Most likely, you've heard of Jill Sobule because of her 1995 song, I Kissed A Girl (unrelated to Katy Perry's more recent song of that name). She had a couple of major label albums that had some great songwriting and wonderful music, but were not big commercial successes. Ultimately, she was more or less abandoned by the industry or at least the record promoting section. She's managed to make some interesting friends, like Julia Sweeney, Steve Earle, and Billy Bragg. Unlike most of the other one hit wonders, Jill went on to build a solid fan base online and with shows on either coast. Much of her success is tied to freely sharing her music and interacting directly with her fans. On her last album, she polled fans on which songs they wanted to see end up on the album. On California Years, she took it a step further and asked her fans to fund the album. She offered a number of pledge levels with different premiums, but the bigger motivator was that her fans want to see her succeed.
As a writer, Jill tends to split much of her time between making wry observations and digging deeper into an autobiographical, bittersweet vein. California Years leans more towards introspective melancholia, but it's not a bummer of an album. Songs like Bloody Valentine and League of Failures tap into a deeply wounded place, but each seeks for redemption, either from trying yet again or from embracing the situation. My favorite track on the album, Empty Glass, is also a sadder song. It's a collaboration with Elise Thoron (Prozak and the Platypus). The song is intense with a staccato rhythmic drive paired with some beautiful moving poetry. The sound reminds me a bit of early U2 or maybe some of Eleni Mandell's songs. There is such a sense of anger, pain, and loss. Note that the arrangement on the disk is lusher than the one I've linked to.
That brings us to production values. Don Was produced California Years and it sounds quite different from her last one (Underdog Victorious). Most of the songs start with a fairly spare acoustic arrangement which then build as other band instruments filter in. Drums are often pushed into the background when they're present and quite a few of the songs have a nice touch of steel guitar. The building approach and spare percussion provide a smoother bridge between her solo performances and a fuller band feel. While she occasionally performs with other musicians, this feels truer to Jill's intrinsic sound.
As far as wry observations, there are several examples. Palm Springs delivers an autobiographical note on searching for inspiration and change, but looking in the wrong place. Nothing To Prove hits a wonderful balance between standing up to the L.A. music scene and denying the chip on her shoulder. Wendell Lee covers her failed relationships crossed with the perils of looking up old flames.
The disc also includes a mix of familiar songs from the last few years (San Francisco, While You Were Sleeping, Where is Bobbie Gentry, and Bloody Valentine) as well as some newer songs. Pair this with a good California beer, like Anchor Liberty.