Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Friends (1968)


(Capitol)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

From some angle, Friends could be the most subversive record released in 1968. The third Beach Boys album recorded more or less at home in Brian Wilson's personal studio, it moves forward with a lusher, more robust sound than Smiley Smile or Wild Honey, but it easily matches those records in its vibe of eccentric isolation. Like its predecessors it's an outwardly inconsequential, feathery pop record -- and infinitely graceful, intelligent, and all of the wordier platitudes above precisely because of it. There is no political statement or even a statement at all here, but there is an outstanding band at the peak of its powers. Is the music as direct, simple, innocent as "Fun, Fun, Fun"? Yes. The band is different, worlds apart from their early '60s doppelgangers, but the same intentions and passions are driving them. Now they want you to relax, space out, try to lose yourself gently -- until they decide it's time for you to wake up.

Friends is a logical enough extension of the otherworldly chillout Smiley Smile and the soulful, biting Wild Honey, but expands on both of them, and moreover calls back further yet to Party! for its sense of spontaneous beauty and Summer Days in its oddball sense of humor. From the goofy title track on down, it's the sound of a band concerned with some unimaginably humble lyrical ideas, some music of quiet, subtle ambiance that's either brooding or sensuous, or both simultaneously. They're breathing down your throat with a forty-second slow-jam for the ladies ("Meant for You") on side one, but they're giving directions to Brian's house and describing an unanswered telephone call in excruciating detail ("Busy Doin' Nothin'") on side two.

Banality remains of no concern to them; they will quite literally try anything, and at this point in their career, commerce has taken a backseat as well. The album may be delicate, but its implications of power and independence are ferocious. If, as is sometimes alleged, this album exists strictly so that the Beach Boys can ride out their Capitol contract, the ancillary effect is that we get a rare chance to hear them free of concern for how an audience will react to their work; such conditions have almost invariably resulted in the best recorded work of the band, Brian Wilson in particular. Friends breaks two cardinal rules -- it never leaps out at the listener, the whole thing seemingly pregnant with eloquent anticipation until the explosion of out-of-tune brass on "Transcendental Meditation," and it's extremely short, under twenty-five minutes. At a time when the pop single had moved past the crafty-two-minute phase of its existence, the Beach Boys were experimenting with even shorter song forms. Only two of these tracks exceed two and a half minutes, and one is a left-field instrumental, "Diamond Head." The songs "Wake the World," "Be Still," and "Anna Lee, the Healer" almost feel unfinished, though they're recorded beautifully and attain in the final analysis a wonderful feeling of weightlessness. All blatantly uncommercial but blissfully gorgeous, they move through their melodies briefly before dropping them entirely and running along to the next idea. They fade before you want them to, in every case. Restless creativity was never illustrated more provocatively on an LP.

The lyrics, of course, are a prize. "I loaned you money when the funds weren't too cool." "When a man needs a woman, they make things like you, my son." "Transcendental meditation can emancipate the man and get you feelin' fine; it's cool!" "When she gets the chance to help someone, she's really happy." "She cures people with her hands. I'm just one of her many fans." Do you suppose even they realized how great this shit was? Considering the popular perspective that they were just coasting, probably not, but hearing the restrained energy and fuck-all spirit here one can hardly help but notice the alarming extent to which the world of this album is irrevocably distant, and indeed harbors a peace was unattainable soon after it hit store shelves. Though he doesn't take a credit, this was the last time Brian shepherded a Beach Boys LP at the production helm for eight years. (By many accounts, it was in 1968 that he had a stint in an institution due to his anxiety and depression, after which he was never the same.)

The laid-back-stoner veneer hides some pretty heady and ambitious stuff, and after all, it is the Beach Boys, with Brian Wilson still at the forefront for now. At the core, "Friends" is a truly menacing piece of work, encompassing as well a wordless vocal break as breathtaking as John Lennon's revered vocal in the bridge of "A Day in the Life." Both "Be Here in the Morning" and "Anna Lee" feature wild arrangements and instrumentation in Brian's favored tradition but charmingly scaled back, and the former enjoys an unashamedly feminine vocal from Al Jardine, creating, aside from "Time to Get Alone," "Don't Talk" and perhaps "Cabinessence," the most overtly erotic song in a canon brimming with a very unbridled kind of romance. The shimmering "Wake the World" toys with a crazily out-of-place tuba, the wordless, sublime "Passing By" with kazoos, "Diamond Head" seemingly with whatever was sitting around in the studio. It's impossible to tell whether "Transcendental Meditation" is a joke or not, and that's probably the intention; it's bound to make some who hear it pretty uncomfortable, not the kind of temptation any good artist can resist. It features a full-fledged brass ensemble collapsing on itself insistently while the band's voices emit hysterically overblown lyrics and hit some deafeaningly tortuous (David Leaf's liner notes say "unpleasant") notes. The effect is both amusing and remarkable, and the Beach Boys seem to take a thrill in ending Friends in the most unlikely way possible. How much more rock & roll than that could you ask for?

All irony aside, what's impressive most of all is Brian's ability to speak from -- and directly into -- the eyes and ears of a child. On "When a Man Needs a Woman," the meaning of this skill comes full circle as he fantasizes about his upcoming son, who turned out to be a daughter. Whatever the gender, it's the rare children's song in rock that is neither condescending or stupid, and it features one of the Beach Boys' first stabs at country-rock. "Busy Doin' Nothin'," an incredible recording in every way, is the album's centerpiece without contest, and although Brian's deftly brilliant composition takes much of the credit, his casually bemused vocal performance and the light, unassuming bossa nova background are what make it work; it becomes funny and human rather than precious and contrived.

The most surprising development in these grooves is the emergence of Dennis Wilson as not only an able but a highly skilled songwriter. The existential (and enjoyably subtle) balladry of "Be Still" is impressive on its own terms, but "Little Bird" places the macho drummer as a talent on the level of his older brother. It's almost scary how quickly he comes of age as producer and composer; by the next album's "Be with Me," he's Phil Spector, Leonard Cohen, and Elvis in a single package, no small feat for the kid who only got in the band 'cause his mom insisted.

"Anna Lee, the Healer" proves the inescapable, and maybe slightly ugly, truth that utter stupidity is one of the Beach Boys' secret weapons. The album's lyrics are aimlessly dumb, and it speaks volumes that you actually miss their astute, off-kilter observations when "Passing By" and "Diamond Head" approach. The latter has a Smile-like loose structure that may count as noodling for some, but such tangents seem like part of a playful, lively whole. Post-Pet Sounds, modest aspirations seem to exhume the best and most irresistible ideas from the Beach Boys. That "Transcendental Meditation" was seemingly conceived to be as annoying as possible redeems its success in that regard enough to make you fall in love with even a recording this insane, if you listen to Friends constantly enough. And trust me, you will.

***

[Originally posted in 2003.]

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