Sunday, May 31, 2009
I have always had an affinity for once-popular rock musicians that are, for whatever reason, forced out of the public's eye and yet continue to release music on a regular basis despite the fact that nobody is really listening. This often leads said musicians to either boldly experiment with their music, freed from the constraints of public expectations, or to blatantly attempt to recapture said public by writing fresh new "hit" singles that ape the sound that once made them so popular. Either way, it often makes for unusually exciting music, allowing us to see a side of a popular rock band that we would never see otherwise. And in my estimation, no other rock group had a more interesting down-and-out phase than the Beach Boys; after Brian Wilson's mental collapse during the aborted SMiLE sessions in 1967, the rest of the band were left without the input of their chief (read: only) songwriter and resident genius, and as such were forced to take hold of the reigns themselves in order to keep the band alive. And it was in this state that they somehow lasted for six years - from '67 to '73 - managing to put out an album every year, no matter the quality. This led to some confusing, warped, and sometimes frightening records (Friends and Surf's Up, anyone?), but it also led to some brilliant lost gems. Most Beach Boys aficionados cherish these albums for the SMiLE remnants that occasionally pop up for a track or two ("Cabinessence" and "Surf's Up", most notably), but the fact remains that the other members of the band, while not Brian Wilson-level wunderkinds, were pretty solid songwriters by any other standard. During this six year period, they led the Beach Boys through their last "progressive" era before they became a cornball nostalgia act in the mid-70s fronted by Mike Love.
I've reviewed a couple of these so-called "lost" Beach Boys albums before - 1967's Wild Honey and 1970's Sunflower. The thing about those two records is, despite their nigh-anonymous status, they are critically revered. The same can't be said for the two records I will review here: 1972's Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" and 1973's Holland. These two records represent possibly the most unusual chapter in the Beach Boys' career, after longtime collaborator Bruce Johnston left the band and young newcomers Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar were brought in as an attempt to "modernize" their sound. These changes allowed the band to abandon the quirky pop-rock showtuney stuff Johnston had been pushing and develop into a serious-minded hard-working rock band often compared to Steely Dan. This, obviously, is a far cry from the heavenly Pet Sounds-era vocal group so many people associate the Beach Boys with; and as such, these records were not only commercially ignored but critically maligned, a trend that continues today. Sure, parts of Holland get some recognition, but that's about it; most just couldn't accept that the Beach Boys were attempting something genuinely different.
I can see the problems with these records. They're obvious. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, despite their obvious talents, don't quite gel with what the Beach Boys are going for and contribute a few songs that aren't particularly exciting (and, for whatever reason, are the longest tracks on both albums). And there are some moments of embarrassment, mostly coming from Mike Love and Al Jardine - including a bizarre stab at Maharishi-inspired gospel on Carl and the Passions ("He Came Down") and a silly spoken-word environmental message on Holland ("The Beaks Of Eagles"). But honestly, it isn't hard to look beyond these flaws; I mean, they're no worse than "Student Demonstration Time" on Surf's Up or "Got To Know The Woman" on Sunflower, two more celebrated post-SMiLE releases. When you're dealing with the Beach Boys in the early 70's, you've gotta prepare to dig through a little crap. Thankfully, you won't have to dig too deeply here to find to the good stuff.
And hey, there's a lot of good stuff on these two records! Let's talk about it. Passions's opening track, "You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone," is one of the Beach Boys' most unusual, fractured pop songs, featuring an unsettling piano lick, quavery Carl vocal, and cutesy country-rock bridge. Then there's "Marcella," a reworking of a 60s-era Brian Wilson demo that has to be one of the Beach Boys' smoothest, grooviest pop-rock hits of the 70s. Then there's "All This Is That," an ethereal sort of hymn that features the Beach Boys' classic harmonies in full-swing, easily more spiritually successful than the awkward gospel "He Come Down." Continuing on Holland, we open with the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks track "Sail On, Sailor," possibly the best track on each of these records and one of the Beach Boys' finest songs, period. While it does have an atypical sound in context - Blondie Chaplin sings lead, with harmonies relegated to background status - the song is just so good, and Chaplin's vocals so soulful, that you won't care. Then you've got three of the most unusual tracks on any Beach Boys record: Mike Love and Al Jardine's "California Saga," a three-part song cycle that is easily the most ambitious project these two would ever attempt. While the aforementioned "Beaks of Eagles" is a pretty awkward spoken-word thing, "Big Sur" is a pleasant country-tinged ode to the beach and "California" is a gorgeous piece of nostalgia. I can't imagine Mike Love writing a better song. Carl's "The Trader" and Brian's "Funky Pretty" also deserve mention - they're nothing shocking, but they're solid pop-rock songs.
But then, of course, there's one other outstanding reason to dig into these two records - Dennis Wilson. Always the Beach Boys' ace-in-the-hole they never knew they had, Dennis only has two songs apiece on each record, and for whatever reason he only sings his own songs on Carl And The Passions, but man - what songs. What a talent. Besides Brian, Dennis clearly has the most distinct, individual personality out of any of his bandmates; the two songs he sings on Passions - "Make It Good" and "Cuddle Up" - are tucked away near the second side, and they are two of the prettiest on the album, both lushly-produced piano-ballads sung with Dennis's rough, broken, yet utterly beautiful voice. None of the other Beach Boys, not even Brian, could sing these songs with the same heartbroken effect; they're completely Dennis's. While their placement on the album is a little jarring - hearing these full-blown productions after the laid-back "Hold On Dear Brother" doesn't quite feel right - they stand on their own as true gems. And while Dennis doesn't sing either of his two songs on Holland - the bizarre "Steamboat" and the lovely "Only With You," both sung by Carl - they both remain standout tracks. Just hearing Dennis's development as a songwriter is worth the price of admission here, and it's no wonder that the guy would go on to produce a wonderful solo album (not to mention that he recorded his own version of "Only With You" later on - which you should listen to right now).
So yes. These are two very unique, utterly listenable Beach Boys records that by all means you should own if you're a fan. Deciding which one is superior really depends on personal taste - Holland if you love classic Beach Boys, Passions if you love Dennis Wilson. Either way, I never thought I would ever bother to listen to either of these records, ever. Lousy reviews drove me away. Then I picked them up on vinyl as a curiosity, and I've been playing them more than any other record I own. It's not just that the bad tracks are so interesting, it's that the good tracks are so, so good. And the good easily outweighs the bad here. These records are much more consistent than people make them out to be. Many will tell you that after Surf's Up, they lost it. That's not what I'm hearing. If either of these were released today by anonymous indie-rock groups, they would be hailed as classics.
Seriously, The Beach Boys would never sound this unusual or progressive ever again. I've heard that the addition of Chaplin and Fataar actually made them a great live band, culminating in the well-received Beach Boys In Concert LP which I sadly haven't heard. But that would be it. Immediately after Holland, the Endless Summer compilation would shoot them back into nostalgia-driven stardom, and their next album 15 Big Ones would destroy their critical reputation. So enjoy these smooth grooves while you can! You will hear nothing else like them. I assure you.
P.S.: Here's a fun promo video of "You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone," which reminds me of something I forgot to mention in the review - that is, the fact that the Beach Boys had become horrifying bearded mountain men in the early 70s. Just so, so, so much beard. You've been warned.
P.S.S.: But seriously, why do people hate Carl And The Passions so much? Amazon.com's review says something along the lines of "THANK GOD IT'S ONLY EIGHT TRACKS." I mean, maybe I shouldn't look to Amazon.com for prime music criticism, but really. How could anybody hate a record that ends with "Make It Good," "All This Is That," and "Cuddle Up"? Come on. Those songs are so pretty. Come ONNN.