Monday, November 17, 2014
Sunflower - The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys
Brother Records/Reprise Records RS-6382
Over the summer I went with my family to the Ventura County Fair. The price of admission to the fair included admission to the show in the evening which is how I found myself watching a concert by Mike Love and his Beach Boys imposters. There is no way I'd ever pay money to watch Mike Love perform and I wasn't even sure I wanted to see him for free, but my wife and son insisted on staying for his performance so I went and to my surprise I enjoyed it. If nothing else Love knows how to please a crowd and unleashed a slew of popular Beach Boys classics plus well-chosen covers like "Surf City" and "California Dreamin.'" Love's nasal whine was in fine form and he showed impressive enthusiasm. He had a solid back-up band which featured some good singers to take the place of Carl and Brian Wilson. He definitely needed them because his two "Beach Boys" were basically window dressing. Bruce Johnston can't sing anymore, his performance on "Please Let Me Wonder" was appalling and David Marks is, well, David Marks. There were a few departures from the stream of hits such as Love's self-serving tribute to George Harrison, "Pisces Brothers." The most notable one came from special guest John Stamos. Stamos sat in for several numbers and had more charisma and a greater passion for the music than any of the hired guns on stage. As a tribute to Dennis Wilson, Stamos delivered a heartfelt and moving performance of "Forever" off this album, easily the highlight of the show for me (Stamos previously recorded the song with the Beach Boys on "Summer in Paradise.") "Sunflower" is my favorite of the Beach Boys' post-Capitol albums. It was a flop when it came out, but I think it has aged well, in large part because of Dennis' strong contribution. He opens the album with "Slip On Through" which is a love song. Dennis sounds more like a rock singer than anyone in the band, his voice is gritty but still capable of delicacy. The song is propulsive and bolstered by excellent back-up singing. Brian delivers another strong song with "This Whole World" which is sweetly sung by Carl. It is extremely poppy in the familiar Beach Boys' style but the vaguely hippie-ish love-is-everywhere lyrics are more characteristic of the Beach Boys in the late 1960s. "Add Some Music to Your Day" is by Brian, Joe Knott and Mike Love. The song is about the value of music in everyday life and its uplifting properties. This extremely catchy and buoyant tune demonstrates this with brilliantly arranged and exhilarating vocal harmonies. It is a classic Beach Boys song and its failure to become a hit single is more a reflection of the crappy state of pop music in 1970 than the quality of the song. Dennis returns with "Got to Know the Woman" which has a harder rock edge than a typical Beach Boys song and a soulful flavor as well. The song describes meeting a woman and immediately falling for her. "Deirdre" is by Bruce Johnston with some help from Brian. Like most of Johnston's songs it is kind of sappy and his wimpy vocal doesn't help much, but the song has some nice vocal harmonies that make it listenable and even enjoyable in the chorus section. Side one concludes with "It's About Time" by Dennis, Al Jardine and Bob Burchman. The song is about someone who has been creatively frustrated but who then discovers his artistic voice and seeks to make the world a better place with his work. I always assumed it was an autobiographical song for Dennis, but then I read that the lyrics were Burchman's. Nonetheless the song seems to have had a lot of resonance for Dennis and he set it to music with a rocked up tune that is bursting with energy befitting the ebullient lyrics. The song features an excellent vocal from Carl that expresses the passionate nature of the song. Side two gets off to a rocky start with Johnston's "Tears in the Morning" in which he whines about his wife leaving him to find fulfillment in Europe. Hard to blame her listening to the stream of self-pity running through this dreary song. It is easily the worst song on the album. Things improve with Love and Brian's "All I Wanna Do" which is a bland love song crooned by Love. The song benefits greatly from a strong vocal and instrumental arrangement reminiscent of "Pet Sounds" that makes it seem more distinguished than it really is. Dennis' "Forever" which he wrote with Greg Jacobson is another album highlight for me. It is a gorgeous love song sung by Dennis and the slight roughness in his vocal keeps it from being sappy or phony. It feels completely sincere and I find it one of the most touching songs the Beach Boys ever did. It has a memorable melody and more excellent background vocals to help make it a real winner. Brian, Carl and Jardine's "Our Sweet Love" continues in a similar vein. It is another tender love song boasting a typically gorgeous vocal from Carl. It uses strings and lovely background vocals to create a fabulous romantic sound that really sends me. It is followed by Jardine and Brian's "At My Window." The song is about seeing a sparrow outside a window and features a verse spoken in French for reasons that escape me. Although the theme of the song is typical of the interest in nature expressed in many of the band's songs of that period, it still feels like filler to me, albeit beautifully arranged and sung filler. The album concludes with the weirdness of Brian and Love's "Cool, Cool Water." The song sounds like a "Smile" outtake and that is almost what it is. It was derived from "Love to Say Dada" from the "Elements" section of that album. The original version was largely an instrumental aside from the repeated words "water" and "wah-wah." "Cool, Cool Water" retains most of that song's melody and expands the chant to become "have some cool, cool water." There is also a trippy instrumental passage in the center that is followed by some new inane lyrics that sound like the work of Mike Love to me, such as "cool water is such a gas." I still really like the song though. The vocal arrangement is wonderful and the melody is soothing and it gives the album a mellow finish. This record seems almost miraculous to me. With Brian withdrawing into his own little world and only a minimal contribution from Mike Love, Dennis Wilson stepped up and filled the void magnificently. His four songs are all terrific and are the backbone of a record that is only two mediocre Bruce Johnston songs away from being an absolute masterpiece. I love this record and it is one of the Beach Boys albums that I play the most. I like its maturity and the emphasis on love that permeates the record. It sounds fabulous and is full of interesting touches that keep me from ever getting bored with it. It was one of the best albums of 1970 and the last truly great album the Beach Boys ever made. Recommended to people who like "Surf's Up" better than "Surfin' U.S.A."