It takes only one spin of Mind if We Make Love to You, the new record by L.A.‘s Wondermints, to realize that something’s changed since 1998, when the band‘s Bali album established them as pre-eminent purveyors of musical retro-futurism. Sure, Esquivel-coifed keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, perpetually be-hatted guitarist Nick Walusko and hunky drummer Mike D’Amico are still in the fold, along with auxiliary multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory. The playing is still impeccable, the melodies are still indelibly catchy, and once again there‘s a vast buffet table of vintage tones on hand for audiophiles to savor.

What’s missing, however, is the whimsy. If Bali was an aural amusement park, the perfect soundtrack to a swingin‘ party featuring cocktails laced with Rohypnol and LSD, Mind if We Make Love to You is an introspective affair best enjoyed in the privacy of a self-imposed afternoon exile. Aside from the gang-bangular title, Mind if We Make Love to You isn’t the sort of wacky cheese fest that would make anyone yell ”Yeah, baby!“ in a bad Austin Powers accent. And, frankly, that‘s just fine and dandy with the Wondermints.

”That’s great that you miss the whimsy,“ Walusko says, ”because that‘s exactly what we didn’t want to have on the album.“ ”Bali might have been a bit more clever than we needed it to be, more cerebral,“ seconds Sahanaja. ”We were like mad scientists in a laboratory. The new album is more grounded. It‘s a little more from the heart — less concept, more gut-level.“

The emotional centerpiece of Mind if We Make Love to You is Walusko’s ”Time Has You,“ an aching farewell ballad that somehow manages to conjure up Jimmy Webb‘s ”Wichita Lineman,“ Mike Nesmith’s ”Don‘t Call on Me“ and Sammy Johns’ immortal ”Chevy Van“ all at the same time. ”The guys kid me about it sounding like ‘Chevy Van,’“ Walusko laughs. ”But it was just like, how many ways can you do a riff around a D-position chord, with a capo on the second fret? I‘m surprised more people don’t get a Gordon Lightfoot thing out of it!“

There are indeed echoes of Gord‘s Gold on Mind if We Make Love to You, along with those of Bread, Nick Drake, and perennial faves like the Zombies and the Beach Boys. (Brian Wilson even contributes backing vocals to two tracks, ”Ride“ and ”So Nice.“) But the Wondermints come by their melancholy honestly: Touring as part of Brian Wilson’s backing band — the ‘Mints’ ”day job“ for the past three years — has been something of a dream gig, but the spiritual dislocation of life on the road has also left its mark. The perpetual swirl of politics around the Brian camp has never been fun to deal with, and there have been times when it looked like Wilson‘s vigorous tour schedule might delay the creation of Mind if We Make Love to You indefinitely.

”We always had it in our minds that we’d have a big window of time where we could focus on making a record,“ Sahanaja says. ”But every time we thought we‘d have it, something Brian-related came up and would knock it back. The record should have been done two years ago; but when last year came around and we still saw no breaks, we finally agreed that the only way we were going to make a record was if we just started to chip away at one.“

But even with a new record out, it’s unlikely that the Wondermints will attempt a full-fledged U.S. tour of their own. ”In Japan, you‘re gonna play Tokyo and Osaka, and maybe one other city,“ says Sahanaja. ”In Britain, you play London and Edinburgh. America is such a huge country, it takes ambitious planning, and we’re not the young guys we once were. But it would be nice to play New York, Chicago, the major cities.“

Besides, touring solo would probably be something of a letdown, especially after performing with Wilson at the Queen‘s Jubilee Concert in England, where the Wondermints got to hang with the cream of British rock royalty, including Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Brian May, Tom Jones and Ozzy Osbourne. ”I got to pee with Ozzy twice in Buckingham Palace,“ exults Walusko. ”The second time, he made a comment: ’Hey, we‘ve got synchronized bladders!’“

”If you think about why we‘re all doing this, we are wanting to get closer to some creative nirvana,“ Sahanaja muses. ”So we play, and we write music. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with creating your own stuff, but at the same time, we‘ve been on the road with Brian. And when I think of who we’ve gotten to play with and work with, that‘s another way of creating nirvana, getting to rub elbows with those people. However superficial it may be, it’s still the stuff of dreams.“

The Wondermints play at the Knitting Factory on Friday, September 20.

LA Weekly