BGO's two-fer of Albert Hammond and 99 Miles from LA rounds up the two albums that Albert Hammond recorded after the success of 1973's "It Never Rains in Southern California." Where that single and the album of the same name were big hits, the 1974 Albert Hammond and 1975's 99 Miles from LA were modest hits, along the lines of his 1973 follow-up to "Southern California," "The Free Electric Band": the albums themselves didn't chart on Billboard, but the 1974 LP brought a Top 40 single in the propulsive, Cat Stevens-like "I'm a Train," the title track from 99 Miles from L.A did well on the adult contemporary charts while barely squeaking onto the Hot 100. Success of course is not necessarily a measure of artistic quality, and both of these records are strong, ambitious affairs even when they're quite pop. Albert Hammond displays a heavy Paul Simon influence in how Hammond incorporates Caribbean rhythms and writes stark folk-rock: "Dime Queen of Nevada" is a dead-ringer for "Mother and Child Reunion," while "I Don't Wanna Die in an Air Disaster" recalls "Duncan" so strongly it's fortunate that Hammond didn't sequence these two back-to-back, since that's the only way they'd echo Paul Simon even more.
Of these two sides, the Caribbean flavor has a bigger presence here: "Everything I Want to Do" rides a chant-along steel drum chorus quite cheerfully, as does the light-as-air "The Girl They Call the Cool Breeze," while "We're Running Out" bounces along on a white reggae beat and these sunkissed songs are balanced by contemplative introspection ("New York City Here I Come") and dramatic symphonic pop with a nearly cinematic pull ("Half a Million Miles from Home"), along with songs that split the difference between these two extremes (the quite excellent soft rock sweep of "Names, Tags, Numbers and Labels" and "Candle Light, Sweet Candle Light"). At times, it seems like Hammond is in conflict with himself since the sunny world pop doesn't mesh with the introspection or the symphonic pop, but it does make for an interesting listen as it vacillates between nearly bubblegum pop and weighty, almost too-ambitious songs. 99 Miles from L.A. doesn't have the problem of shifting tones: Hammond abandons the flirtation with Caribbean rhythms as well as the darker introspection and makes a lush, easy rolling Californian soft rock album that screams 1975 in its warm, gentle pastel tones created with strings, harmonies, fuzz tones, saxophones and the mild disco rhythms that drive "Lay the Music Down." Which isn't to say that Hammond has abandoned serious subjects, as the title "A Job Is a Home to a Homeless Man" suggests, or even the friendly hippie good vibes of "Love Isn't Love Till You Give It Away" proves -- he's just united it under the warm umbrella of soft rock. This makes for a more consistent album sonically, and his writing is more consistent as well; it may not be as ambitious as "I Don't Wanna Die in an Air Disaster" but it's more successful, capturing his melodic gifts and talent for winding, folk-inspired tales. The best-known tune here is "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," which was popularized several years later by Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, and its blend of sweet melody and slightly sappy sentiment is both typical and atypical of 99 Miles from LA: that sense of melodic craft is evident throughout the album, but it's the only tune here that's courts commerciality quite so clearly. The rest of the record is very good, very '70s soft rock: lush and easy, melodic and breezy, something that may not always be memorable but it always sounds good while it's playing -- and it's best appreciated as an artifact of its time, a record that's mid-'70s to its very core and all the more appealing because of it.