Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys capsules: boxed sets

With the possible exception of the Who, the Beach Boys are cursed with a catalog that's been compiled, cut, sampled, mangled, chopped and screwed into more packages than any other band in the rock annals. The resulting packages vary wildly from consumer-friendly to desperate barrel-scraping to just plain weird. We covered most of these with any kind of lasting significance on our compilations page, but of course the CD era brought the new threat of elaborate multi-disc collections. The first two and still the best of these, Good Vibrations and The Pet Sounds Sessions, are covered in detail in long reviews in separate posts, as is the historically vital but plodding listening experience The Smile Sessions. What's left is here, and despite the quantity of material therein it's really not much different than the cruel, frustrating world of BB greatest-hits discs.

The Beach Boys: The Capitol Years (Capitol 1961-69/1980/1999)
This is one of those mail order-only collections (via Reader's Digest!) gathering an enormous amount of material, initially put out as a set of six LPs or cassettes in the early '80s and eventually making its way onto CD in Australia. True to its title, it encompasses only material recorded from 1961 to 1969, so to its credit it doesn't pad out the narrative with dross from the Brother years. And it's quite exhaustive, containing every one of the Beach Boys' Capitol singles except "The Man with All the Toys," all but a handful of the b-sides, and most of the major album tracks. Collectors often like this set in its various incarnations because the sound quality is generally good, although it contains a number of weird mixes (duophonic versions of some of the mid-'60s material, for instance). Only thing is that if you're going down the road of wanting this much material, why not just go the extra mile and get the albums? You'll play them a lot more.

The Beach Boys: The Platinum Collection (Capitol 1961-88/2005)
A glorified hits collection that functions as a European expansion of Sounds of Summer blows it up into an arbitrary three discs. Among other things it adds that collection's most egregious MIA cut, "The Little Girl I Once Knew," but omits some of the material from the regular CD (which is bewildering, frankly) and is still missing a few charting singles, though it does add the two most oft-elusive semi-hits, the Fat Boys collaboration "Wipe Out" and the turgid "Beach Boys Medley." One step forward, two steps back. An actual complete hits collection is apparently an impossibility. This is obviously geared toward Europe with the presence of most of the band's big non-U.S. hits, like "Lady Lynda," "Then I Kissed Her" and "Tears in the Morning" (ugh, no accounting for that continent's taste), so it's a more well-rounded grouping in that sense. It also has a couple of oddities: the single edit of the "Here Comes the Night" disco mix, never on an LP before, and the answer to a question no one asked: what it sounds like when the Beach Boys back up Status Quo. Concentrates on stereo mixes, making it all doubly useless.

The Beach Boys: The Original U.S. Singles Collection (Capitol 1962-65/2008)
Speaking broadly, as much as I already tend to dislike CD boxed sets that don't serve a specific purpose in general, I'm particularly bothered by curiosity items like this that are basically fancied-up, inauthentic ways to sell the same old music all over again. This box of sixteen CDs gathers up the A and B-sides of the Beach Boys first fourteen Capitol 45s and adds a smattering of bonus cuts (mostly stereo versions of the original tracks) here and there, nearly all of them previously released. The project was evidently an outgrowth of a special CD5 of "Good Vibrations" put out for that song's anniversary in 2006, gathering the master as well as most then-commercially available alternate takes and mixes in one package. In both economics and as a use of raw materials, however, this unwieldy item seems strikingly wasteful, typically running barely ten minutes per disc. There were similar problems with the old Beatles EP and singles sets, which had at least a bit more purpose given the difficulty in the early '90s of hearing their music in mono (also, the Beatles' singles box used 3" CDs so I guess you could argue it was slightly more environmentally friendly?). I collect 45s and I love them, and my vinyl Beach Boys singles mean a lot to me, but the CD equivalent wipes away their historical novelty (and, often, their punchy, irresistible sound), especially because nearly all of this music is available in better, more sensible packaging elsewhere. As a practical matter, it's hard to picture anyone going to the trouble of yanking out one of these CDs when he or she wants to hear "Surfin' Safari" or whatnot. In the streaming era, this set makes a little more sense because it offers the only complete gathering of the Beach Boys' Capitol singles ("Surfin'"/"Luau," of course, is absent) including the b-sides, or would if the set hadn't sold poorly, stopping the plan to move onward in the discography dead in its tracks. Now that you can pull this up via Spotify, you might enjoy a few of the bonuses included: the enjoyable live version of "409," a few new stereo mixes, the only digital representation of the elusive Four by the Beach Boys (not a big accomplishment since all four of its selections are from the same LP), and a phony bonus single with "All Dressed Up for School" and "I'm So Young." This is all pretty tepid, to be quite honest, and despite its claims to authenticity doesn't seem to hold much more integrity than Made in U.S.A. and suchlike.

The Beach Boys: Made in California (1960-2012/2013) [c]
Going on a decade and a half after the promised exhaustive set of Beach Boys rarities was nixed along with the promise of deluxe versions of the individual albums, the rich pool of unreleased material continues to trickle out to the public bit by little bit like so many garbage stereo mixes. The most annoying manifestation thus far comes aboard in the second career-spanning mammoth boxed set of Beach Boys material. There continues to be a wealth of untapped material of considerably more interest than a lot of the newly issued oddities included on these six discs, especially from the '70s; start with "Carry Me Home," "It's a New Day," "Hard Time," "My Solution," "Stevie," and well, there's plenty more. This does see the release of a few holy grail items like the outstanding, rare Dennis single "Sound of Free," the long-gestating "Sherry She Needs Me" (which is OK) and the Dennis song "(Wouldn't It Be Nice To) Live Again," which is lovely but hardly as stunning as advertised. The broader problems here come from the actual duties this box is meant to fulfill. I've only heard it via Spotify so cannot speak to the quality of its packaging, though it certainly looked clunky to me when I briefly held it, but a major reason it can't stand as the definitive introduction to the Beach Boys the way Good Vibrations did is the failure to use the canonical mono mixes for the many early classics. All the charting hits are theoretically here, as are very nearly all of the singles, period, but they are presented not only in stereo mixes where originally applicable but with newly created, badly phased and synced-up, "flown in" new stereo versions in the case of the songs from Today!, Summer Days, Wild Honey, etc. (or in the case of "Break Away," an entirely different revisionist mix); and even when this isn't too much of an offense, the remastering is wonky and overly harsh. The music sounds terrible, a far cry from the intense joys of the earlier box; to boot, it dismisses so many great and unique selections from that set, something the restoration of "Kiss Me Baby," "Lonely Sea" and "Let Him Run Wild" can't fully justify. But hey, there's the alternate mix of "Brian's Back" we were all clamoring for! All that said, it's worth extracting a few things from this via streaming or downloading, some of it bootlegged but not all. The 1963 version of "Back Home" is terrific, and in far better quality than on the unauthorized releases; two new Dennis ballads, "Barnyard Blues" and "My Love Lives On," eclipse "Live Again" to these ears; lovely stripped down Lei'd in Hawaii rehearsals of "California Girls" and "Help You Rhonda" (yes, that's you, not me) almost overwhelm with their laid-back charm; a couple of BBC recordings show off the band young, raw and tight; an extension of "Meant for You" that more than doubles its length is... interesting, to say the least. The genuine surprises come toward the end. Vocals-only mixes of "Slip On Through" and "This Whole World" are startling, invigorating in their sophistication; the intricacies of these songs are impossible to fully appreciate on Sunflower. The 1996 reunion track "Soul Searchin'," a castoff from the Andy Paley sessions, would have been the best Brian-penned Beach Boys song since Love You had it been released. Actually, it still is their best work since "It's Gettin' Late"; hearing Carl sing his last Beach Boys track, and gorgeously, is almost too much, and Brian and the band prove how strong they can be when commercial interests aren't their prime mover. It's exceptional just by virtue of not being embarrassingly backward-looking like almost everything else they did from 1980 onward. But ultimately, what redeems Made in California ever so slightly is the second half of the penultimate disc, an overview of the Beach Boys' stage career that deserves its own release. On top of "Little Bird" live and a set of Smile oddities trotted out on tour in the '90s, we get twenty minutes of vintage glory from the band's short-lived moment as a masterful live band in the early '70s. It does not disappoint. "It's About Time" and "I Can Hear Music" soar. "Only with You" brings a hush over a crowd that's never before heard it, and offers brotherly transcendence when Carl and Dennis switch off the vocal at the end. The crown jewels, though, are Dennis singing a countrified, hard-edged "Help Me Rhonda" and Blondie Chaplin tearing the roof off "Wild Honey" (which he can still do all these years later), possibly the single most searing live cut in the canon. It doesn't really help my opinion of the box that this live material is so good, as it really just points up how much we need a more organized vault-clearing program of some sort that doesn't require another trot through the endlessly reissued hits, which aren't even presented well: this time there's a lot of foolishness throwing in bits of sessions before songs properly start, and some sentimental "audio montage" claptrap of the sort that marred Hawthorne, CA. This wholly botched release is indispensable for the fragments of brilliance it contains, which only makes the whole state of affairs for this catalog all the more maddening.

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