Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: L.A. (Light Album) (1979)


When the Beach Boys took risks, they were a decent band even in 1979. Unfortunately, they retain the slick MOR sound of MIU Album for about half of its follow-up, the first of their three LPs for obscure CBS subsidiary Caribou. Bruce Johnston, returning from his seven-year hiatus from the Beach Boys (during which time he'd joined the A-list of pop composers as a result of his dreadful Barry Manilow contribution "I Write the Songs"), produces and could probably be blamed in part for the way Carl's songs "Full Sail" and "Goin' South" descend into obvious Muzak power-ballad theatrics, though who knows whether it's the reason Brian is nearly absent apart from the single and a misguidedly sexual version of "Shortenin' Bread," a long-running obsession of his (your guess is as good as mine).

Generally, though, L.A. is a major improvement over its predecessor, and even if it is a document of new-record-deal confusion, the songs spilled out along the way are sometimes fair additions to the canon. Al's "Lady Lynda" was a major hit overseas; taking its oh-so-mature cue from Bach and applying the kind of lyrics grizzled former hippies seem to like, it nonetheless is engaging, and the harmonies are wonderful. Similarly odd yet compelling is Mike Love's "Sumahama," his only worthwhile solo composition aside from "Big Sur" and one of his few sort-of-sincere moments on record as a singer; Love has absolutely no understanding of Asian culture and certainly no grasp on its language (the faux-Japanese in one of the verses is gibberish), but the over-the-top production and Love's amusing display of his softer side (?) make it seriously fun trash, though it is about two and a half minutes too long.

A disco retake of "Here Comes the Night" (from 1967's Wild Honey) is over twice as long as "Sumahama" but actually remains fairly compelling for a full ten minutes, from the lengthy buildup to the body of the original composition. Johnston had managed a hit with a disco 12" cover of the Chantays' "Pipeline," and evidently he'd decided to carry the idea over for his Beach Boys resurgence. The beat is propulsive, the vocals incredible, the production perfect even as it dips into '70s cliché. You come away feeling impressed that they would try this, and moreover stunned that it works so well. Of all the Beach Boys songs suited for a house beat and dance backing, I would not have chosen one from Wild Honey, but it may actually be the band's last display of sonic chutzpah. It was not a hit, and the band was infamously booed when performances of it were attempted, 1979 being the height of the wrongheaded "disco sucks" movement. The only L.A. track with chart success was "Good Timin'," a collaboration between Brian and Carl that should damn well have been heavenly, but it gets loaded down with keyboards and soft-rock techniques until it sounds like a midtempo Little River Band hit. It deserves better.

The songs on L.A. don't stick together; they fall into sequence and travel into tangents seemingly at random. An aching ballad with virtually no percussion follows an eleven-minute rave of bass drum loops. The only moments that seem to belong to a group are Dennis', two years after his triumphant solo debut Pacific Ocean Blue. The low-key pastiche "Love Surrounds Me" is an outtake from his unfinished Bambu, and a good one. His gruff voice emits pain over a subtle ska beat; there's no other Beach Boys song remotely like it (though they would again attempt to be the white nostalgic Wailers on the next album's dud "Sunshine"). Though it's awash in Johnston's Carpenters stylistics, "Angel Come Home" is unquestionably indispensable because of Dennis' vocal (on a song by Carl). It's the Beach Boys' most desperate love song since "Let the Wind Blow"; Dennis' quietly nuanced, brilliant reading of the unusually fine lyrics show a faint glimpse of what the band could do this late in their career if they really wanted to, not to mention how much better off they'd have been without the loss of Dennis four years later. In some sense, it's through Dennis that a Beach Boys embrace of the static adult-contemporary sound actually works, sounding like a mark of troubled maturity rather than sheer pandering.

He provides the album's centerpiece, too. The last truly classic Beach Boys song, "Baby Blue" is the moment on L.A. when everything is working correctly: his melody is not of this world, its beauty intangible and chilling. Carl's vocals seem to glide in from another universe, and Bruce's technicolor production reinforces the impression with glee. Schlocky? Maybe, a bit. Gorgeous? Absolutely. That's a microcosm for the album: the Beach Boys are making the most of what they've got, and despite the distance they can't quite surmount, there's still something respectable entrenched in this.


[Originally posted in 2003.]

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