Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Wild Honey (1967)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Released mere months after Smiley Smile and retaining its homespun vibe without the surrealism, Wild Honey is a return to the past for the Beach Boys in that it's as much an album of pop songs as All Summer Long and Today!, and it's only in the context of 1967 that its heavy soul influences and sparse sound seem strange or off-base. The Beach Boys had, after all, toyed with these textures at least as far back as Little Deuce Coupe, and by the extension of influence even before that. It is, however, hard to name another white rock band with the desire or attitude to do a great cover of a Stevie Wonder hit in 1967. "I Was Made to Love Her" moreover emphasizes the similarities in the Beach Boys at their best and the great R&B artists at their best in this period -- the same purity and starkness, ironically covering flowery Motown with the cutting, pared-down simplicity more typical of Stax, if Stax had been in someone's living room. The Beach Boys and their peers are working for the same cathartic goal regardless of such fine distinctions, and it's thus appropriate that this collectively produced effort is their least filtered, most unadulterated rock & roll album since Surfin' Safari. Not that Summer Days and Pet Sounds couldn't inspire emotional depth with their elaborate chamber-pop instrumentation but there's something major to be said for the elegance of voices, de-tuned piano and hooks (guitars only occasionally dominate here).

Wild Honey is frequently billed as a blue-eyed soul album, and there's some truth in this -- Carl Wilson in particular certainly has the voice for it -- but set it against the Box Tops or Joe Cocker or the Spiral Starecase and it sounds like the primordial mumblings of alien life forms. It's less an R&B album than an honest album full of hunger and horniness. On the wonderfully raw title track Carl strains but convinces. On the glorious, sparkling, effortlessly impassioned hit "Darlin'," it's a different matter; the song and production are brilliant -- a more careful, considered recording originally intended for the band Redwood, a pet project of Brian's that later became Three Dog Night; "Darlin'" itself is a rewrite of Brian's older song "Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby," recorded by Sharon Marie -- but it foreshadows the next few years in the sense that Carl's vocal, the nuances of his performance and the way he seems a part of the material, truly shapes and builds the song. I can't imagine anybody else singing it because no matter who wrote the damn thing, it belongs to Carl. If I didn't love Wonder's original I'd say the same about "I Was Made to Love Her," and if I didn't love the set of brand new Love-Wilson tunes on this album I'd argue that Carl Wilson is what makes it all gel. The frayed, blown-out, defiantly un-slick production helps, particularly on "A Thing or Two," which is so minimal it's close to genuine funk, and the wonderful "I'd Love Just Once to See You." (In case you're wondering, he'd love just once to see her in the nude, presumably after she balls it with the shift on; things had changed by 1967.)

In contrast to the wordy tongue-twisters of the last album and the down-to-earth commentary of the next, the lyrics on Wild Honey are excellent by ordinary rock & roll standards, not a strong point in the canon of latter-day Beach Boys, who typically have to be weird or banal to get past bullshit. Mike's "Let the Wind Blow" is a genuinely desperate, mournful love song taking cues from the Smokey Robinson catalog, and "Here Comes the Night" and "I'd Love Just Once to See You" feature the expected diatribes on beloved women, usually begging for attention: "Hold me, squeeze me, don't ever leave me, tell me I'm doin' all right." The comfortable, casual vibe of the home studio Brian began using during the artistic, band-communal peak period has proven impossible to duplicate, making a knockout like "Here Comes the Night" something to preserve. "Let the Wind Blow" is equally driven by its instrumentation -- the Beach Boys playing in a room, no bullshit -- but it's once again Carl's show, bursting with articulate sorrow when he takes the bridge.

"Darlin'" coheres nicely here and is the closest we get to a "classic" Beach Boys song on Wild Honey, a bit ironic given that it was first meant to be recorded by others, but as a traditional Brian Wilson production, session musicians in the room and all, it sticks out potently. Brian was still directing the band in the studio, but as far as he was concerned Beach Boys music was meant to be modest and slapdash. At least one writer has argued that the Beach Boys' last few Capitol albums reflect a need to ride out a contract they disliked, and that they saved their most rewarding material for their Reprise debut Sunflower. Whether there's some validity to this or not, Brian's vision of laid-back, effortless-sounding lo-fi pop as the Beach Boys' ideal vehicle has aged inordinately well. If Wild Honey and Friends cynically conceived and performed contractual obligations, they're the most brilliant such releases one can imagine.

Not everything is so bare. The horn buried in "Aren't You Glad" implies charming Burt Bacharach aspirations, and "Country Air" has towering harmonies; both came to life on the road and it's a pity they didn't enjoy a longer life in the band's setlists. Like "Darlin'," these brief glimpses at the more polished Beach Boys are handy; no one denies that Wild Honey is underrated and spectacularly good, but the production is thin enough that the whole thing can be daunting for a newcomer, and on "Country Air" in particular the recording quality is such that the tape seems ready to split at any moment. Also, like so many Beach Boys albums, it fizzles out a bit with the adorable but inconsequential a cappella "Mama Says," the sort of thing you have to already be a fan to appreciate, and a bit too similar to stuff from Smiley Smile (no wonder, it used to be part of "Vegetables" where it works better). The rocker "How She Boogalooed It," the Beach Boys' "Foggy Notion" (it's their first communally band-composed song written without Brian's help), features engaging guitar work and gives the record a nice kick in the back end but Carl's outdated hip-speak, much as enthusiasts may get a kick out of it ("outtasight dancin'," "s-o-c-k-i-t to me"), and its slightly awkward shoehorning into this context might disrupt the tranquility for some.

Still, as slight and skimpy as it is, Wild Honey is one of the Beach Boys' most engaging and consistent albums. It was proven ahead of its time first when Dylan, the Beatles, and a slew of others spent 1968 on back-to-roots albums (not that any other direction was possible after the excesses of the previous year), then in the punk era when it became obvious that minimalism and thudding, barely-engineered performances were not such an awful idea. For that alone, Wild Honey deserves its place in the books, and with time it reveals itself to be as surprising and delightful -- and just as tantalizingly brief -- as Smiley Smile.


[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2003.]

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