Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: MIU Album (1978)


(Reprise)

!! CAUTION !!

In 1967, the Beach Boys followed up their masterpiece Pet Sounds in the least predictable fashion imaginable, a move that kept them alienated from audiences for years to come. Eleven years later, after regaining their following and recording one of the most brilliant albums of the '70s, they repeat their mistake. Smiley Smile, the album after Pet Sounds, was a truly weird, stoned pastiche of endearing but seemingly incomplete songs, full of barbed humor and hidden elegance. MIU Album, the polished release following the raw, uninhibited Love You, removes all subtlety and bombast from the band's formula, perversely creating a half-hour of synth-heavy adult contemporary mush. It is their first complete failure as a band, and what a failure it is.

The transition boggles the mind, but it's easily explained: Brian Wilson gave up his production helm after Love You bombed, leaving Al Jardine to take over. Jardine is joined by Ron Altbach, who becomes the first outside producer on a Beach Boys record since Nik Venet and imposes a godawful "mature" sheen, a slick professionalism, to what handled differently could have been a fair enough Beach Boys LP. So it's no wonder that "She's Got Rhythm," the opening track, sounds like watered-down Love You, Brian's usual idiosyncrasies with all the energy drained; those are the ground rules for an album that never really compensates for its awful production. Altbach and Jardine manage to turn the Beach Boys' exceptional harmonies and a cast of state-of-the-art synthesizers as well as the usual easy-listening penchant for exaggerated string sections into one big trebly mess.

Instead of taking any kind of a risk in any direction, the band is standing firmly in the middle of the road; MIU frequently sounds like Barbra Streisand or Bread or some such sad-sack excuse for pop music, circa 1978: bland music for "adults" who are far too elite for the down-to-earth wonder and lust of the last album. Ultimate irony is that Brian's songs, mostly written in the interim between Holland and 15 Big Ones, although lesser compositions, are still in the quirky Love You mold. "Sweet Sunday Kinda Love" (horny), "Matchpoint of Our Love" (stupid) and "My Diane" (wonderful, broken) all clash with Altbach's sugary Muzak so terribly that the juxtaposition is almost a rebellious statement in and of itself. And how many "mature adults" buying this album with its pseudo-sophisticated cover for an evening of relaxation would relate to the lecherous lyrics -- sung with truly creepy gusto by Mike Love -- on track number two, an outtake from Brian's rejected semi-big band Beach Boys record Adult Child, that verge on pedophilia? "Hey little tomboy, come sit on my lap / I've got things that I've got to tell you." Yeah, sit on Mike's lap. Sounds healthy.

Brian's melodic gifts are more than intact; every single one of these mildly annoying songs creeps into your head without so much as a third, or in some cases even a second, listen. That doesn't mean they're good (see also: Wings). A major chunk of MIU was recorded in conjunction with an aborted Christmas album made to fulfill the Reprise contract, with vocals rerecorded and lyrics varying in the interest of seasonal ambiguity. Thus, "Bells of Christmas" becomes "Belles of Paris" or vice versa, etc. In whatever form they appear, these songs are nothing special. "Kona Coast" crosses some kind of line, though, when it revises the chorus of "Hawaii" verbatim, only backed by grating MOR soundscapes instead of an infectious young rock band. Indeed, the nostalgia that sent 15 Big Ones crashing down is still in evidence everywhere. This time the surfin' revisionists have a crack at the Dell Vikings' "Come Go with Me" and, worse yet, Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." The purpose of this is somewhat elusive on paper, and once you hear the recordings it is even more so; why turn a rock chestnut into indigestible sap in which the only audible energy is simulated? Why would anyone listen to this when they could easily buy a Buddy Holly record? Whoever can answer that must have been the people who made both "Peggy Sue" and "Come Go with Me" minor hits.

In its better moments, MIU Album still feels strained. "Pitter Patter" and "Wont'cha Come Out Tonight" almost rock but can't thanks to Altbach, who goes so far as to contribute a song of his own to the collection; "Winds of Change" is even more antiseptic than most of this fluff and simply does not belong on a Beach Boys album. Hiring the man was clearly futile, as despite sizable adult-contemporary airplay MIU Album was no more successful than the last effort and was roundly panned in the media. What no one understood was the pointlessness of hiring an outside producer to clean up the sound of this band; mass appeal bypassed the Beach Boys years ago. The simple truth is their sound was no longer commercial and hadn't been for a decade; if their classics were released in 1978 or later they would go nowhere, and their continued success in concert is due more than anything to the ruthless nostalgia that has been swallowing Baby Boomers in mass quantities since around 1974. No amount of production sense can change the fact that the Beach Boys' particular brand of rock & roll has been out of style for generations. They may glaze their work until it glows with half-hearted glitter ("Kokomo") but it will not be the work of the same band that made "409" and "Little Deuce Coupe" and "All Summer Long," and anything they do create specifically to please a larger audience is bound to be impossibly dated within less than a decade of its creation. The ignorance of that audience is what made Love You so fabulous; the pandering to it, or the attempt thereof, is what makes MIU Album so pathetic.

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[Originally posted in 2003.]

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