Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Keepin' the Summer Alive (1980)


(Caribou)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

The cover of Keepin' the Summer Alive says it all. The Beach Boys play inside a summertime-infected bubble while winter rages outside. If this is what they mean by the title, for god's sake, let it die. This album is something worse than dreck -- it's actually frustrating, because by all logic it should be somewhat palatable. All five original members are here, plus Bruce (who produces and thus has taken the majority of the blame for this debacle), and not a second of it is as boring as any given track from MIU Album. It's more like a train wreck, or maybe a ten-car pileup: one completely awful disaster after another. The last half of the album approaches "unlistenable" territory, without exaggeration.

A minuscule amount of this is worth salvaging. Carl Wilson's two collaborations with the Guess Who's Randy Bachman out-perform the rest of the material by far: much more than the usual obligatory "Do It Again" clone, the raveup title track has a slight sting the Beach Boys have typically lacked since around 20/20, and although it's just a diluted country-by-way-of-the-Byrds catalog of clichés, "Livin' with a Heartache" is beautiful and features typically affecting vocals from Carl. The track revisits the "adult" territory of "Tears in the Morning" and "Lady Lynda" but with stark intelligence and warmth lacking in another track clearly derived from those two smashes, "Oh Darlin'." Even that one has more to offer than the sole remaining half-decent composition, "Goin' On," a hot single that sounds almost exactly like the previous album's hot single, "Good Timin'."

The rest redefines "obnoxious." If the good songs are as derivative as those listed above, the bad ones are just plain shameless. "Some of Your Love" manages to musically rip off both "Child of Winter" and "Be True to Your School" while drenching them in trite high-school nonsense that makes the latter seem dignified and modern. "Sunshine" recasts an unfinished Spector cover as a plodding marathon of reggae posturing. Worse yet is Al Jardine's pretend-David Crosby ego trip, "Santa Ana Winds," made all the more difficult to sit through by his dumbass explanation at the outset of the title's meaning. Thank you, Merriam-Webster.

The band is treading offensive territory with a cover of "School Day" that turns all of Chuck Berry's heartfelt allegory about the life-saving truths of rock & roll into pandering whitewash; I think it may be the worst thing ever recorded, or at least I did think so until I got to side two. "Endless Harmony" skips offending rock & roll gods and moves straight to Beach Boys hardcores by sending every one of us into madness with an unbelievably pretentious, poorly written, incompetently performed rock opera (of sorts) about the band's history, written by semi-outsider Johnston at that. I don't think I've managed to listen to the whole thing more than once. I'm not sure which I hate more -- that song or "When Girls Get Together," which sat in the vaults for ten years... with good fucking reason! I don't know if they thought it was funny or enjoyably weird or what, but it's appalling, ponderous, neverending, impossible to like, etc. They're not even attempting crass commercialism; they just don't care, and it's no wonder Carl was fed up, once insisting around this time that he wanted no part of the band unless 1981 was as important to them as 1961.

At this point the Beach Boys have become shameless nostalgia merchants. Or have they? Carl certainly hasn't, as his pair of contributions prove. Maybe Brian hasn't; he's not on the album long enough for us to tell, although he did spend a couple of days in the production booth like old times. Dennis surely hasn't, but then, he too is mostly MIA. So is this Mike Love's band? Al Jardine's? Bruce Johnston's? Anybody's? No, no, no, and no. This band is a moneymaking machine. The second they get the balls to take a risk, they can't sell enough records to pay the bills so they go back to the obvious b.s., and you can't really blame them. This has been wrecking their career since Endless Summer, maybe since "Do it Again," maybe since Pet Sounds, hell, maybe since before that: the conflict between the Beach Boys that exist and the Beach Boys that audiences want to exist. On 15 Big Ones, MIU Album, and the majority of L.A., concessions were being made to the latter entity; Keepin' the Summer Alive finds them caving in to both temptation and necessity, and the result is music that wouldn't appeal to hardcores or neophytes. Carl is not happy (after this was released he left the band for a time and recorded two solo albums), Brian is asleep, Dennis is wrapped up elsewhere, and the money train rolls on.

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[Originally posted in 2003.]

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