Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Beach Boys love you

I've been listening compulsively to post-Smile(y Smile) Beach Boys for the past couple days, particularly the albums Wild Honey and Love You. The former is a sparkling little gem, much more rocking than anything the group had done before, with a distinct r&b swing to it. The soft and bittersweet prettiness of Pet Sounds left behind for something that is perhaps less distinct, and, indeed, the sound calls less attention to itself as a "sound" and acts primarily in support of the songwriting (rather than being an integral part of the songwriting process, or vice-versa). But the songs are irresistible. With 11 songs, each lasting less than three minutes and several clocking in at under two, the disc is brief, and it feels slight: the layered harmonizing has been pushed into the background, and there's a general absence of Pet Sounds' deeply felt adolescent questioning. It's possibly most famous as being the first Beach Boys album on which Brian Wilson didn't write all the songs - but "Kokomo" this ain't; the 1:58 "How She Boogalooed It" is a nice little palate cleanser that leans more on its rhythm than its melody and works just fine as such. As Robert Christgau puts it, there isn't "a bad second" on the album, with each song whittled down to the most basic nuggets of pop perfection, which applies to the sonic as well as compositional qualities of the music. With both this and Love You (and much of the 70s output), Brian and whoever else was sitting in the mixing room (and there was somebody else sitting in the mixing room) shifted the focus to the production, rather than the performance, and it's all for the best. The instruments, electronic and otherwise, feel much more integral to their music than they ever had before, and the slightly off-key, not-quite-harmonic singing is mixed until it sounds pretty damn good and actually on pitch. And that's not because they were becoming better singers.

For what it's worth, Love You is a masterpiece as well, even if it feels like a sort of last stand for Brian Wilson - and it would be, as Wilson's last moment of undeniable musical genius until Smile (which I've also been listening to lately). The music is brilliant, reaching back to Wilson's earliest style of songwriting (but, again, with superior 70s production - and I do think the 70s production is superior), but the lyrics are what make the album most memorable, not in a good way. If 60s songs like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" come from a a young man's anxieties and uncertainties about growing up, Love You seems to come from an adult who hasn't quite gotten it right. Every word on the album is painfully sincere, but whether they're singing about Johnny Carson's greatness, the planets of the Solar System or awkardly processed adult relationships ("pat, pat, pat her on the butt, butt, butt/she's almost asleep") it can be a little embarassing. It seems to be a missive from Wilson on a slide downhill, an attempt at the warmth and love (for girls girls girls, for surfing, for cars, for teenage life) he once wrote about that now seems out of place, or somehow mis-placed, at least in an adult, mature world. But the music is buoyant, joyful and immensely enjoyable. And songs like "Mona" and "Roller Skating Child" are just as catchy as "Help Me Rhonda" and "I Get Around," really they are. And to add to the hyperbole, I'd go so far as to say that song for song, recording for recording, Wild Honey is up to the level of any pre-Pet Sounds greatest hits collection you could put together. Brian Wilson just wasn't made for those/these times, unfortunately. And it is unfortunate, but also lends a great deal of poignancy to the whole of the Beach Boys' output. That vague sense of out-of-place-ness infuses Wild Honey and Love You as much as it does Pet Sounds, giving even the silliest lyric a resonance that reaches down into your gut.

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