The Beach Boys

Sunflower / Surf's Up, Carl & the Passions: "So Tough" / Holland, The Beach Boys in Concert, 15 Big Ones / Love You, M.I.U. Album / L.A. (Light Album), and Keepin' the Summer Alive / The Beach Boys (Brother / Capitol)

Record Reviews

The Beach Boys

Sunflower/Surf's Up (Brother/Capitol)

The Beach Boys

Carl & the Passions: "So Tough"/Holland (Brother/Capitol)

The Beach Boys

Live in Concert (Brother/Capitol)

The Beach Boys

15 Big Ones/Love You (Brother/Capitol)

The Beach Boys

M.I.U. Album/L.A. (Light Album) (Brother/Capitol)

The Beach Boys

Keepin' the Summer Alive/The Beach Boys (Brother/Capitol)

Being a die-hard, for-better-or-worse Beach Boys fan requires both a sadist's sense of humor and a messianic capacity for forgiveness. No other major rock & roll act's output contrasts majesty with tripe so sharply. How do you go from creating transcendent works that hold their own with the Beatles to playing on a revolving stage in the middle of a baseball doubleheader? It's damned frustrating, but the Boys' long trail of artistic blunders, commercial miscalculations, and personal traumas is also quite a wild ride. Accordingly, Capitol's recent reissue of the band's lesser-known Seventies and Eighties work reveals a glorious mishmash of priceless baubles and worthless coprolites. We begin with 1970's Sunflower, the first Warner Bros./Reprise release on the band's own Brother Records imprint. In a parallel universe, Sunflower's gentle pastiche of radiant vocal harmonies, florid pop hooks, and strong songwriting from each and every Beach Boy (especially Dennis Wilson) recaptured the commercial momentum lost in the collapse of the Smile sessions. Back in the real world, the LP stiffed. Perhaps the turbulent political timbre of the time quashed the public's taste for sweet sentiments like Brian Wilson's "Add Some Music to Your Day," Bruce Johnston's lilting "Tears in the Morning," and Dennis Wilson's revealingly tender "Forever." If Pet Sounds is primarily Brian Wilson's masterpiece, Sunflower retrospectively stands out as the Beach Boys' strongest collective work. Surf's Up, from 1971, is also replete with lost gems, including the weightless atmospherics of "Feel Flows," the hauntingly beautiful "'Til I Die," and the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks-penned title track, which was originally recorded for Smile. Unfortunately, it also includes Mike Love's "Student Demonstration Time," an insipid acid-rock rewrite of Leiber/Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block No. 9." Carl & the Passions contains the Carl Wilson standout "Marcella," but the album's thinly veiled aspirations toward the Seventies SoCal rock vibe of Crosby, Stills, & Nash is a bit off-putting. A more successful reconciliation of the Beach Boys past and present, circa 1973, is Holland. Brian Wilson has stated that Holland is one of his favorite Beach Boys albums, and tracks like "Sail On, Sailor" (featuring a rich, soulful lead vocal from transient member Blondie Chaplin), and Carl Wilson's powerful "The Trader" confirm such sentiments. The reissue of Holland also contains "Mt. Vernon & Fairway," Brian's semi-autobiographical "fairy tale," which originally came with the album as a bonus EP. Although the narrative of this childish fable-album is choppy and unresolved, its spacey musical backdrop and overreaching ambition make it quaintly charming. The Beach Boys in Concert, also from '73, captures the band shortly before the chart-topping greatest hits album Endless Summer steered them more toward milking the oldies market for all it was worth. As a result, classics like "Sloop John B" and "Help Me, Rhonda" mingle freely with contemporary numbers like "Leaving This Town" and a rockin' version of "Marcella" that trumps the studio original. When the Boys returned to the studio to record 1976's 15 Big Ones, the "Brian Is Back" marketing hype was in full swing. While the album contains a few compelling tunes such as "It's O.K." and "Had to Phone Ya," its reliance on oldies can be a bit grating. The ultra-slight cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock & Roll Music" (a No. 5 hit in its day) doesn't hold up at all. Meanwhile, a cover of the slow-dance ballad "Talk to Me" sounds fine until the band breaks into the chorus of Freddie Cannon's upbeat "Tallahassee Lassie" right in the middle for no good reason whatsoever. Brian dominates 1977's Love You, a stripped-down, synth-heavy couch session heavy on elementary, often ridiculous lyrics (e.g., "Who's the man that we admire? Johnny Carson is a real live wire"). Some fans think Love You is the Beach Boys' nadir, while others hail it as a forward-looking work of outsider art. "Johnny Carson" may be indefensible beyond the realm of retro-kitsch, but "Let Us Go on This Way," "The Night Was So Young," and "Airplane" bask in the roller coaster ride of romantic longing with a perfect mix of young-boy dreams and wounded ego. Love You stands today as the Beach Boys' last creative effort not firmly mired in the band's past, unless you count the ham-fisted sexism of "Hey Little Tomboy" on the M.I.U. Album or the horrific 11-minute disco remake of "Here Comes the Night" on L.A. (Light Album). Keepin' the Summer Alive, from 1980, at least manages to be inoffensive with the catchy title track and "Goin' On," but 1985's The Beach Boys gets caught up in producer Steve Levine's haze of slick Eighties cheese, a fate that renders the album as unappetizing as Refrigerator Perry donning parachute pants. In 1988, just when everyone was ready to sign the Beach Boys' death warrant, the box office boffo of Tom Cruise's Cocktail propelled their throwaway single "Kokomo" to No. 1. Even today, with both Carl and Dennis Wilson dead and Brian embarked on a solo career, Mike Love and Al Jardine continue to crisscross the globe with competing versions of the Beach Boys. Their schizophrenic discography's tendency to pockmark all-American beauty with several unsightly warts only strengthens this institution's apparent destiny to outlast everything but the cockroaches.

(Sunflower/Surf's Up) ****

Record Reviews

(Carl & the Passions/Holland) ***.5

(The Beach Boys in Concert) ***

(15 Big Ones/Love You) ***

(M.I.U. Album/L.A.) (no stars)

(Keepin' the Summer Alive/The Beach Boys) *.5

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