Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys capsules: final albums + EPs

This post includes the last three Beach Boys albums, followed by the short-form EPs released in various contexts and formats throughout their career. The reviews of Still Cruisin', Summer in Paradise, Four by the Beach Boys and Mt. Vernon and Fairway were originally posted in 2003.

ALBUMS

The Beach Boys: Still Cruisin (Capitol 1988) [NO]
After the Cocktail soundtrack item "Kokomo" -- a John Phillips / Scott MacKenzie cowrite that's undeniably catchy but only catches fire during Carl's falsetto on the chorus -- hit the top of the charts for Elektra in 1988, an equally slick album was quickly assembled (with car-company sponsorship, no less) back on the old Capitol stomping grounds. Brian's sole contribution "In My Car" -- evidently an outtake from his solo album -- is soaked in ultra-modern synth stylistics and thuds to the ground, his voice the only element that survives. The rest of the material is devoted in large part to "songs from movies," though Mike later claimed this "concept" was "diluted" by "politics," and is dominated by Terry Melcher and Mike Love. It would be one thing if the band was using all the new technology at their disposal to do anything unusual, as on Love You, or at least trying to make modern music to match the modern noises, as on the previous album. Instead they soak themselves in laboriously conventional arrangements and repeat the clichés of their youth without any of the truth that used to drive every note of their music; they couldn't have made it any clearer, going so far as to toss on three older cuts that emphasize how far Beach Boys now sit from their artistic peak. The title track is the most difficult Beach Boys "hit" to sit through, ever. It's sad enough that they're doing a midtempo rewrite of "Getcha Back" under a new title, but what's even sadder is that "Getcha Back" was a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite anyway. On "Somewhere Near Japan," Mike and Terry join with "Kokomo" mastermind Phillips again hoping for lightning to strike twice. It didn't, and like "Kokomo," the song is inoffensive and boring despite one of the most fascinatingly lurid back stories of any song in the canon (it involves Phillips' daughter, One Day at a Time actress Mackenzie, calling him to ask for drug money). Al brings us "Island Girl," which is even less offensive and even more boring. If you want offensive, check out the Fat Boys collaboration "Wipe Out," which belongs here even less than the three "old songs" that find their way to the back end: "I Get Around," "California Girls" and "Wouldn't it Be Nice." Leave it to Carl Wilson to save the day. On the final new cut, "Make it Big," he is working undeniably with subpar material, but he lifts it to oblivion with that angelic voice and turns a third-rate power ballad into something moving. One wishes he could have been the singer on all the songs. As it stands, Still Cruisin' is a half-assed hodgepodge that brings the Beach Boys to new lows in whitebread adult-contemporary worthlessness.

The Beach Boys: Summer in Paradise (Brother 1992) [NO]
The Beach Boys' only album without Brian (who'd more or less left the group by this point), printed independently of any major label because what would any of them want with the Beach Boys in 1992, this shunned (and now difficult to find) release lends some credibility to the somewhat unfair conventional wisdom that Mike Love is a hack. It's practically a Mike solo album, though Carl sings on it and Al and Bruce have some dull contributions. Covers of the Shangri-Las, the Drifters, and Sly & the Family Stone (!) all fall flat while violently destroying everything that made the respective artists' recordings great. That's nothing compared to the pure-horseshit originals. "Still Surfin'" is three times as bad as its title, and that's saying a lot; it's also the best song on the album. Mike Love attempts to "rap" on "Summer of Love" (pun intended) and the result is one of the most wrongheaded, worthless, horrible pop songs you are ever likely to hear ("Doing onto others is the Golden Rule / But doing it to you would be so very cool"). From the trite bohemia of "Strange Things Happen" (a sort of "Somewhere Near Japan" clone in that it attempts vainly to touch on adult emotions) to the title track, this stuff is obnoxious, lyrically irredeemable, and genuinely frightening. It's depressing to be confronted with so many attempts to have the "Kokomo" lightning strike again ("Island Fever," "Lahaina Aloha"), that single's success probably having been the catalyst for this album's existence, but I can't help but be even more offended, to a frankly appalling extent, by the idiotic "current" remakes of "Surfin'" and particularly "Forever," on which the band allows the inhumanely useless John Stamos to deface Dennis Wilson's most beloved composition. No grace, no restraint, no respect whatsoever. If you are thinking of seeking this out hoping for a "so bad it's good" treasure, I must kindly direct you elsewhere.

The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made the Radio (Capitol 2012) [NO]
After Carl Wilson's tragic death of cancer in 1998, the Beach Boys split into three factions -- Al Jardine fronting what amounted to a Beach Boys cover band, Mike Love still peddling the band's real name on the road but actually presenting something with far less integrity than Jardine's group (though it's alleged by many that they've improved in the last decade), and most improbably, Brian Wilson finally heading out on the road performing very successful shows as a solo artist despite a steadily declining voice and presence. It was only on the occasion of the band's fiftieth anniversary that they regrouped, with Bruce Johnston and David Marks in tow, but calling this a reunion is laughable; to my mind there are simply no Beach Boys with two missing Wilson brothers. Despite the fanfare, this horrific set of adult contemporary Joe Thomas mush is essentially "Winds of Change" and "Endless Harmony" stretched to forty minutes, not even rising to the rather lax standards set by Brian's own solo albums of the new millennium. His presence and Carl's absence are all that distinguish this from Summer in Paradise, because even if it's more carefully engineered to appeal to aged-out Baby Boomers it's equally goopy and insipid, and there's simply no way its flat cornball nostalgia could ever have any sort of innate appeal to anyone not predisposed to defend it. Even the celebrated closing suite doesn't sound inspired to me, and Brian simply no longer has the voice to put even his lazier ideas across. The rest is godawful cheese. I'm ashamed that a band I have stood by and defended for so many years would put its name on this, even with its supposed leading light back in the fold. The reunion stunt was over quickly; good riddance.

***

EPs

The Beach Boys: Four by the Beach Boys (Capitol 1964 EP) [r]
In Britain in the '60s, the EP was essentially what it later became in the indie underground: a chance to remain prolific without recording an album. The Beatles had a wonderful EP of non-album cuts, Long Tall Sally, in 1964; a large share of the Kinks' most enduring hits came not from LPs but from budget EPs. In addition, album "samplers" were often issued in this smaller format to satisfy those on a budget. The latter idea was attempted on the American market in one of Capitol's less fruitful stunts of the early '60s: the "4 By" series. The Beach Boys' entry gathered four of the most incredible cuts from All Summer Long -- "Wendy," "Don't Back Down," "Little Honda," and the completely jaw-dropping cover of the Mystics' "Hushabye" -- classics all. No point in seeking in this out unless you're completely obsessed (and you have lots of cash), of course. "Wendy" and "Little Honda" both charted as individual tracks.

The Beach Boys: Mount Vernon and Fairway (Reprise 1973 EP) [r]
A delightful curio indeed, Mount Vernon and Fairway was (and is) packaged as a bonus with the Holland album. It's Carl Wilson adding wonderfully imaginative production to a witty, surreal (and uniquely autobiographical) story by Brian, read aloud in side-splitting deadpan by Jack Rieley. Sarcastic art rock parody or straight-ahead weirdness from drugged-up madmen? You decide. It doesn't get much more obscure or just plain fun than this -- and it even holds up to repeat listens, amazingly. The rating above comes on the condition that the reader recognizes Mt. Vernon as the very definition of a "fans-only" work. From a neutral standpoint, temper the recommendation a little.

The Beach Boys: [Sub Pop Singles Club/Pet Sounds Sessions 7"] (Sub Pop [1966]/1996 EP) [r]
The most practical evidence of the Beach Boys' in-vogue period among scenesters, this rather nifty 7" from Seattle's most famous record label (in their long-running Singles Club format) provides a smattering of material from the then-forthcoming Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set. It also gave the first public taste of Mark Linett's Pet Sounds stereo mix with "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," backed by the stunning vocals-only mix of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and the "Here Today" backing track on the flip. To date it's the only vinyl appearance of any of the "stack-o-vocals" mixes, but it's an interesting item even if it doesn't offer anything unique.

The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations: 40th Anniversary Edition (Capitol 1966/2006 EP)
Cute but frivolous curiosity item is somewhat in the vein of the later, rather wasteful singles boxed set -- it duplicates artwork and the A- and b-sides of the original "Good Vibrations" 45, the biggest and nuttiest of the Beach Boys' three '60s number-ones, plus virtually every outtake construction or remix of the song that had been released up to 2006 as well as the Lei'd in Hawaii "rehearsal" version. There's nothing actually "new" or unreleased here, though one of the cuts was on the 1983 Rarities album and thereby hadn't been in print for decades. It's understandable that Capitol wanted to exploit the anniversary of such a landmark song but anyone interested enough to buy this had probably already heard the three discs of sessions illicitly issued by Sea of Tunes, rendering this package somewhat redundant. As an aside, this seems like an acceptably secluded enough place for me to state that personally, while I admire and enjoy "Good Vibrations," it means surprisingly little to me personally. I tend to prefer the Beach Boys when they're more emotionally direct and I find the song's fragmented nature and constant editing impressive but also a bit showy, even the tiniest bit empty, at least when compared to the prior single and album. It surprises me that anyone would name it as superior to something like "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "Eight Miles High," both of which are equally important to the evolution of psychedelia but seem far more emotional in the former case, riskier and more fluid in the latter. Still, the song's extraordinary and obviously a zenith for Brian Wilson and I wouldn't question that. It's just not my favorite. Hope I can still be your friend.

***

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