Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Carl & the Passions - "So Tough" (1972)



So Tough is the most off-putting Beach Boys album, at first glance anyway. To begin with, Warner Bros. made the ridiculous error of packaging it initially with a reprint of Pet Sounds, in limbo since Capitol had deleted it in 1969. No album could possibly live up to a comparison like that. Moreover, So Tough frequently sounds nothing like the Beach Boys. In essence, it must be heard either after or in conjunction with Holland, which refines the raw southern funk of So Tough into a coherent statement.

Once it becomes familiar, it can be heard as a surprisingly strong collection, if a bit short when divorced from its original context. The leadoff single and opening track, the rough-hewn, fiddle-infected "You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone," doesn't even remotely resemble any other song in the band's recording history. It recalls Little Feat, sort of. The second song is the brilliant "Here She Comes," but it sounds like the Band covering Sly & the Family Stone, sort of. The reason for all this is simple -- Carl Wilson saw a South African band called Flame in the early '70s, produced their debut album, and eventually two of its members, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin, both exceptional songwriters and musicians, joined the Beach Boys and, in the studio and particularly on stage, became an integral part of the band's everchanging sound during their most musically dynamic years as a functioning band. It could be argued that their songs, two of which are included here, don't belong, at least in retrospect, but the fact is they're damn good. Just because they aren't conventional Beach Boys numbers doesn't mean they're not worthwhile, and you've got to give the group points for taking such a chance. "Here She Comes" just plain rocks, and "Hold on, Dear Brother" is a sublime stab at soulful country that must count as one of their finest slow performances on record.

The expansion of the lineup -- and, perhaps, the departure of Bruce Johnston around this time -- also brings a renewed energy to the inevitable revisit to the "classic sound." Brian's exquisite "Marcella," his most ecstatic upbeat love song since "Good Vibrations," has an energy and edge never heard before on a Beach Boys record; it made one hell of a single, and in a live version on In Concert, it was pure bliss. The same goes for the studio cut; it's just that after hearing it live, performed so brilliantly, it's a bit hard to go back. Then there's "All This is That." The lyrics, centering around meditation, don't make much sense, and the melody and structure seem confused, but all is well thanks, as has been the case so many times before, to Carl Wilson in what must be one of the most assured, heartbreaking vocal performances in history. His long, nearly unbroken falsetto tag could leave anyone stunned.

Brian seems content to leave "Til I Die" as his final word for the time being, as "Marcella" is his only significant contribution to So Tough. But what of Dennis? His pair of songs, written with Daryl Dragon of the Captain & Tenille, sound as much at home here as an Amish couple at a software expo. "Make It Good" is endearing but a bit ridiculous, "Cuddle Up" is even more of both. It's hard to decide whether the latter, the more complete and dressed-up of the two, is beautiful or just schlocky, but Dennis was rarely insincere and even with its intense melodrama (the string and choral sections are Danny Elfman-size), the song is pretty chilling and it's certainly memorable. The band's eclecticism is getting to the point that even an eight-song album is almost unbearably jarring, but no matter; this one is for the fans.

The only song that's really offensive is, aside from "Marcella" and perhaps "All This is That," the one that sounds the most like the Beach Boys. Mike Love's gospel ode to Maharishi and Jesus, "He Come Down" is as embarrassing as most religious television and just doesn't sit well between the lustful rockers "Here She Comes" and "Marcella." Nothing sits well on So Tough, really, and that's part of its charm. At least the band is by no means stagnant and seems to be learning their footing in a different time and marketplace; this would lead to the excellent Holland, which should have been the first chapter of a new peak period for the Beach Boys. Sadly, it would prove the final chapter of their propulsive evolution in the studio. Combine it with So Tough and you've got a classic on your hands.


[Originally posted in 2003.]

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