiscent of Chicago’s ‘Colour My World,’ and you could claim ‘September Skies’ as a lost Beach Boys track with little dispute.
While Under Blue Skies (Expanded) is a perfect backdrop — sending sunlight stealing into the shadiest autumn — it isn’t constructed to reward close listening. Lyrics can be a little repetitive, and rarely profound; recurrence can become wearing on some of the tracks. The breathless Beach-Boys-iness of the harmonies sparkle like sunlit sand, but Wales-based singer Julian Pitt’s nasal low tenor can grate under focus.
Of the added tracks, the demo of ‘Baby You Just Don’t Care’ adds little to our hearing of the original. ‘My Resistance’ and ‘October Song’ are the strongest, and the fuzzier guitar and less-strained vocals of most of the new tracks — rougher though they are — prove a welcome textural diversion, without straying too far from the sonic landscape of surfboards, summer romance and melting ice cream cones. The expansion rounds the album out in a way the original fell short of delivering.
Whether you’re yearning for summer to last just a little bit longer, or looking for a fresh party soundtrack with a wash of nostalgia, Armstrong delivers for you on Under Blue Skies (Expanded).