The Beach Boys' first album, Surfin' Safari was a forgettable period piece that was at least somewhat salvaged by the hit title track and a fine cover of Herb Alpert's "Little Miss Girl (You're My Miss America)." For the most part you can skip that hurriedly put together rush job, however, and head straight to the considerably better but still no great shakes Surfin' U.S.A.. For one thing, Chuck Berry swipe or not, the title track is an absolute classic that's arguably the quintessential "surf" song. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the album is also comprised of surf songs, as group leader Brian (and overbearing manager/father Murry) sought to latch on to the then burgeoning surfing fad, never mind that brother Dennis (the band's sex symbol drummer and sometime singer) was the lone actual surfer in the band (which was also comprised of Brian and Dennis' younger brother Carl, the band's lead guitarist, cousin Mike Love who was then the band's main lead singer along with Brian, and bassist David Marks, soon to be replaced by Al Jardine). Strangely given that the band's wonderful harmonies have always been their bread and butter above all else, this album features five instrumentals that are competently played but don't do all that much for me. Fortunately, the album features some fine vocal tracks as well, the best of which is "Farmer's Daughter," a lovely, understated ballad. Also recommended is "Shut Down," a fun upbeat rocker, "Lonely Sea," a sad, sparse ballad (if it's a ballad then Brian is probably singing lead as opposed to Love), and "Lana," a lightly enjoyable number on which Brian's falsetto is the main attraction. Of course, not everybody will be enamored with his high-pitched vocals (which aren't for everyone), and there's a certain datedness to the album that makes these songs more appropriate for "oldies" radio stations than anything you'll hear on any contemporary stations. Still, I know that I like these songs, even if the rest of the album is mostly padded out with filler as again the band's record company was demanding product at a furious pace that Brian's songwriting (often in collaboration with Love or outside collaborators such as Gary Usher or DJ Roger Christian) couldn't keep up with. Still, the album contains several enjoyable tracks that foreshadow the group's future greatness. Note: As with most of the significant Beach Boys albums, Surfin' U.S.A. and Surfin' Safari were reissued as a 2-for-1 package; some of these combos may be hard to find but these are the ones to search for needless to say.
Surfer Girl (Capitol ‘63) Rating: B+
This third installment was a major upgrade in quality from the first two albums. They're still too surfer happy from a lyrical standpoint, but even the filler is more fun this time out; "South Bay Surfer" and "Surfer's Rule" are goofy as hell but I can't get them out of my head, either. There's only two instrumentals this time, one of which ("The Rocking Surfer") is actually quite good ("Boogie Woodie" not so much), and Brian takes over the production reins. As such, the album has a fuller, more expansive sound than previously, in part because Brian discovered the joys of multi-tracking. Also, this is the album on which Brian started to use superior session musicians, many (such as standout drummer Hal Blaine) from the legendary "Wrecking Crew" who played on Wilson's idol Phil Spector's records; the thin, twangy sound put forth previously has been bulked up. Most importantly, Brian Wilson (again often with one of the aforementioned lyrical collaborators) has written some fine songs; he especially comes into his own on the ballads, starting with the lovely, romantic title track, which of course is highlighted by its delectable harmonies and which became a U.S. top 10 hit and a longtime fan favorite. On the lesser known front are the melancholic "The Surfer Moon," the first Beach Boys track to feature strings, and the short but lovely "Your Summer Dream," while "In My Room" is probably the best song here, as this song's heartbreakingly personal and reflective meditation about Brian's reclusive sanctuary is the first glimpse of the more mature and sophisticated work he would produce later on. Of course, this album is still largely all about fun, fun, fun, and the group delivers just that on the light, catchy "Catch A Wave" (though again the shrill falsettos and the carnival-esque keyboards might not be for everybody), the also-light and even catchier U.S. top 15 hit "Little Deuce Coupe" (car songs were fast becoming another band specialty; though I'm much less fond of "Our Car Club"), and "Hawaii," whose falsetto harmonies again veer close to being annoying but which are ridiculously catchy and singable just the same. On the whole this album has its fair share of flaws, mostly with the lyrics, plus it has a few lesser tracks. However, it also has some acknowledged classics ("Surfer Girl," "In My Room," "Little Deuce Coupe") and several strong overlooked album tracks ("Catch A Wave," "The Surfer Moon," "Hawaii," "Your Summer Dream") that aren't generally found on hits compilations, making Surfer Girl the first Beach Boys album that can be easily recommended.
Little Deuce Coupe (Capitol ‘63) Rating: B-
This car-themed concept album was rush-released while Surfer Girl was still fresh in the shops. Not only that, but it contains four tracks that appeared on prior albums: the already mentioned title track, "Shut Down," and "Our Car Club," plus "409," one of the better songs on Surfin' Safari. I guess Capitol wanted to capitalize on the era's car craze similar to how they had smartly exploited the surfing fad, but this resulting album is definitely a few steps back in terms of overall quality, as Brian (mostly with Christian) simply didn't have enough time to write enough quality songs (or properly produce some of them). Only "Spirit Of America," an exquisite falsetto-flavored ballad (but of course), is really worthy of being considered for any "best of" compilation among the new tracks, and too many other offerings are largely listenable but instantly forgettable Beach Boys-by-numbers. As for the best of the rest, "Ballad Of Ol' Betsy" is another pretty ballad (about a car, naturally), the very Grease-like "Be True To Your School" (a U.S. top 10 hit and the only non-car song on the album) has a naive charm even if it's also juvenile and corny, "Car Crazy Cutie" is minor but enjoyable doo-wop, "No-Go Showboat" is amusing and melodic, and the sober "A Young Man Is Gone" (a tribute to James Dean) is notable for being a rare a capella effort (their first). Still, none of these songs are standouts, the other new ones not mentioned even less so, and the album deserves further demerits for including repeated tracks and for its crass commercialism.
Shut Down, Volume 2 (Capitol ‘64) Rating: B-
Another quickie release, this one confusingly titled (apparently a prior Capitol compilation featuring a couple of Beach Boys songs was titled Volume 1), the cracks started to show on Shut Down, Volume 2, which featured a few terrific tracks alongside the weakest filler the band had done to date. Simply put, Brian couldn't keep pace (remember he was writing songs for Jan and Dean during this time as well!), and though the boys still sing extremely well (and it's worth noting that they all sang, not just Mike and Brian), some of the filler songs here are truly terrible ("'Cassius' Love vs. 'Sonny' Will," "Louie Louie," "Denny's Drums") and don't even rise to "guilty pleasure" status. So, rather than focus on the weak tracks (about half the album), I'll focus on the good stuff; if you program tracks 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 9 you'll have a nice little mini-album, and at least on the 2-for-1 reissue this one is coupled with Surfer Girl, one of the band's few consistently good early records. This album starts strongly with "Fun, Fun, Fun," which again successfully rips off Chuck Berry (it's worth noting that the band's early "rockers" are always rock 'n' roll as opposed to rock; there is a difference), amusingly includes cars and girls in the lyrics, and has a lightly catchy chorus that we've all sung along to. This one hit the U.S. top 5, whereas the wondrous, far better ballad "Don't Worry Baby" was only a minor hit, despite the fact that it's one of the band's best (and best loved) songs. Simply perfect, whereas "In the Parkin' Lot" promises much more than it delivers; the opening and closing harmonies are ace, but the rest of the track in between disappoints. Fortunately, the appropriately melancholic ballad "The Warmth Of The Sun," written on the day of J.F.K.'s assassination, is a gem of an album track, and the strong (if not quite as strong) "Keep An Eye On Summer" is another slow, harmony-laden ballad in the band's best style, while their cover of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" is also enjoyable even if I prefer the original. The rest sucks.
All Summer Long (Capitol ‘64) Rating: A-
Prior Beach Boys albums all had great songs but this is their first consistently stellar album, as the arrival of The Beatles spurred Brian to up his game. Simply put, this is the quintessential early (pre-'65) Beach Boys album and it epitomizes their appeal, with songs about surfer studs, gorgeous gals, endlessly beautiful southern California summers, fast humming hot rods, and teenage romance. A first-rate summer album for non-cynics that perfectly evokes a more innocent time and closes their early surf and cars era - the era and sound that most casual fans tend to think of, as opposed to music critics and hardcore music geeks - this album is also notable for its more sophisticated sound, as Brian incorporates more instruments and increasingly elaborate arrangements. This album has an excellent mix of fun rock 'n' roll and their trademark lovely ballads, with a minimum of filler in the form of the group's last surf instrumental (the actually pretty good "Carl's Big Chance") and another should've remained in the vaults curiosity ("Our Favorite Recording Sessions," though unlike "'Cassius'" from the previous album at least this one is sequenced towards the end of the album). Obviously the classic from this album, the band's first #1 hit and one of their greatest singles, is "I Get Around," which expertly contrasts Mike's reedy rock vocals with the band's trademark harmonies on the chorus and some of Brian's most fabulous falsettos. The musically expansive "All Summer Long" also has excellent lyrics and delivers pure summer goodness, while their lullaby-like cover of The Mystics "Hushabye" is a great example of the group's increasingly intricate vocal arrangements. The energetic "Little Honda," soon a top 10 hit for the Hondells and later covered by Yo La Tengo, was ahead of its time with its innovative use of fuzz tone, plus it's catchy as all get out and is simply one of their best rockers (and one of their best car songs), while "We'll Run Away" and the doo-wop flavored "Wendy" are terrific teenage romance ballads with a more somber, serious tone than most of the rest of the material here. "Girls On The Beach" is another strong ballad even if it's overly imitative of "Surfer Girl," while "Do You Remember" is a nostalgic rock 'n' roller (notable given that the group would later become America's #1 nostalgia driven "oldies act") that's minor but fun, though some have taken issue with certain inaccuracies in the lyrics (lighten up people). I'd describe "Drive-In" similarly (minor but fun), while "Don't Back Down" fittingly delivers one of their finest surf songs, providing a good time finale to both the album and that era the band. True, most of these songs are very good rather than great, and from a lyrical perspective things are still pretty simplistic for the most part, but musically the band (led of course by Brian, who wrote most of these songs in collaboration with Love) was growing by leaps and bounds; the latter progression would only continue, while lyrically the songs would soon offer a more adult worldview. Note: My wife hates the high-pitched "whining" vocals on some of these songs. Obviously I disagree, but again I’m noting this to make a point that The Beach Boys falsetto-flavored vocals aren’t for everyone.
The Beach Boys Today! (Capitol ‘65) Rating: A
After The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (from which “Little Saint Nick” became a perennial seasonal favorite), and a hugely successful live album, Beach Boys Concert, that hit the top of the U.S. charts and stayed there for several weeks, came The Beach Boys Today!, by far their best album to date and the one that pointed the way towards their masterpiece Pet Sounds. Ironically, during a period of their greatest commercial success (the band had five albums simultaneously in the top 200!), Brian decided it was time to create a more adult, less commercial album whose subtle charms would prove to be more artistically rewarding but less bankable. Basically, what happened was that the absurd work rate and pressure to produce finally got to Brian, who had a nervous breakdown that ultimately caused him to withdraw from touring; he was briefly replaced on tour by future country star Glen Campbell before longtime member Bruce Johnston joined the group’s ranks. With no tour commitments to attend to, Brian had more time to work his magic in the studio (The Beatles would soon make a similar decision in prioritizing records over live performance), and the resulting music is more dense and complex, while the lyrics are more personal and reflective, meaning that they’re more likely to discuss real man/woman relationship issues as opposed to boy/girl romanticizing about summertime fun. This album is neatly divided into two halves, the first six songs being comprised of up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll (some of their best yet), the more celebrated next five songs being all ballads, and terrific ones at that; the last track, “Bull Session With the ‘Big Daddy’,” is another complete waste of time filler but at least this time it’s properly sequenced at the end where it can be easily ignored. The album begins with their excellent cover of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance" (later notably covered by Bette Midler and the Ramones), which featured Dennis on lead vocals and was the album's biggest hit, peaking at number 12. This song and the later dance-themed "Dance, Dance, Dance" hark back to prior catchy and fun feel-good hits, whereas "Good To My Baby" and "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" are subtle gems with similar attributes, namely Mike and Brian's vocal contrasts and the group's stellar harmonies, though the production is a bit fuller on the latter track. Even better is "When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)," a magical mini-masterpiece both musically (harpsichord, harmonica, great drums and sweet vocals) and lyrically (the questioning lyrics really get to me, simple as that, maybe in part because I'm not a spring chicken anymore and sometimes I feel like the years are slipping away as well). Of course, the most famous song on side one is "Help Me Ronda," but this isn't the #1 hit single version (with the "h" added to her name) that everybody knows and loves; that reworked and much-improved version would appear on their next album, and it's hard for me not to compare the two versions and wish that this one was that one while listening to it. Then again, this version is good too, and the ballads on side two are tremendous, the least impressive offering being the lone cover, this one of The Students' "I'm So Young," a still-solid teen romance number with a '50s doo-wop flavor. Elsewhere, "Kiss Me Baby" is The Beach Boys at their most romantic (their harmonies are also at their most intricate), while "Please Let Me Wonder," with its fabulous falsettos, is lovely and touching. "She Knows Me Too Well" is another musically gorgeous and sophisticated, and lyrically searching and reflective song, while "In The Back Of My Mind" is a musically lush track that again showcases Dennis' more plain spoken but extremely effective lead vocals (with Jardine taking the lead on "Ronda," clearly some of the other group members were being showcased more, much to the chagrin of Love most likely). On the whole, Today! is a terrific album, not quite Pet Sounds (which seriously overshadows it) and with some imperfections (“Ronda” and “Bull Session,” mostly), but a classic album in its own right that remains underrated.
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (Capitol ‘65) Rating: B+
This album was The Beach Boys taking two steps back before taking a giant leap forward. Likely due to prompting from Capitol and Mike Love, this album at times returns The Beach Boys to their earlier commercially oriented simplicity, and is too often forgettable aside from a few unforgettable tracks. The majority of side one is pure fluff from a lyrical standpoint, "The Girl From New York City" being a fun if minor answer song to The Ad-Libs' 1965 hit "The Boy From New York City," "Amusement Parks U.S.A." being musically annoying and lyrically juvenile, their gender reversed cover of The Crystals' "Then I Kissed Her" being superfluous (the original is the best), and "Salt Lake City" being musically appealing (I like its overall groove and simple but effective sax solo) but lyrically crass and corny. Though overly imitative of The Beatles' "Ticket To Ride," "Girl Don't Tell Me" is much better and is notable for being Carl Wilson's first lead vocal (hard to believe it took so long), while the classic #1 hit single version of "Help Me Rhonda" is next. Al Jardine's shining moment, "Help Me Rhonda" features a great lead vocal, wonderfully creative harmonies, and cool guitar lines (Carl in general is an underrated lead guitarist); this one has it all and is simply one of the catchiest, most fun songs ever (on a personal note, when I hear this song it always reminds me of a girl named Rhonda who I dated in college). The #3 hit "California Girls" comes next and arguably even ups the ante, starting with the symphonic intro that Brian himself adores, and onto its ridiculously catchy chorus; if this quintessential Beach Boys song (also a hit for David Lee Roth years later) doesn't make you feel good then I feel sorry for you, because you're a hopeless sourpuss! (or maybe you're just a girl from somewhere other than California?). On the "gem of an album track" front, in addition to the already mentioned “Girl Don’t Tell Me” there’s "Let Him Run Wild," another terrific ballad that would've fit well on side two of Today!, while the supremely poppy “You’re So Good To Me” is also extremely enjoyable. The lovely, symphonic "Summer Means New Love" is probably the band's best instrumental-only track to date, but after that stellar six song sequence (“Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” California Girls,” “Let Him Run Wild,” “You’re So Good To Me,” “Summer Means New Love”) comes "I'm Bugged At My Ol' Man," a painfully bad ode to not so dear old dad, before "And Your Dreams Come True" ends the album with an enticing if too short a capella entry. On the whole, this album is largely comprised of lightweight numbers by a Brian who I suspect was still cognizant of the bottom line and not quite ready to completely give in to his artistic impulses. About half of it is still terrific, however (even though two of the best songs here are readily available on any worthwhile Beach Boys compilation), and the 2-for-1 reissue with Today! also adds the superb non-album single "The Little Girl I Once Knew."
Pet Sounds (Capitol ‘66) Rating: A+
The legendary album where Brian Wilson’s studio obsessions and artistic vision reached a remarkable peak, this breathtakingly beautiful album deals with Brian’s desperate quest for love and acceptance. With assistance from a new collaborator, lyricist Tony Asher, its mature handling of subjects such as loneliness, longing, alienation, and (the difficulty of) growing up made it a far cry from the perfect sounds of the endless summers that their fans had come to expect. Instead of relishing in boyish fantasies, Pet Sounds was a deeply personal adult album that Brian totally dominates (he sings lead on most of the songs, and quite beautifully at that), though his bandmates’ exquisite vocal harmonies help shape the album’s great overall sound. Mike Love also puts in some typically fine vocal leads, while Carl Wilson gives one of the all-time great vocal performances on “God Only Knows,” a song that Paul McCartney, who was greatly influenced by this album (which itself was greatly inspired by the song-for-song quality of Rubber Soul), called “the best song ever written.” The song structures here are simple on the surface but the music is incredibly detailed, and the album has a three dimensional feel that’s filled with an almost symphonic sense of wonder. The enthusiastic liner notes (by David Leaf) accurately describes the “airy feeling that complemented the cerebral nature of the songs,” while also noting their “classical overtones.” Brian makes full use of session musicians, of which there were many, and the album's varied instrumentation and adventurous production tricks also help make this a one of a kind listening experience. For example, on “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” one of two instrumentals (and even the instrumentals are terrific this time), Brian uses “12 violins, piano, four saxes, oboes, vibes, and a guitar with a coke bottle on the strings for a semi-steel guitar effect.” Despite its obvious magnificence and lasting influence (not so obvious at the time), the other band members didn’t quite know what to make of Pet Sounds at first; Love in particular pleading to Brian "don't fuck with the formula" while also famously calling the album “Brian’s ego music.” Indeed, although it did crack the U.S. and U.K. top 10, on the whole the album was a major commercial disappointment compared to past successes, despite containing superlative singles such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (simply perfect), “Sloop John B” (a reworking of a traditional folk song that caused engineer Chuck Britz to claim that “they could sing a capella and make tears come to your eyes”), and the aforementioned "God Only Knows" (which best exemplifies what Brian was trying to accomplish here, namely creating "teenage symphonies to God"). Other highlights on an album full of them include the angelic “You Still Believe In Me,” whose moving falsetto vocals are among my all-time favorite, the comforting, lullaby-like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” and the comparatively rocking "I'm Waiting for the Day," notable for its booming drum sound and exciting vocals towards the end. But this album is full of such magical moments; witness the quirky saxophones on "I Know There's An Answer," or the way the drums and harmonies kick it up a notch on the chorus to "Here Today," for example. The album’s most affecting songs might be the heartbreakingly autobiographical “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” which details Wilson’s obvious sense of dislocation, and “Caroline, No,” a devastatingly sad look at a young lady’s loss of innocence. However, you really need to listen to the album in its entirety in order to fully appreciate why the stature of Pet Sounds has grown and grown over the years, and why it is the primary reason that Brian Wilson enjoys the appellation of “genius.” In fact, Pet Sounds has won several “greatest albums of all-time” critic polls; the album is especially revered in the U.K., where Mojo, Melody Maker, and NME all ranked it #1. Amazingly, it lives up to the hype, but unfortunately, drugs and the pressure of trying to top this album literally drove Brian Wilson crazy.
Smiley Smile (Capitol ‘67) Rating: B
This is where things get complicated. After Pet Sounds The Beach Boys released the "Good Vibrations" single, and when this brilliant so-called "pocket symphony" went #1 worldwide it looked like Brian Wilson could do no wrong...and then it all came crashing down. The Smile story has been told many times in many different versions, but I'll try to sum up what happened, because mention must be made of Smile in any review of Smiley Smile. Conceived with new lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks, who replaced Tony Asher's heartfelt confessionals with abstract humor, Smile was supposed to be the album whose music topped even Pet Sounds. However, excessive drugs, inter-band (most notably and predictably with Love) and record label (they were suing Capitol over royalties) tensions, Brian's perfectionism (which caused him to record take after take until he didn't know if he was coming or going anymore) and competitive streak (i.e. his self-imposed pressure to try to keep pace with The Beatles; he was shattered when he realized he couldn't top Sgt. Pepper's) were but some of the things that took a toll on his rapidly deteriorating mental state (I won't even get into the whole piano in the sandbox saga). Regardless of why he never finished Smile, which had been enormously hyped due to the breathtaking beauty of the music as reported by those lucky few who heard it at the time, the fact is that Brian Wilson didn't, and his abandonment of Smile is the pivotal moment in the band's history; before Smile Brian Wilson was the genius leader/production maestro of the group, whereas afterwards he would recede into the background, forcing the others (in particular Carl and Dennis) to step up in his absence. The delay in releasing product, and the rise of the psychedelic San Francisco scene, plus the group's failure to play the Monterey Pop Festival (where it's hard to believe they would've went over well anyway), served to make them "unhip" in the U.S. seemingly overnight, and they never again achieved the consistent commercial success of years prior. Anyway, onto Smiley Smile, which was comprised of some hastily re-recorded, deliberately underproduced Smile songs and similarly lo-fi new tracks. Simply put, this album is the polar opposite of the lush Pet Sounds, and it's one of the most singular and flat-out strange albums ever released (perhaps fitting given Brian's strange behavior at the time). I can't imagine how jarring first hearing this album must've been back then, and it's hard not to compare this album to Smile and feel sad about what might've been; Carl famously called it "a bunt instead of a grand slam." That said, this album isn't without its own quirky, homespun charms, not the least of which is the aforementioned "Good Vibrations," which sticks out like a sore thumb here but hey who cares since this trippily majestic, theremin-flavored masterpiece is arguably The Beach Boys greatest song ever? The album's other single, "Heroes and Villains," may have underperformed on the charts, and Jardine felt that Brian "purposefully under-produced" this version of the song to keep it more in line with the surrounding tracks, many of which have a demo-like, fragmentary quality, but it's still a wonderfully melodic song. Those two tracks tower of the rest of the album, however, though again the album's bizarre, one of a kind charisma grew on me over time, plus it has one of the band's rare good album covers (probably my favorite of theirs). The music on this album, much of which is clearly drug-induced, is extremely stripped down aside from the vocals, which often seem to be coming at you from all over the place. Some of these rather rudimentary tracks are more accurately described as chants rather than songs, but the vocal arrangements are often extremely creative, and the album has accumulated a cult audience of its own over the years. Aside from "Gettin' Hungry," which is generally (but not always) more musically fleshed out than the rest, I won't bother getting into too many individual song details beyond noting that I've grown to like most of them, including the oddly catchy if quite silly "Vegetables," the prettily low-key and comparatively accessible "With Me Tonight," and even the beyond-bizarre, "She's Goin' Bald," which always manages to make me chuckle. Of course, some of these particular versions of Smile songs could be better ("Wind Chimes" and "Wonderful," for example), but they fit this album, which you need to live with for a while and listen to as a collective whole in order to best appreciate its oddball charms. It's still not great, and it's certainly not what Smile could've been had Brian not lost the plot, but Smiley Smile does offer its own enticing rewards for the adventurous listener, though if you don't fit into that category you'll most likely simply be puzzled and reach for something else instead. Addendum: For many years the mythological Smile was the most famous unreleased album of all time, though there are bootlegged versions that many hardcore fans swear by, plus 30 minutes of Smile recordings appeared on their excellent Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set, plus several of its tracks would be re-recorded and appear on subsequent albums. Then, of course, the unexpected happened, as Brian and Van Dyke Parks reconvened and actually finished the album in 2004, though this version (released as a Brian Wilson solo album) is much different than any version from 1966/67 likely would've been. Still, better late than never. P.S. Even better, in 2011 the unthinkable happened, as the Beach Boys’ The Smile Sessions was finally officially released at long last (see my review a little later on).
Wild Honey (Capitol ‘67) Rating: A-
Released a mere four months after Smiley Smile, this album could also be called lo-fi from a production standpoint, as Brian was unwilling or unable to attempt the fuller, more elaborate productions on which he had previously made his reputation. Rather, this is a back to basics effort on which The Beach Boys, who play on the majority of the album for the first time since 1963, get back to being a basic rock 'n' roll band, and a very good one at that. Far more accessible than Smiley Smile, with lots of boogie piano (as opposed to the prior album's keyboards) and few harmonies (which were all over Smiley Smile, albeit with unutterably strange arrangements), this album is similarly singular within their discography and un-Beach Boys like, at least it wasn't what was expected of The Beach Boys, and was similarly a commercial flop as a result (plus the band were still seen as unhip by the taste making cognoscenti). Remember, it was the band's grand harmonies and Brian's brilliant productions that had made the band's reputation, but let's not forget that the group also had great songs. Although arguably lacking in all time Beach Boys classics (aside from “Darlin’,” maybe my favorite Beach Boys song ever), Wild Honey has plenty of fine songs as well, most written by Brian with Love, as they had resumed their songwriting partnership. The real star of the album, however, at least in terms of performance, is Carl Wilson, who was being showcased more and more as a lead vocalist (this had started on Smiley Smile actually). Fittingly, given that he's their most soulful singer and this is often considered the group's "soul album," Carl sings lead on several song here, starting with the terrific title track, which makes excellent use of Brian's beloved theremin and is energetic and fun as all get out. Man I just love that organ break, and this should've been a big hit, simple as that (it wasn't), while the lightly melodic "Aren't You Glad" is simply a delectably hummable if not particularly substantial horns-heavy album track. Carl's impassioned vocal highlights an impressive cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Her," while the excellent "Country Air" is a rare song here on which the group's harmonies are the main attraction. "A Thing Or Two" is filler-ish, but fortunately this is followed by the fantastic "Darlin'," which was actually a minor hit and a song that was almost given away to Brian's friend Danny Hutton's band Redwood (who would soon turn into international hitmakers Three Dog Night). Smart move keeping it, as Carl does a great job singing this wonderful "blue eyed soul" number, while the rest of the band's airy harmonies hit the spot as well on this effortlessly charming song (which features great drumming too). "I'd Love Just Once To See You" may be a bit overly simple and sing songy slight, with Brian sweetly singing lead this time, but it too is easily likeable (its risqué lyrics are surprising as well), while "Here Comes The Night" (not the Them song), later re-recorded as a disco number (!), isn't great but I like its funky toughness and simple but singable backing vocals. "Let the Wind Blow," a musically lovely if lyrically dispiriting ballad on which Mike, Carl, and Brian all sing lead, is another highlight, but (like many Beach Boys releases before it) this album ends uninspiringly with the energetic, fast-paced but generic "How She Boogalooed It," which sounds about a silly as you'd expect given the song's title, and "Mama Says," a Smile leftover and an insubstantial minute-long a capella coda. Interestingly, "How She Boogalooed It" was the first Beach Boys composition written completely without Brian's involvement, and the album says "produced by The Beach Boys" rather than the usual "produced by Brian Wilson." So things were changing, Brian's involvement was starting to recede, but I for one immensely enjoy the album's rootsy, rough-hewn, simple homespun sound; it sounds like the band had fun recording Wild Honey, and as a result it's fun to listen to as well. It's not Pet Sounds or even close to it, but it's not trying to be, either, and instead this a great little album (it's only 24 minutes long) rather than any grand artistic statement. Simply put, this album's energetic, upbeat vibe makes me feel good, and it's also worth noting that with this album the band went "back to basics" before a slew of notables who (coincidentally?) soon followed suit, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and perhaps most notably The Band being chief among them.
Friends (Capitol ‘68) Rating: B+
To quote David Leaf's informative liner notes in the Friends/20/20 2-for-1 reissue, "Friends, the only new Beach Boys LP of 1968, is one of the most tranquil albums ever made." He goes on to say "Friends, one of the shortest and sweetest Beach Boys' LPs of the '60s, was an album that unlike its two predecessors Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, sounded and felt like a Beach Boys record...lots of harmonies and great melodies," while Brian himself stated that "it's simple and I can hear it anytime without having to get into some mood...Pet Sounds is by far my very best album. Still, though, my favorite is Friends." Pretty heavy accolades for such a humble and unsuccessful album (it tanked at the box office even more than the prior two albums), and I can see why this album has grown in stature over the years, though I can also see why the album was so overlooked for so long. Truth is, very few of these songs stand out at first or even second or third listen, but they sound perfectly pleasant while you're listening to them, and like Smiley Smile I'd argue that this album really needs to be listened to as a whole in order to fully appreciate it. You might as well, even then it'll still only take you 25 minutes, and that's part of my problem with Friends, as some of the songs here seem underdeveloped, as terrific tracks such as the so airy it could float away "Meant For You" (:40) and the simple, singable, upbeat pop number "Wake The World" (1:31) are over far too quickly and should've been fleshed out further. On the plus side, the warmly inviting, more fully fleshed out (if not nearly as elaborate) production is back, and the album's upbeat vibes and calm serenity makes for an enjoyably relaxing and not at all taxing experience. Still, there's a slight, sing songy quality to many of these simple (if not downright simplistic) songs, and a corny and/or cheesy factor that at times can make me feel a little uneasy. But then I usually feel guilty about it; I mean, how can you not ultimately warm up to the title track, an admittedly corny but heartfelt ode to friendship set to a waltz-like melody? Al's high-pitched vocals on "Be Here In The Morning" are a bit shrill but the song is otherwise another sing along pleasure, "Anna Lee, The Healer" sounds like a commercial jingle but there's no denying its catchiness or the quality of the vocals, and "Busy Doin' Nothin'" is an agreeable bossa nova flavored ditty whose lyrics interestingly supposedly give directions to Brian's house (provided you know where to start following them). Speaking of lyrics, this album was influenced by their collective interest in transcendental meditation, though ironically the song "Transcendental Meditation" is the least relaxing and most ill-fitting entry here. Elsewhere, "When A Man Needs A Woman," Brian's ode to his kids (and are any such songs not corny?), is pleasant but sorta comes and goes (not unlike most of this album), and he also spearheads a couple of interestingly moody and tuneful instrumentals, "Passing By," which actually features wordless humming, and "Diamond Head," a comparative epic at 3:39 which tends to put me on a tropical island somewhere (that's a good thing). Also notable is the emergence of Dennis as a songwriter, penning his first two songs with the band, the lightly charming, sing songy "Little Bird" and the more somber (and too short but still solid) "Be Still" (1:25), so he takes as many lead vocals this time as former lead singer Love, as clearly Carl and Dennis were emerging as major forces within the band at the expense of Love and even Brian (who more and more was receding into his own little world), with Jardine and Johnston continuing to play mostly supporting roles. Anyway, I like this album, a lot if in the right mood; it's short and sweet and perfectly pleasant, but it's also a minor Beach Boys album that fails to measure up to some of their more ambitious album projects.
20/20 (Capitol ‘69) Rating: A-
The Beach Boys' last album for Capitol Records (thus ending a successful but contentious relationship), this was also the band's last album of the '60s, and it was by far their most democratic outing yet as Brian no longer was willing or able to lead the way on a consistent basis. Fortunately, his brothers were now able to help lead as well, and though 20/20 lacks the cohesion and unity of Friends, in part because the album was cobbled together from multiple sources, including a leftover Friends track and two rescued Smile songs, its best songs are also far more substantial. The album begins strongly with "Do It Again," the only new song penned by Brian for this album; this one's a co-write with Mike, who sings lead, and as such it echoes the catchy "fun" spirit of their early singles and perhaps not surprisingly it became a top 20 U.S. hit that actually topped the U.K. charts. "I Can Hear Music," a Ronettes cover, was another modest U.S. hit with an excellent vocal from Carl, who also produces the track without any help from Brian. And a lush, full bodied sound it is, too, as this may very well be the band's best cover ever aside from "Sloop John B." "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," another cover, this time of an Ersel Hickey song (no I've never heard of him either), was the album's last single, and unsurprisingly it didn't fare too well, as its pleasant harmonized chorus is at odds with Ed Carter's ill-fitting, loud guitar soloing. While we're at it, Dennis' "All I Want To Do" (a co-write with Steve Kalinich sung by Mike) is also extremely atypical, being a surprisingly heavy garage rocker that actually ROCKS. I guess The Beach Boys were paying attention to their surroundings after all, what with hard rock being in vogue at the time due to the likes of Led Zeppelin, but the rest of the album offers more typical Beach Boys fare. Dennis also steps to the forefront on the excellent "Be With Me," a darker hued, robustly produced (strings, horns, etc.) number with an epic chorus, and the also-good "Never Learn Not To Love," which likewise sports a lush sound and sumptuous harmonies but is perhaps most famous (or infamous) for having been re-written by Dennis from a song originally written by mass murderer Charles Manson (he and Dennis were acquaintances). Bruce and Al get in on the action as well, Bruce with the pretty, evocatively titled instrumental "The Nearest Faraway Place," and Al with a strong lead vocal on a cover (the third on the album) of Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields" (good but I prefer CCR's). The rest of the album is comprised of Brian Wilson songs basically rescued from the scrap heap, though you'd never know it by their overall quality. "I Went To Sleep," the aforementioned Friends leftover that many feel should've closed that album rather than "Transcendental Meditation," is another peaceful low-key charmer, while "Time To Get Alone," started during the Wild Honey sessions and also originally intended for Redwood, is an absolute gem; man those harmonized vocals are so gorgeous they can almost bring me to tears. As for the Smile songs, "Our Prayer" is a short (1:10), spiritual a capella incantation; there may not be much to this one but it sure is lovely just the same. And "Cabinessence," a key piece of the Smile puzzle and the band's first great closing track since "Caroline, No", is utterly unique and wonderful in the way that it alternates between sparse solo settings and its harmonized chorus (if you can call it that). Anyway, I like pretty much every song on this album and feel that about half of them are flat-out fantastic. True, you could argue that there are too many covers, there's some ill-fitting rocking out, and that some of these songs probably belong on other albums, but the sheer quality of these songs are what always wins me over in the end, and it was great to see the rest of the guys step up as Brian was stepping down. P.S. The bonus tracks on the Friends/20/20 two-fer are the best of any of the reissues, including "Break Away" and their too short version of "Walk On By," though room probably should've been made for the Al Jardine produced hit single version of "Cotton Fields" as well.
Sunflower (Reprise Records ‘70) Rating: A
With Brian actively participating along with everybody else, Dennis and Bruce in particular hitting personal peaks, Sunflower sees the band full of optimism after switching record labels, though the album ended up being a disheartening commercial failure despite being a major artistic success. The original version of this album was originally titled Add Some Music and was rejected by Reprise as being not good enough, but take two certainly was, and I'd rank Sunflower as their fourth best overall album and their best non-Brian dominated album. Engineer Steve Desper deserves a lot of credit for the album's sparkling sound quality, as again the band delivered a warmly upbeat, summery pop album that has in recent years finally started to get some long overdue acclaim. The harmonies are amazing throughout, and Sunflower is a lovely, uplifting, and varied album. Much of the variety comes from Dennis, who delivers the harder edged numbers, starting with the tuneful pop rocker "Slip On Through" and also including the horny yet humorous "Got To Know The Woman," which has a funky rockabilly flavor, and "It's About Time," another convincing rocker sung by Carl. Of course, Dennis' main contribution to Sunflower, indeed the best song he ever wrote, is "Forever," which is simply one of the most beautiful and romantic love songs ever. I don't know what's more perfect, his crooned lead vocal or his bandmates' airy harmonies, and even Brian was moved to comment "'Forever' has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I've ever heard...it's a rock and roll prayer." For his part, Bruce is the primary writer and singer on "Dierdre," a light and airy lovely, and the melodramatic "Tears In The Morning," whose tale of broken romance is at odds with the rest of the album. It's still a fine song, however, and unsurprisingly Brian also delivers some first rate stuff, including "This Whole World," an easily loveable mini-masterpiece (1:56) on which Carl sings lead (you can always tell because he's the band's most soulful and powerful singer), the joyous, gloriously harmonious "Add Some Music To Your Day," which should've been a big hit but unfortunately wasn't, and "Cool, Cool Water," on which Brian the production maestro is again at the peak of his powers. The album's longest (5:03) and most experimental track, this water evoking multi-sectioned number is almost impossible to describe so I'd suggest you simply check it out for yourself (it’s great!). Other lovely Brian tracks like the Love-sung "All I Wanna Do," which has a wispy Friends-like fragility, and the lush Carl-sung "Our Sweet Love," also fit in just right, and even Al's strange, child-like "At My Window" has its moments as well. All in all, despite some corny moments and slight songs as per usual, Sunflower is just a beginning-to-end pleasure to listen to, as the band was really onto something special here (helped in part by songwriting contributions from non-band members on three key songs). Basically, the goal of this album's music is to make people feel good and lift their spirits, and Sunflower does just that, at least for me it does.
Surf's Up (Reprise Records ‘71) Rating: A-
The band’s hot streak of delivering strong albums continues, though like The Kinks from this same era (late '60s/early '70s) some of their best albums were among their least successful from a commercial standpoint. This one sold better than Sunflower at least, going U.S. top 30/U.K. top 20, but it’s not quite as consistently good, though it does have some fantastic peaks. This album is more serious and somber than its predecessor, perhaps due to the dispiriting commercial failure of Sunflower, and lyrics are sometimes problematic, as, likely due to the influence of new manager Jack Rieley (who co-writes three songs and even sings lead on one), some songs have socio-political messages that sound forced and ill-advised. In particular, Mike Love and Al Jardine’s “Don’t Go Near The Water” is a musically creative ecological tract with woefully weak lyrics (though being more of a music than a lyrics guy I still like it), while Love’s “Student Demonstration Time,” a rewrite of an old Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller tune (“Riot in Cell Block #9”), is so obnoxious and un-Beach Boys-like that I tend to skip over it entirely. Al Jardine’s other tracks aren’t exactly highlights either, as the Sunflower reject “Take A Load Off Your Feet,” like most joke songs, fails to hold as much interest after repeat plays, though at least it’s an oddly catchy attempt at humor that adds levity amid the surrounding seriousness, whereas “Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” is mysteriously lo-fi but kinda comes and goes. The rest of the album is excellent, however, despite featuring minimal contributions from both Brian (three songs, one another Smile resurrection) and Dennis Wilson (zero songs as he was preoccupied with a solo album and disagreed with Carl about the placement of some of his songs on the album). By now the Beach Boys, with Carl the de-facto group leader, at least when Brian wasn’t around which was often the case, were a true collective, and certainly Carl steps up on the songwriting front here, penning and singing lead (powerfully as usual) on “Long Promised Road,” a terrific album track that has both the classic Beach Boys ballad sound and a soulful Wild Honey flavor, and “Feel Flows,” an ambitious, free flowing, gently groovy tune that has some creative louder parts as well as several instruments (flute, sax, guitar, keyboards) seem to fight for dominance. For his part, Bruce Johnston checks in with arguably his best song ever with the lovely, nostalgic, sweetly summery “Disney Girls (1957)” – tracks like this may have been out of step with those turbulent times, hence the “un-hip” factor that still dogged the band, but today it simply sounds timeless like so many of the best Beach Boys songs. Anyway, unsurprisingly, part time band member or not, the very best songs here are probably Brian's. The least impressive of the three Brian songs that close the album is "A Day In The Life Of A Tree," which shouldn't work due to its offbeat, heavy-handed lyrics and co-writer Rieley's less than stellar lead vocals, but which does due to its celestial organ and the group's typically wondrous harmonies. Finishing with a flourish, the final two tracks are among the best Beach Boys songs ever. First up is the mournful "'Till I Die," featuring Brian's highly personal lyrics about feeling small and insignificant, matched to haunting music and more genius harmonies. Best of all is the hymn-like, multi-sectioned title track, a composite of new (mostly courtesy of Carl whose vocals are absolutely magnificent) and old (Brian's 1967 Smile demo recording, expanded and enhanced with new instrumentation and vocal overdubs) material that I consider to be one of the best pop songs ever, period. Man, this is one of those songs that can simply make me go "wow," such is its majestic beauty, and though Surf's Up the album suffers from some inconsistency, it's still a varied, ambitious, and creative release with several outstanding highlights ("Long Promised Road," "Disney Girls (1957),". "Feel Flows," "'Till I Die," and "Surf’s Up"). P.S. The Sunflower/Surf's Up 2-for-1 reissue is probably the best such Beach Boys offering, keeping in mind that they smartly never doubled up Pet Sounds, though it was reissued several times including once as a 4-cd box set.
Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" (Reprise Records ‘72) Rating: B+
Well, that last statement about Pet Sounds was true from a reissue standpoint, but when this album was released Reprise thought so little of it that they bundled it up with Pet Sounds to try to boost sales. Needless to say, comparisons between the two albums were unflattering, but this album (named after an early band Carl was in) has its merits as well, though it also has significant faults. Much of that was due to circumstances, as Dennis suffered a self-inflicted hand injury and couldn't drum, and Johnston had a major falling out with Rieley and either quit or was fired from the band (he would return in 1979). Their replacements, both South Africans recruited from a band called The Flames, were Blondie Chaplin (guitar, bass, vocals) and Ricky Fataar (drums, vocals), both of whom helped to make this album's sound more loose, rocking, and r&b-based than in the past. For his part, Brian was no longer actively involved with the Beach Boys, though he contributes two songs with Rieley and another co-write. Dennis contributes as well, though his two songs, both co-written with Daryl Dragon (a.k.a. "The Captain" from The Captain and Tennille), were originally intended for an aborted solo album and as such are at odds with the rest of the album, and the typical Beach Boys sound, as are Chaplin/Fataar's two songs. So, the main problem with this album is its lack of cohesiveness, plus at only 8 (longer) songs some may feel shortchanged, though the overall running time of 34+ minutes is actually longer than many of their previous albums. From a conceptual standpoint, this one most closely mirrors Today! in that there is a rock side (songs 1-4) and then a ballad side (songs 5-8), but this album falls far short of the magic captured previously, though I do still like the majority of these songs. The album begins with Brian's "You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone," which is loose and rocking if not all that memorable. "Here She Comes" is the first Chaplin/Fataar composition, and it hardly sounds like a Beach Boys song at all aside from some harmonies. Which isn't to say that it's not a good song, because it is, it's just more funk-based than you'd ever expect from the Beach Boys. Still, the drumming on this track is truly excellent, I always love me some Hammond organ, both Fataar and Chaplin acquit themselves quite well on vocals, and there's even a guitar solo! The gospel-flavored "He Come Down," a piano/Hammond-organ fueled Al/Brian/Mike co-write, is also atypical but is quite good, in particular its joyous "I believe in" harmonized chorus, which is hard not to sing along to. Brian's "Marcella" is more prototypical Beach Boys and is a very good mid-tempo pop rocker, before what used to be used to be side two (back in the vinyl days) begins with Fataar/Chaplin's solid "Hold On Dear Brother," a mournful country-flavored ballad with a good Chaplin lead vocal. Dennis' overblown, eccentric ballad "Make It Good" is probably my least favorite song here, but it's also the shortest track, and it's followed by "All This Is That," a light and dreamy Al/Carl/Mike vocal showcase that's among the true hidden gems in the band's entire catalog. Lastly, though again its orchestration is a bit much at times, Dennis' "Cuddle Up" is a much improved effort that's so moving and lovely at times that it damn near brings me to tears (The Beach Boys had that ability like few other bands). Anyway, I like most of these songs, the problem is that due to the fractured nature of its songs, which can make for disorienting listening, this album adds up to less than the sum of its individual parts. Note: On the 2-for-1 reissue this album was more properly paired with Holland.
Holland (Reprise Records ‘73) Rating: A-
For this album the band decamped to Holland due to the influence of Jack Rieley (who co-writes four songs here), and the band's homesickness inspired the "California Saga" trilogy that forms the heart of the album. Unfortunately, with his mental illness sabotaging his productivity, Brian contributed only two songs to the album, though as per usual both are highlights. "Sail On, Sailor" starts the album with a strong pop rocker notable for a strong Blondie Chapman lead vocal, whereas just about the whole band sings lead at one point or another on album closer "Funky Pretty," a light, airy, and pretty funky and very pretty number that sees all the Boys at their best, in particular Carl and Blondie (unlike Bruce who took a while to integrate himself within the band's studio albums, Fataar and Chaplin played major roles right away). Unsurprisingly, Carl shines on lead vocals elsewhere as well, for example he sings lead on Dennis' two contributions. The dreamy "Steamboat" is notable for its hazy sound, as well as its tinkly keyboards and soulful guitar solo, while "Only With You" is a simple, sweet, low-key love ballad. As for the aforementioned "California Sur" trilogy, Mike really shines on "Big Sur," a lovely, low-key waltz, and "California," which harks back to "California Girls" and is also extremely uplifting and enjoyable, with the band's glorious harmonies stepping to the forefront. As for the other "Big Sur" song, well, "The Beaks Of Eagles" is a strange one in that it's partially an evocative spoken word piece based on a Robinson Jeffers' poem, before the actual main melody kicks in, and quite a tuneful, singable melody it is (with Al on lead vocals this time); then the spoken word returns before the singing part closes things out. It took a while for this song to grow on me, but now I like it a lot, whereas I instantly recognized Carl's multi-part "The Trader" as an album highlight, in large part due to his typically stellar lead vocals. Still, this one and the less successful but still good Moog showcase "Leaving This Town" (this album's Fataar/Blondie writing entry, with help from Carl and Mike) are both a bit on the long-ish side, as like its predecessor this album features longer songs on the whole and less of them than what was typical of previous Beach Boys albums. This album is far more cohesive than was Carl and the Passions, however, and it has more highlights as well (it's better, in other words). The sound is a bit slick, but it has soul and craftsmanship. Let's face it; Holland was the last really good Beach Boys album, and the best Beach Boys album on which Brian barely contributed.
The Beach Boys In Concert (Reprise Records ‘73) Rating: B+
This is an extremely enjoyable if not quite essential live showcase of the Fataar/Chaplin version of the band, back when they were an active working unit, before the band became a nostalgia-based oldies jukebox (Mike Love's wet dream). This double album became the band's best seller in some time, too, since the Capitol days, as the seasoned group's reputation as a top shelf live act had grown. On the downside, the music sometimes drowns the vocals out a bit, there's disappointingly nothing from the 20/20, Sunflower, and Surf's Up era (a personal favorite of mine), and Dennis is barely heard from. Still, these quibbles aside, there's no denying that this album contains a great set list that has a good mix of older hits ("California Girls," "Help Me Rhonda," "Surfer Girl," "Don't Worry Baby," "Surfin U.S.A.," "Fun, Fun, Fun"), Pet Sounds and Smile-era classics ("Sloop John B," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Caroline, No," "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains"), some surprising picks ("You Still Believe In Me," "Let The Wind Blow"), and several recent Fataar/Chaplin-era songs ("Sail On, Sailor," "The Trader," "Marcella," "Leaving This Town," "Funky Pretty"), and even a new song in the Holland reject "We Got Love," a pretty good groover of a tune. Most of these songs, also including the delectable "Darlin'," have a harder hitting rock edge than their studio counterparts, and there are some surprises in store, such as the extended keyboard-led jamming on a 7-minute version of "Leaving This Town," an impressive guitar solo not on the original "Let The Wind Blow," and some wild guitar also not present on the original "Help Me Rhonda" (which is still far superior as the vocals on this version fall a bit flat). Elsewhere, "Sloop John B," is faster, rougher, and more rocking if not as pretty or moving, "Marcella" is a livelier, more muscular improvement, and "Heroes and Villains" is more robust and energetic but less psychedelic than the Smiley Smile version. True, certain "studio songs" such as "California Girls" (mostly the intro which they pull off surprisingly well) and "Good Vibrations" can't hope to compete with the flawless studio originals, and it's a bit jarring at first hearing someone else sing "Brian songs" such as "You Still Believe In Me," "Caroline, No," "Surfer Girl," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and "Don't Worry Baby." Still, the rest of the band are great singers too, especially Carl who was by now the group's unquestioned leader, though on stage Mike would play the role of front man throughout the band's career (and usually do a good job of it, it should be noted). The other guys stand out as well, Al and Blondie in particular, and the group is augmented by five additional musicians who help fill out the band's sound (again, sometimes at the expense of the vocals). All in all, it sounds like the guys had a good time playing these songs, and for the most part it's fun to listen to them as well.
The Beach Boys Love You (Reprise ‘77) Rating: B
After Fataar/Chaplin's departure and then 1976's disappointing 15 Big Ones, with its attendant "Brian's Back!" hype (which backfired and caused more than a few snickers), came this improved effort, which was a far cry from prior classics but which has its moments, as well as its fair share of ardent supporters. I personally think that those who proclaim this album to be some sort of masterpiece are kidding themselves, perhaps blinded by their Brian fandom, because this album is seriously flawed. I mean, Brian was not yet past his serious mental problems, and as such there's a child-like naivety to this collection that's either disarmingly charming or annoyingly infantile, depending on your perspective. At times I find it to be both, but on the whole the dopey lyrics are difficult to overlook, and the simple, synth-dominated music (remember the "new wave" sound was en vogue at the time), coupled with Brian's rougher vocals, which aren't nearly as appealing as in the past, take some getting used to. Still, this is a "grower" album whose simple charms did win me over over time, even though I'll probably never more than grudgingly "like" the majority of this album, which is the most Brian-dominated Beach Boys album since Pet Sounds and which is almost like a Brian Wilson solo album with vocal help from the rest of the Boys. Perhaps the success of Endless Summer, the 1974 compilation that shockingly went to the top of the U.S. charts and renewed interest in the group, sapped the rest of the band of any incentive for writing new material, given that their last few strong albums had sold disappointingly and knowing that they could rake it in simply by touring and regurgitating their old hits. But I digress, back to The Beach Boys Love You, which to my ears contains at least two classic tracks with "Mona," which has a nice singable melody, agreeably rough Dennis vocals, and an enjoyable '50s doo-wop sound, and "The Night Was So Young," a superlative, lovely vocal showcase on which Carl takes the lead; I love that repeated riff in the background as well. I enjoy other tracks as well, such as "Let Us Go On This Way," "Roller Skating Child," "Good Time" (a Sunflower reject), "Solar System," "I'll Bet He's Nice," "Let's Put Our Hearts Together" (a duet with wife Marilyn), "I Wanna Pick You Up" - the majority of the album, really, it's just that I can't shake the feeling that they're "guilty pleasures" that I like more than I should. The bottom line is that Brian Wilson still has a way with melodies, and though these aren't among the best he's ever written, there's some filler tracks, and there are times when I wish he worked with a collaborator to help make some of these lyrics less embarrassing, there's something about this album that keeps me coming back to it. It's not a major Beach Boys or Brian Wilson effort in any way, but there's an honesty to it, the songs are melodic and singable, and it was good to have Brian back in the fold. Unfortunately, none the group's subsequent albums would even scale the modest heights of The Beach Boys Love You.
Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys (Capitol ‘03) Rating: A+
Despite the fact that they were a nostalgia based “oldies act” stuck on auto-pilot for the last 25 or so years of their career (for me the legitimate Beach Boys died when Carl Wilson succumbed to cancer in 1998), The Beach Boys should be in any argument about “America’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.” Their studio work from All Summer Long through Holland warrants such accolades, and they were a fun live act as well; just listen to The Beach Boys In Concert for proof, or ask Bob Dylan who famously said “these guys are fucking good!” while watching them, thereby providing the group with some much needed hipster cred at the time. Although most of the Beach Boys albums from this period are worth hearing (as is the earlier Surfer Girl and the later The Beach Boys Love You), especially if you have the essential 2-for-1 reissues, the fact is that many of the Beach Boys full-length albums aren’t truly essential unless you’re a diehard fan. Given that all of their prime period albums had some essential songs, however, it stands to reason that this compilation, the most expansive single cd collection on the market, would be indispensable, and it is. From a historical standpoint, it’s certainly not as important as Endless Summer, but today it’s certainly the better buy. Given that I’m a little burnt out on the Beach Boys at this point - I've been listening to them constantly for the past couple of months while writing these Beach Boys reviews - I’m going to cheat a bit and quote some of John Bush’s review of this album for the All Music Guide: “With all but five tracks coming from their 1962-1969 peak (Scott interruption: commercially yes, artistically this could definitely be argued), and every one a Top 40 hit, Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys is also the best hits compilation…Though the songs don't appear in chronological order, the compilers improved the concept of a hits compilation by bunching the disc into mini-sets -- one of classic adolescence songs ("Be True to Your School," "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)," "In My Room"), one of surfing songs ("Surfin' Safari," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Surfer Girl"), one of frat-boy classics ("Dance, Dance, Dance," "Barbara Ann"), and another including selections from their masterpiece Pet Sounds ("God Only Knows," "Sloop John B.," "Wouldn't It Be Nice"). Nearly any compilation on an important artist can be argued, but it's the rare one that covers as many bases and leaves out so few classics as this one.” Well said, John, and again I’d argue that the best thing about this album is that it includes great songs that were originally on less than great albums, such as "Surfin' Safari," "Surfin' U.S.A.," “Fun Fun Fun,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Good Timin’.” I wish that more material had been included from their early ‘70s albums (but understand their exclusion due to their lack of hits), and that less material had been included from their later albums (sorry but fluke #1 U.S. hit or not “Kokomo” is pretty lame), but these are nitpicks, for this compilation contains most of the songs that made the group famous, and for which they are justifiably legendary. In fact, novices who want to get acquainted with the group should start with this compilation and Pet Sounds, and then proceed to purchasing the rest of their rich discography. Note: It really is a shame the acrimony that exists between some of the band members, with dueling Beach Boys touring units and various lawsuits making most of the headlines for the latter day version(s) of the band. Mike Love in particular is seen by many as the villain in the band's story; is there any other front man/major contributor to a legendary group who is so disliked by that band's fan base? Still, the band’s best music remains vital.
The Smile Sessions (Capitol ‘11) Rating: A+
I thought for sure that Sounds Of Summer was going to be the last Beach Boys album reviewed on this page. It was surprising enough when Brian Wilson (with major assistance from The Wondermints and Van Dyke Parks) finished Smile in 2004, but I still never thought that an officially released Beach Boys Smile would ever come to be. Tellingly, this album is titled The Smile Sessions for a reason, as Smile was never finished and this is merely a belated, at times still unfinished approximation of what that album would’ve sounded like. It’s also safe to say that this album wouldn’t exist without the 2004 version, which paved the way, and in truth that release made this one seem somewhat anti-climactic to me when I first heard about it. But then I actually heard it, and while I still feel that the 2004 Smile album (reviewed under Brian Wilson rather than The Beach Boys) is a terrific, thoroughly enjoyable piece of work (one that craps all over Smiley Smile), and that I actually prefer some versions of those songs (like “Heroes and Villains”), this is clearly the superior version simply because old Brian can’t compete with young Brian as a vocalist. Also, though The Wondermints did a wonderful job, they’re simply not The Beach Boys, who may very well be the greatest pure pop vocal group ever. Anyway, I don’t have much more to say about this album (it’s all been said and written about anyway) other than to say that for the most part it does live up to its lofty reputation as “The Beach Boys holy grail.” True, I prefer the more emotionally direct Pet Sounds and some of these aren’t my favorite versions of these songs (I'll always prefer Carl’s revamped version of “Surf’s Up,” for example), but the fact that Smile is no longer merely a myth is truly cause for celebration. There’s no other album quite like it, that’s for sure. Note: Hardcore Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans (are there any other kind?) can also purchase this album as part of a 5-CD box set.
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