Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys (1985)
Dennis Wilson's tragic death by drowning in 1983 was probably the one event that pulled the Beach Boys together and kept Keepin' the Summer Alive from being their final studio effort. The most fashion-conscious of their many comeback attempts, this last album for Caribou finds Carl Wilson back in the fold and the band recording for the first time without all three Wilson brothers participating in some form or another. Alas, the CBS Records-imposed producer Steve Levine is anything but a good match for them; the same goes for the weird commitment to technology, which leads to the group hardly playing a note on the album (most of the instruments are synthesized) and even their Fairlight-enhanced vocals are sometimes digitized and artificial. They sound excellent at times, but how much of it is even really them?
It should perhaps be a humiliation that the Beach Boys, a band encompassing one of the single greatest composers of pop music, are by this point accepting songs from outside sources, then-"hot" and luminary both (Boy George and Stevie Wonder), and despite that same composer's unparalleled production skills, that they are also being forced to use an outside producer. The music is the final word, however, and it doesn't suffer from this irrevocably, at least not if you have a tolerance for a sound derived from the Miami Vice theme and the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. Instead of sounding tired and without direction, the band seems to at least try to pull themselves together to put in serious effort following Dennis' loss, and even if it took some kind of force to get them in the studio, the fact that they are even attempting to rejuvenate themselves in a very contemporary fashion (as opposed to the nostalgic leanings of 15 Big Ones or Keepin' the Summer Alive) is worth cautious optimism.
To be honest, though, the album works due to one man and one man alone, and it's neither Levine (he syrups up what could have been a decent Bruce Johnston cut, "She Believes in Love Again") or Brian. It certainly isn't Mike Love, who kindly disappears for most of the record. Instead, Carl Wilson is the absolute hero of this album, and his compositions and vocal contributions don't just work, they simmer. With more from Carl this could have been an astounding record. Instead it is a hit-and-miss record with some astounding moments. The perverse fact that one of those moments comes from Boy George somehow makes it more endearing. Carl sings the rejected (?) Culture Club number "Passing Friend" and infuses its banal synthpop arrangement and dime-store girl group lyrics with a sense of passion that turns it into not only a genuine curio but a remarkable recording. It may be one of the most bizarre juxtapositions in pop history, and it works. So does Stevie Wonder's "I Do Love You," for the opposite reason. Carl sounds so much like Stevie it's chilling, and one tends to wonder why on earth Wonder didn't release this lovely composition himself (have you heard his '80s albums!?), but more power to him because this is a heavenly moment from Mr. Wilson.
Even from a modern standpoint, although Levine's production techniques have dated, the record rarely slips into comfortable MOR mode. "Maybe I Don't Know," for example, could probably be lite-jazz if handled in a certain way, but with the emphasis on its shuffle rhythm and the addition of a wonderful screaming guitar line, and of course Carl's voice, it is special, and on this and several other inclusions it's comforting to hear the Beach Boys grasping for a modern audience without resorting to nostalgia, those pangs of youthful recognition. Unfortunately, Brian's "California Calling," with Ringo Starr on drums, attempts such a connection and turns into the album's most blatantly flaccid moment. Brian's other songs are no better -- "I'm So Lonely," "It's Just a Matter of Time," and the terrible "Crack at Your Love" have their defenders, but to these ears he is only a liability on this outing. I doubt the aid of Eugene Landy, supposed "co-composer," helped much in these cases. The fact that four Brian Wilson songs pale in comparison to Mike Love's obvious throwback "Getcha Back" is a depressing comment both on Wilson and on the state of the band itself, but it may be important to point out here that the main reason "Getcha Back" clicks at all is a soaring falsetto line from Brian.
On the other hand, Carl seems to be growing as a composer with every passing year. "It's Gettin' Late" uses Levine's mid-1980s Loverboy stylings to its advantage so that Carl turns out a bleeding R&B number, infected with the Beach Boys' loveliest harmonies in years, that blends rather cogently with contemporary tastes even three decades after the fact. It's music with an obvious commercial motivation, shepherded heavy-handedly by Levine, but it still demonstrates Carl's underappreciated acumen with instantly appealing hooks and modern sounds. Wisely, Levine left "Where I Belong," one of Carl's most beautiful songs, relatively bare. In utterly flawless form, he belts out what must be one of the Beach Boys' most perfect love songs, never resorting to the obvious musically or lyrically. With Brian at the helm, it could have been one of the band's masterpieces. That is what makes the album so frustrating, but given what's come since it can be heard as a beautiful, and in a sense crushingly sad, swansong. You couldn't ask for a better ending to the story than "Where I Belong." If only for these two Carl songs, this record deserves some recognition as one last stab at longevity from a once-magnificent band.
[Originally posted in 2003.]