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Monday, January 09, 2017

The Beach Boys – Sunflower

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 9
Overall Rating = 13


By the end of the '60s and start of the '70s, a lot of things seemed to be going wrong for the Beach Boys: their contract with Capitol was at its end yet the label owed them millions, their latest singles weren't especially successful, and while trying to record a new album for their new label, a couple of variations on it were rejected with the vague threat that they would lose their contract if the next proposal wasn't satisfactory. Fortunately, everything turned out alright, and the Beach Boys ended up making their Pet Sounds backlash album; in other words, it's the favourite Beach Boys for many of those who found Pet Sounds to be overrated.

There are three things in general that make this album great. First, there's the diversity amongst the tracks. They're all pop or rock songs, but the trimmings are varied, and while that could be worrisome given the fairly lengthy recording process and constant reshuffling of the album's contents, it gives it a colourful palette of music as if it were the Beach Boys' miniature White Album. Second, while it wasn't until 1976 that the band were (falsely) masquerading under the "Brian is Back!" banner, this is as great a return for him as a creative force as one could hope. He only has one solo credit, but you can definitely tell he put his special touch to nearly every co-write. Third, and most importantly, while this album can be called a democratically composed one like 20/20, Brian's more artistically inclined brothers play a larger role, so where Brian might not be a major force, Dennis (with a whopping four originals) and Carl (with only one Brian and Al Jardine co-write, but with a handful of key lead vocal parts to compensate) help him to keep the others' "sell out" instincts at bay.

In fact, even though Brian is significantly more prominent here than any album in a while – I'd even say more so than on Friends; he may have been the dominant force there, but he was a more relaxed, subdued version of himself – I often think of this as the group's Dennis album. His tunes take up a third of the album, leaving five others to fight over the remains in whichever way they choose, and the three of them that are highlights make up nearly half of the album's highlights, and are most certainly his best songs (aside from maybe the very best of his infamous Pacific Ocean Blue solo album).

While I'll get to those highlights in a moment, even the one non-highlight he supplies is a fine song. "Got to Know the Woman", somewhat of a throwback to '50s boogie, seems a bit out of place on a Beach Boys album, even one as diverse as this. But unlike on the heavy guitar-driven sex romp "All I Want to Do" on 20/20, the band seems quite comfortable with this one, including a bunch of more familiar elements to complement the boogie aspects: a bit of gospel (the harmonies singing the title line), a bit of soul (Dennis' coarse vocals and their playful improvisation in the coda), even some surf (the gliding bassline and Mike's "bow-bow-bow" bass vocals in the refrain, the transitional Keith Moon-ish drum bursts). My only complaint is, as great as the thumping honky-tonk piano is, the complementary guitar part is fairly weak. Something in between these guitars and those on "All I Want to Do" would have been ideal.

The two Dennis highlights that share a side of vinyl with the above track are also "rockers" in a sense, but far more notably Beach Boys-like, in that their pop sensibilities are on full display (no boogie-woogie throwbacks here). The opening "Slip On Through" is a quirky pop rocker that initially seems like an expansion of the opening seconds of the previous LP's opener: indeed, the track's rhythm is maintained by a grumbling synth-like percussive buzz that's far more prominent than the encoded drums of "Do It Again". The rest of the song relies on its own quirks, especially the way it exaggerates the soft-loud dichotomy created by verses/choruses. In the former, you have barely audible piano and guitars, Dennis incoherently mumbling a non-trivial melody and a sea of "oohs" and "aahs" in both the backing vocals and in the dispersed, inward-fading horns, and in the latter, the volume suddenly explodes, with the bass and drums pushing forward, the piano ringing hypnotically, the guitars lightly emphasizing the off-beat with a hint of a crunch, the backup vocals speedily and messily singing "babe-babe-believe-me" and most importantly, Dennis going all out on the lead, grumbling through his tale of whirlwind romance while throwing in the occasional strained falsetto. And just to remind you that this is indeed a Beach Boys' track (too early in the album to completely discard the group's traditions), the bridge is a delightful respite from the confusion with some slow, four-line piano balladeering, with the keys glistening, Dennis delivering a near-croon and the backup vocals just oozing romance all over, which manages to gradually build up back into a final refrain far more tactfully than the sudden change in the rest of the track. If the explicit sexuality of the previous year's "All I Want to Do" was too much for the average Beach Boys' fan, this track's subtle sexuality is definitely more ideal.

About the only thing on side closer "It's About Time" that's fully Beach Boys-like is the clever harmonies. Otherwise, it's a multi-part quasi-psychedelic pop rocker about a struggling artist not being taken seriously (in other words, the Wilson brothers between 1967-1973). Once again, Dennis throws in a whole bunch of ideas and melodies to make his song come to life, this time with the help of friend Bob Burchman and Al Jardine in regards to the composition, as well as brother Carl and Mike Love in regards to the vocal parts. Admittedly, Carl isn't at his most rocking like he was on the sexual innuendo-laced "Wild Honey" three years earlier, but his tense vocals in the energetic psychedelic verses – featuring organ-like guitars, groovy percussion, and thumping bass – and the quasi-funky pop-rock of the refrain – thanks to the squawking guitar riffage – deliver the song's message just right, and the moodier bridge with the aforementioned clever harmonies (essentially Al, Bruce and Brian soulfully moaning or falsetto-ing "oh no no" repeatedly) and a hypnotic lead bass vocal from Mike occasionally reminds me of one of David Crosby's pro-artistic independence rants throughout his career (although I guess the lyrics in the rest of the song fit in with Crosby's schtick as well). The conclusion is probably the most unexpected aspect of the song, as it starts with a brief, ecstatic guitar solo before taking the verse bassline and replacing it with a sharp, melodic guitar line that, coupled with the percussion, making it sound like a cool mid-'70s car chase theme. Can you say "ahead of time"? Just as accurate a title for the tune as the actual one.

It might be a bit predictable of me to select Dennis' final song on the album – as well as his best-known song of all – as not only his best song on the record, but one of the best songs on the record too, yet I – and many others – can't help but think it's a fantastic song. Hell, Brian himself felt the middle Wilson brother's composition was incredibly praiseworthy. It's definitely one of the most "harmonically beautiful" compositions I (and Brian) have heard, and while "rock 'n' roll prayer" seems a bit off as a description, I get the general idea of some kind of heavenly nature to the music, melody and vocals. From the slowly strummed acoustic chords playing an "A Day in the Life"-type progression to the sparse weeping slide-like guitar melody and complementary harpsichord and vibraphone twinkling, angelic imagery is definitely a given (for the more "visual" listeners, if that phrase makes any sense), but the vocals are definitely something else as well. The slight strain in Dennis' "my world revolves around you" plea is just perfect, with the right amount of desperation, heartbreak and hope to it, and the way the backup vocals swirl around it – whether "oohs" or "aahs" or "nah-nah-nahs" or bombastic echoes of the title – adds to the love-struck confusion in the "storyteller's" perspective. There's even a bit of sexual tension in the harmonically tricky bridge, with the way the "baby, baby, ooh my baby" falsettos bounce around between backup vocalists and the sigh of relief in Carl's diphthongised "ooh-ooh" vocal fill halfway through; for whatever reason, parts of the vocals make me picture the bridge as the Beach Boys' interpretation of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On", albeit three years too soon. Chalk up yet another point for unexpected innovation from post-relevance Beach Boys.

Probably unsurprisingly, tied with "Forever" is the preceding Brian composition... correction, a Wilson/Love composition, one unlike any other we've heard before or since. Indeed, "All I Wanna Do" (I know, confusing with the sexual rocker of the previous LP; note the incorrect grammar on this song) is a quasi-psychedelic atmospheric masterpiece which, like the two previously mentioned highlights, is even innovative; as some modern critics have noted, it presages elements of the 1990s' shoegaze genre. I can't make comments on that, since I'm no expert, but it suffices to say that the tune has one of the best and densest arrangements from Brian since "Good Vibrations", albeit in a very different way. It's almost like a song that sounds like one you could hear in your dreams, with encoded-like drumming that distantly echoes, bass that's only a step above Phil Spector's patented "felt, not heard" principle, and an intoxicating mix of either Mellotron or synthesized strings/flutes with pinging guitar lines, droning harmonies, and the cherry on top, Mike's sleepy quasi-chanted lead vocals seamlessly flowing between major and minor key punctuated by Brian's cathartic "My love is burning brightly/Like the moon and stars shine nightly" refrain.

If Dennis was significantly responsible for half of the album's highlights, Brian is mainly responsible for the other half. Actually, only one is a solo composition, but more often than not the collaborations that turn out to be highlights seem to be more influenced by Brian's style than their collaborator's style. For instance, the closing "Cool, Cool Water" is a bizarre update of a SMiLE outtake, the only such outtake to be developed into a new song when incorporated into a new setting (as opposed to "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence" on the previous album or "Surf's Up" on the next one), and thus has plenty more of that Brian spirit, even if that version of Brian no longer existed. The bridge is the outtake itself, a set of moody, echoey meandering vocal moans, falsettos and basslines that are meant to create the image of some dark abyss under the sea – or something to that effect – and while it probably made more sense in the context of the "Elements" suite on SMiLE it was planned for, the opening and closing verse/refrain (it's not really clear what traditional song category these parts would count as) introduce it and conclude it quite well thanks to goofy, bubbly Moog synth, Mike's hilariously hippie-esque praising of the wonders of water and the accompanying harmonies that segue in and out of the vocals-as-instruments bridge.

While not a major highlight, the Brian, Carl and Al co-write "Our Sweet Love" could count as a minor one, as it does bring us back a bit to a Pet Sounds-like sound; with Carl taking the lead, and the backing vocals going from soothing (the ones singing the title line) to playful (the ones singing doo-wop-esque "doo-doo-doos" and the like) in a flash, this soft ode to romance can conjure up memories of his Pet Sounds vocal spot "God Only Knows" (albeit somewhat less cathartic), and while the instrumentation is a bit more streamlined than that of Brian's 1966 masterpiece, the descending piano chords, waves of Mellotron and live strings and plucky bass all manage to be reminiscent of his previous sonic cocktails. I once disliked the album's single, "Add Some Music to Your Day", because it felt too much to be a Mike Love-nostalgia trip better resembling his idea of the balladeering the Beach Boys should concoct, but while the instrumentation leaves a lot to be desired (there's nothing especially memorable in this department), I can't help but think the excellently delivered traded vocals was mostly Brian's work: that whole chain of lines from Carl-delivered "Music when you're alone/Is like a companion/For your lonely soul" through the end of the final verse line delivered by Bruce's suitably lighter, weaker voice ("They'll play it on your wedding day/There must be 'bout a million ways/To add some music to your day") makes the whole song for me.

While the two remaining major Brian-co-penned highlights aren't stereotypically Beach Boys-like, they do show melodic and/or arrangement skills not unlike the group's best music in the past. "This Whole World" is unique from him as an optimistic pop song. In the vocal department, the optimism and pop sensibility is due to the energetic, cathartic lead vocals tackling the clever melody as well as the doo-wop-meets-yogic-chant backup vocals and the way they're faded in and out of the song as need be. In the musical department, it's thanks to the chugging power-pop-lite guitars, the twinkling glockenspiel (or was it vibraphone? The credits only mention the latter...) and the initial bombastic drum fill. Finally, the lyrics display an admiration of universal love that normally better suits the likes of the Beatles – think "All You Need Is Love" – but that Brian manages to connect quite nicely with his usual theme of teenage/young adult love and confusion. Of course, the success of the song is in the way he adds all of these elements together, but I suppose that's a given; I wouldn't praise each element to then say they don't work as a whole.

There was a time where I would have included the album's final major highlight "Deirdre" up there with "All I Wanna Do" and "Forever" as the LP's best song, but perhaps it's a bit too lightweight for that accolade. Regardless, this Wilson/Johnston collaboration is a delightful slice of McCartney-esque pop that should put a skip in your step just as easily as "Good Day Sunshine" did four years earlier, and with a slightly less trivial melody, too! It actually came as a surprise to me that the music and possibly the melody are Johnston's – no one really expects that of him – but the combination of flowery harmonies, a bouncy rhythm track of guitars, vibraphone, melodic bass and drums, and the twirling brass and flute accompaniment has that perfect springtime/early summertime music vibe, so regardless of who wrote it, I'll give it praise for being the ideal brand of lightweight pop. And Johnston's lead vocal part is ideal too. Who else can you picture singing about trying to persuade a redheaded girl named Deirdre to look on the brighter side of things than Bruce and his twee little voice?

Oddly enough, the two weakest tracks also involve Bruce, one as its composer and one as its lead vocalist. The latter case, Brian/Al collaboration "At My Window", isn't entirely his fault. It's a cute song about a bird landing on a windowsill deserving of admiration, and his twee vocals are fine for this kind of song too, especially with acoustic arpeggios, soft Mellotron-like flute parts, accordion and bird sound effects accompanying it, but the said sound effects get old quick, the spoken French verse is really cheesy (whose bad French is this anyways?) and the melody is probably the weakest of an album that has received nothing but praise on that matter. As for his own composition "Tears in the Morning", it's a bit too "French chanson" for my tastes; the lyrics seem a bit too bombastic for someone whose voice sounds so frail – although thank goodness he didn't have a David Coverdale-like bellow instead; that would have been much more disastrous – and the accordion/vibraphone/classical guitar/harmony vocal mixture isn't quite as effective as it would like to be. That being said, at least its melody is a bit cleverer than that of "At My Window". It's not a complete rip-off of a French tune (at least, I don't think so), and sounds like an old Disney tune without being overbearing. And the echoey piano part repeating said vocal melody in the coda only proves that.

Despite these relative low points (which to be fair I'd take any day over the stupid joke non-songs on their mid-'60s LPs), I can say without question that this is one of the group's best albums. Thanks to the seven major highlights, it's guaranteed a high grade regardless, but since even the weaker material is, for the most part, palatable, a 13/15 – whether weaker or stronger of that on Today!, I'm not quite sure – should be just about right. Besides, as much as I enjoy the second and fourth LP of the decade from the Boys, neither of them manages to be as relatively consistent with a more diverse – as diverse as the Beach Boys can get, anyway – set of tunes. So, while I may not recommend this for someone who wants more of Pet Sounds, "Heroes and Villains" or "Good Vibrations", anyone who enjoys the Beach Boys for their pop sensibilities but who likes a bit more stylistic variety in their music should definitely dig this one up. Just don't let it become one of those "so underrated we accidentally overrated it" albums that the anti-Pet Sounds folk are trying to turn it into.

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