The Beach Boys – L.A. (Light Album)

L.A. (Light Album)

The Beach BoysL.A. (Light Album) Caribou JZ 35752 (1979)

A small improvement over M.I.U. Album.  The best stuff here, like “Good Timin’,” is actually not bad at all, but there is a very real danger that the Boys are going to soft rock you to sleep listening to this one.  Plus, there are some serious duds here that can only induce cringes, like “Shortenin’ Bread” and the stab at disco “Here Comes the Night.”

The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

Surf's Up

The Beach BoysSurf’s Up Brother RS 6453 (1971)

Surf’s Up is an odd little album but one containing some amazing Brian Wilson songs. A dark melancholy pervades the disc. “Surf’s Up,” with lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, is a holdover from the Smile period. It is a thrown together mishmash, like the whole album, but it has the spark of incorruptible genius hovering about its ordinary and vital emotions. “Surf’s Up” is a lost but confident stroll through a dream for good in the world. Parks’ surrealist lyrics (like “Laughs come hard/ in Auld Lang Syne” and “Surf’s Up/ umm-mmm umm-mmm umm-mmm/ aboard a tidal wave/ come about hard and join/ the young and often spring you gave”) help make Brian’s “Surf’s Up” about the best song The Beach Boys ever did. “’Til I Die” is another classic with a slightly more uncertain feeling. Actually, just the Brian Wilson songs that close the album make Surf’s Up essential for fans. Despite one dud rocker song and some questionable keyboard effects, the mellow satisfied quality pervading the album serves as a nice lead-in to the album’s powerful finish. It takes some dedication to appreciate what this album is, but with sometimes-strong contributions from various band members (e.g., “Long Promised Road”) it is worth the effort to find Surf’s Up and go beyond the group’s Sixties material.

The Beach Boys – Smiley Smile

Smiley Smile

The Beach BoysSmiley Smile Brother Records ST 9001 (1967)

This was the album that wasn’t SMiLE. After Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson set out to create the greatest album ever. His comic masterpiece was to be SMiLE. For an enormous list of reasons, that project was scrapped before it could be finished. Brian Wilson ended SMiLE (resurrecting it in 2011 with The SMiLE Sessions). But not before a select few had heard some outtakes and confirmed the project’s great promise.

The actual follow-up to Pet Sounds was Smiley Smile. Some of the material intended for SMiLE made its way to Smiley Smile by way of new recordings. Where SMiLE was to find humor in all existence, Smiley Smile made a concerted effort to under-produce the material from SMiLE to make it bleak and impenetrable. The constant tension makes it is obvious how the songs consciously departed from their origins.

This was the Beach Boys at their most experimental. Every song risks being unpopular. “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)” is quite amazing as a composition though, despite its references to a cartoon, it certainly would scare most small children. “Heroes and Villains” comes pieced together out of a number of disparate ideas (it was to be the centerpiece of SMiLE at 11 minutes or so). It still is one of the disc’s great achievements in recalling a failure to break the ties of good and evil.

“Good Vibrations” appears intact. It was previously released as a single, and simply found its way onto the next album. It is a classic. Physical vibrations (or drugs) give rise to sensation in the mind. The song addresses with unparalleled detail both the physical and mental as distinct but inseparable elements.

Paul McCartney even provides one of the most bizarre cameos you’ll ever encounter. “Vegetables” features a percussion track of McCartney and Brian Wilson chomping on celery. The song begins as a sparse, almost entirely vocal, track, then builds into a layered production that ends before it goes far. And don’t miss “Wonderful”!

Smiley Smile is both a triumphant vision and that vision’s own demise. Brian Wilson seemed a bit of a madman making it. It is the paradox at the heart of his efforts that make this so important. In a perverse way, people should thank Brian Wilson for destroying SMiLE. In destroying those recordings he established a continuing desire for everyone else to try themselves.

[For no reason, I’m providing an explanation of this review. I tried to make an obvious, but unstated, link between Brian Wilson and Antonin Artaud. The two were very similar, and this album in particular shows how Brian Wilson operated in the same way as Artaud. I did not mention all the songs on the album, initially to save space.  But “She’s Goin’ Bald” is a daring use of cut-and-paste styles. I like it. The Beach Boys were mature artists who could now see their childhood behind them. Plus the Phil Spector wall of sound approach is largely gone, replaced with Brian Wilson’s own distinctive artistic approach that is much more benevolent. “Little Pad” is a very important song to understanding Smiley Smile, but I did not want to give everything away. But if you analogize Hawaii to paradise, then the situation is illuminated. “With Me Tonight” is as uncompromising a love song as you may ever hear.  “Gettin’ Hungry” makes me think of Stockhausen, but I don’t know why.]

The Beach Boys – M.I.U. Album

M.I.U. Album

The Beach BoysM.I.U. Album Brother Records MSK 2268 (1978)

M.I.U. Album is not quite as bad as its reputation suggests.  That isn’t to say it’s a particularly good record.  The first two songs and even “Pitter Patter” have some good energy, but this is slight at best, and typically quite nondescript.  The band sounds rather disinterested and unmotivated most of the time.  The vocals can be downright lazy.  There is nothing memorable here — except maybe the so-weird-it’s-funny “Hey Little Tomboy”.  But slight or not some of the songs are good fun, and the production is serviceable.  This doesn’t induce quite as many cringes as say, The Beach Boys seven years later.  Make no mistake, though, there definitely are still cringe-worthy moments here, particularly at the end (“My Diane,” “Match Point of Our Love,” “Winds of Change”).  Truthfully, if the Boys had taken the best material from this album and their next one L.A. (Light Album) and made just one album from it, they would have had something decent, or at least better than either one individually.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys Caribou FZ 39946 (1985)

Where to begin?  For better or worse, but usually for worse, this sounds like a mainstream lite pop record from the mid-1980s, heavy on synths and drum machines.  The problem is that it sounds extremely dated now, and much of the material is exceptionally poor.  The first two songs aren’t bad really, with “Getcha Back” echoing the group’s old sound recast with 80s textures and “It’s Gettin’ Late” being a convincing take on contemporary — if average — pop.  From there, it’s just varying degrees of embarrassment, including a song aping Stevie Wonder‘s then-current sound.

The Beach Boys – Wild Honey

Wild Honey

The Beach BoysWild Honey Capitol ST-2859 (1967)

Wild Honey began a new phase for the Beach Boys. They were back to playing instruments in the studio and sounding more like a live band than a Brian Wilson experiment. Vocal harmonies were surprisingly at a minimum. Coming hot on the heels of Smiley Smile, Wild Honey further confounded fans expecting an unchanging band. The soulful turn proved somewhat influential. It also strengthens the spontaneity in the Beach Boys’ music.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys in Concert

The Beach Boys In Concert

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys in Concert Brother Records 2RS 6484 (1973)

This one is a hidden gem of the Beach Boys’ catalog.  Probably not the best entry point for the uninitiated, despite the good song selection.  But this album is ripe for fans with at least a general familiarity with the Beach Boys’ previous recordings.  It’s one of the rare opportunities to hear a lot of the group’s best songs performed live.  And by best songs, I mean this set leans heavily on Brian Wilson penned numbers rather than the light pop and early 60s (s)hit parade that dominated their later years of touring and (*cringe*) recording.  That is somewhat surprising given that Brian was on his way out of active involvement in the group at this point (apart from the fact that he hadn’t toured with them in years).  Plus, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin were in the band here, and they were valuable members whose superb musicianship shouldn’t be overlooked.  They help make the renditions here of “Marcella” and “Leaving This Town” the definitive ones.  This might be my favorite of The Beach Boys’ 1970s albums.

The Beach Boys – Beach Boys’ Party!

Beach Boys' Party!

The Beach BoysBeach Boys’ Party! Capitol MAS-2398 (1965)

A better album than it usually gets credit for.  Not truly a “live” album, it was certainly a step up from their only real live album of the 1960s, Beach Boys Concert.  The whole thing seems quite influenced by the urban folk movement still underway.  This is the only Beach Boys album that could draw comparisons to Peter, Paul & Mary and the like.  But this is more carefree and juvenile than any folk albums proper of the day.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys Today!

The Beach Boys Today!

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys Today! Capitol T-2269 (1965)

Brian Wilson was a disturbed guy too sensitive for the smallest amounts of social normalcy. This led him down the erratic and grand path that plays out across the Beach Boys’ many albums. Those wanderings really began with The Beach Boys Today! The result is the complete range of wonder and horror pared down to universal experience lying within not just Mr. Wilson but the rest of us too.

There are three versions of the Beach Boys. Beginning with their scrappy little surf doo-wop number “Surfin’,” they were the extension of a teenage garage band, and they made great songs that were catchy for all the usual reasons. The band, complete with Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl, were in it together. Things just came easily. Next came a split. With The Beach Boys Today!, Brian Wilson stopped performing live and focused solely on recording. Studio musicians came in to play on the records. This began the Pet Sounds era, with Brian Wilson’s avant-pop genius at its peak. Then Finally, there was the lessening of Brian Wilson’s input and the Beach Boys returned to a more commercial and “live” approach to their records. Maybe their oldies circuit geezer period makes a fourth, but the story is better without that part.

The songs of The Beach Boys Today! make pleasant companions. There are ones with a strong beat leaning more towards the surfin’/cars/girls attitude of the teenage Beach Boys. Then side two debuts the orchestrated pop that became Brian Wilson’s signature. “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” is the kind of song ideal for a Wes Anderson film. “Please Let Me Wonder” takes the aching bewilderment of the newly reasserted Beach Boys to the precise affectation of wizened masters. And the opening cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” has Beach Boys harmony in one of its most dynamic settings. Brian Wilson has timpani rolls bouncing the beat. Dennis Wilson sings one of the refrains with a muffled, “squ-kiss me baby.” The indecisive fronting belies the song’s dead-on portrayal of longing and dreaming.

“Help Me Ronda” is the original album version and not the hit “Help Me Rhonda.” This original is far denser and more intricate than the later incarnation issued as a single. The LP version does say something about what The Beach Boys Today! stands for. Though perhaps taking only a small step, this album goes beyond a mere collection of songs.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds

The Beach BoysPet Sounds Capitol T 2458 (1966)

This is the album against which every other pop album is judged. A work of studio genius put together by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher and The Beach Boys, the reputation of Pet Sounds needs no repetition. It raised the bar as to what an album of songs could be as a unified work. Pet Sounds is the essential coming-of-age masterpiece.

Innocent and charm is what makes The Beach Boys so widely appealing. Tony Asher’s lyrics are full of hope in the way they present the doubt of confidence and the confidence of doubt. Often songs describe the highs and lows of a adolescent love. What sets Pet Sounds apart is the complete, though imperceptible, avoidance of escapism (inevitably encountered in the institutionalized American education system). At some point everyone can appreciate the loving, natural world this music represents. Ditching school (or work) to surf, drag race, or fill-in-the-blank is universally appealing as kids stuff goes, but eventually you reach a place like “Caroline No.”

While The Beach Boys went through many turbulent comebacks and personal conflicts, Pet Sounds survives as a perfect fragment of their potential. The first albums I ever bought were two discount Beach Boys compilation tapes I got at a bookstore. Along with a hip-hop album I copied from a friend, this was the extent of the music I listened to for months, well years really. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV and for some reason I didn’t listen to the radio ever—probably because no one else at home did. Right around junior-high-time I decided I was too cool for The Beach Boys. I shoved the tapes into the back of a closet and out of mind. Only years later as a college DJ did I give them another chance. They were considered one of the all-time great groups after all; I had to listen. It was a slow process but I came to appreciate all that The Beach Boys represent. They functioned as a metaphor for an innocent childhood I could look back on. Rediscovering The Beach Boys had a deep meaning for me. They don’t paint the picture of a perfect world, but one with a full range of emotions and experiences. “That’s Not Me” is just one of my favorite songs. Brain Wilson begins with long, smooth organ chords then places the vocals in the same groove, broken only by the incessant taps of a tambourine.

Brian Wilson was the 1960s’ rebel without a cause. The Beach Boys may not arrive anywhere particular, but all that matters is that they flail around for a while. The point is Pet Sounds is a coming-of-age story told while it was happening. Completely authentic.