Thursday, January 17, 2008

Short Album Review(s): Wild Honey and Sunflower by the Beach Boys

If you have any interest at all in the Beach Boys, you probably know the story: they were the most popular surf band in the country in the early 60's; Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul and became obsessed with creating an "album-length statement", resulting in the classic Pet Sounds; he then tried to create the Greatest Album Ever, called "SMiLE", which was famously aborted in a sea of drugs, opposition from every other Beach Boys member, and Brian's mental instability. After "Good Vibrations", the Beach Boys would never be commercially viable again, barring a few hits here and there and some compilations.

But hey! Don't let anybody convince you that the Beach Boys started sucking all the sudden after SMiLE didn't work out. Sure, they never made another Pet Sounds or Today!, and Brian Wilson's involvement became pretty flaky, but they still released some cool albums that flew under the radar in the late 60's/early 70's. I've been listening to a couple great ones - Wild Honey and Sunflower - ad-nauseum for the past couple weeks, and I'll be the first to say that they've got a lot of merit.

Wild Honey is a soulful, funky pop/R&B album, released without fanfare in late 1967. Considering it was released the same year SMiLE was planned for release, it's funny how completely different it was in comparison to what Brian Wilson's masterpiece would have been: light, laid-back, and fun rather than dark, psychedelic and epic. Not only that, but the album is only 23 minutes long, with not one song running longer than two-and-a-half minutes, which probably didn't give it much hip-cred during a time when albums were getting longer and longer. Anybody who was expecting the Beach Boys to become the Greatest Pop Visionaries Ever with SMiLE were, unsurprisingly, none too thrilled with Wild Honey.

But damn, this album is FUN! A little slight to be sure, but who cares? You've got your pop nuggets ("Aren't You Glad," the hits "Wild Honey" and "Darlin'"), straight out rockers ("How She Boogalooed It", "A Thing Or Two", "Here Comes The Night"), and even some surprisingly cool psychedelic numbers ("Let The Wind Blow" and "I'd Love Just Once To See You", which sounds a lot like the Turtles actually). Unfortunately, we don't get to hear too many classic Beach Boys harmonies, but once in a while they peek through in great tracks like "Country Air" and the fun a-capella "Mama Says" (which, funny enough, ended up on Brian Wilson's updated SMiLE in the middle of "Vega-Tables"). As a little bonus, they even throw in a Stevie Wonder cover ("I Was Made To Love Her"), which is something nobody would expect the Beach Boys to do in 1967, especially considering that Wonder hadn't even reached his 70's commercial peak. Bottom line, Wild Honey is unlike anything else the Beach Boys ever recorded, but it's a great album, the very definition of a pop confection and quite possibly the most purely fun album they'd ever release, freed from any of the pretensions and experimentations that have dated even some of the greatest albums from the era.

Sunflower, of course, is a different story. Released in 1970, when the Beach Boys's presence in American pop music had faded into the ether, the album was viewed by many critics (mostly in Britain) as a return to form and a true follow-up to Pet Sounds. While I'd agree with them - classic Beach Boys harmonies are all over this album - it's still pretty different from their 60's output. Not that this is a bad thing, of course; here the Beach Boys sound even more mature than ever before, and being out of the public spotlight, they were allowed to make a relaxed, laid-back album, something SMiLE never would have been. Not only that, but Brian Wilson wasn't even the main songwriter; some of the best songs are written by Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, and even Dennis Wilson, who'd never had a chance to write as many Beach Boys songs as he did here.

The result, in my opinion, is one of the Beach Boys's finest albums. Songs like "This Whole World", "Add Some Music To Your Day," "Forever" and "Our Sweet Love" are pure Beach Boys classics, with all the beauty of their mid-60's work combined with folk and psychedelic sensibilities they'd never explored before. Other songs, like Dennis Wilson's soulful opener "Slip On Through" and the self-referential "It's About Time" proved that the Beach Boys could appropriate modern influences without sounding out-of-touch. Unlike many of their other post-Pet Sounds releases, this album is rich, exquisitely produced and cohesive - in theory, it's the perfect comeback album. Of course, that was not to be; since it came out at a time when the Beach Boys were totally ignored, it sold negligibly and was quickly forgotten, and they never released another album quite as good for the rest of their career.

Yeah, Brian Wilson finally got some friends together and released SMiLE. It was pretty great, and in a perfect world, SMiLE would've been released at the height of the Summer of Love, given the same accolades as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, and maybe - just MAYBE - these post-SMiLE releases would have been more popular. If you're one of those people who thinks that the Beach Boys died after Pet Sounds, do yourself a favor and check these out - they're some of the finest lost American pop albums.


Anonymous said...

If I can't find these on the Case share, you gotta send me these albums. They sound fantastic! Have you heard "Surf's Up" yet? I hear that one is very much in the same vein.

Sean Rose said...

Yeah I have "Surf's Up", although I haven't listened to all of it yet. Some songs are... very unusual, but some are very good.

If you spot me on AIM, let me know and I'll send them to you. Since I'm not back at school yet my connection is pretty weak, but once I get back to school it should be fine.