Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Beach Boys: 1967 - Sunshine Tomorrow (1967)

(Capitol 2017)


Issued at an optimal moment in the summer of 2017, fifty years after the music embodying it was made, this overview of and new spin on the Beach Boys' creative output in 1967 is the best archival release credited to the band since The Pet Sounds Sessions; it may be less comprehensive than Capitol's Smile boxed set or the carefully compiled Becoming the Beach Boys, but in contrast to both of those sets this one compiles music that's consistently wonderful and exciting, in addition to being from a crucial moment in their creative genesis. Among other things, it puts the lie once and for all to the notion that Brian Wilson entered a period of creative surrender and retreat after his and the band's abandonment of the Smile project.

The compilation opens with, at long last, a complete stereo mix of Wild Honey, the last remaining Beach Boys album that had only been officially released in mono. As well documented here, most of Mark Linett's contemporary stereo mixes of Beach Boys music are poor substitutes for the original mono versions, surgically removing their sense of life in the interest of painstakingly separated elements and (at times) extraneous effects; they also are frequently missing key elements of the original finished records, which makes it irksome when stereo mixes find credibility as "canonical" within the band's discography. However, the two major exceptions are Linett's 1996 Pet Sounds mix and this new version of Wild Honey, a badly needed chance to hear this truly great album escape its muffled, muddy origins and come out to breathe. Bootlegs had long freely indicated that such a definitive mix was possible, and now it's available for all to hear. This isn't the place to again promote the view of Wild Honey as one of the greatest white-soul albums ever produced, but its unstoppable energy and spontaneity remain miraculous after all these decades, and while there are some scattered flaws in this new mix, this stereo edition richly deserves to be considered alongside the historical 1967 mix for a full portrait of these sessions, which offer such a winning example of Brian and Mike Love's easygoing collaborative skills as songwriters, and of Brian's undimmed genius as an arranger and producer.

Luckily, Sunshine Tomorrow provides us with even further evidence of this latter element with a host of outtakes, alternates and session materials that provide mainstream listeners a chance to hear Brian still as much in command of his band as he was of rooms full of Beach Boys and/or Wrecking Crew members a year or two earlier, and even bootleg aficionados will be hearing much of the provided material for the first time. A smattering of similar tracks corresponding to Smiley Smile, the prior record, is provided as well, and will be just as revelatory for many listeners. (Far more of the Smiley sessions were previously booted.) It's quite difficult to emphasize enough how much of a relief it is to hear the purposeful nature of the Beach Boys' late 1960s work validated so undeniably, and it's worth a perverse blessing to how much the record industry has changed, allowing releases like this that seemed impossible so recently to not only be prepared and printed but available widely, to anyone with an internet connection and a Spotify account. (Sunshine Tomorrow was released during a summer full of catalog and vault unloadings from artists as diverse as the Beatles, Prince and Radiohead, a situation that made it difficult to lament the collapse of a marketplace that would lead to a willingness to mine such material.)

The two discs are rounded out by some live material from November 1967 covering the Wild Honey period (it's wonderful if you can ignore Mike's obnoxious interjections), with "How She Boogalooed It" particularly fun on stage, and by -- at long last -- an official release of the incomplete Lei'd in Hawaii live album. For those unaware, this was initially meant to be Capitol's damage control move after the crash and burn of Smiley Smile: a hit-filled live album, but with a lineup change (Bruce out, Brian in) and a lack of rehearsal time, the recordings were considered unfit for release, which resulted in a hastily booked studio session that featured stripped-down, organ-driven versions of many of the Beach Boys' best songs. While there are some off-kilter and amateurish moments in the phony "set" that results (the version of "Sloop John B" is a disaster, with Dennis stumbling through his part after the bridge), there are just as many transcendent performances, and the laid-back, ethereal (some would say "stoned") vibe of the session is a perfect introduction to the Smiley-era Beach Boys sound. Without any audible strain, the quiet and beautiful variations on "God Only Knows," "Good Vibrations," "You're So Good to Me" and even "Help Me Rhonda," among others, reinterpret and enliven some of the loveliest songs in the band's catalog, with a couple of fine covers to boot. (The presence of "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "The Letter" as well as the excised tag from "I Was Made to Love Her" finally renders Capitol's 1983 LP Rarities wholly obsolete unless you desperately want to hear the weird sound effects laid onto "Bluebirds Over the Mountain.") As noted before, these simplified, elegant arrangements of "Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" (finally audible without the snide monologue that Brian wrote for Mike to read) would be a better fit for Smiley than the commercial singles.

With still space left at the end of disc two, this incredibly generous collection -- easily the new go-to way of experiencing the Beach Boys' messiest transitional year, surpassing the old Sea of Tunes boots -- offers some short live pieces from the actual Honolulu shows as well as some live cuts from Washington and Boston. As we knew from the Lei'd boots, these are mostly lackluster and uneventful, though it's fascinating to hear them try to win what sounds like a rowdy teenage crowd (the kids still wanted the hits in 1967 and let no one tell you otherwise) over with "Gettin' Hungry," in a performance that one doubts sold many audience members on the new Brian & Mike single. Lastly we get an expanded version of the "Surf's Up" Brian recorded impromptu while tuning his piano during the Wild Honey sessions; this already leaked out on the Made in California box, but it's more complete here with several false starts, and now you don't need to root through all the garbage on that set to get to it.

The only objection one can possibly have to this magnificent collection -- which works not just for historical interest but as a full-on listening experience, not true even of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper 50th anniversary expansion -- is that it's a pity we didn't get similar treatments of the 1965 albums Today! and Summer Days, forced to contend instead with multiple discs of Party! outtakes. At any rate, this is wonderful and given everything I've heard and heard about, I can't see how they could have made it a more complete or full-bodied treatment of the Beach Boys' brilliant, eclectic work during rock's most mythologized year.

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