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The Beach Boys

Brother 2118
Released: January 1973
Chart Peak: #36
Weeks Charted: 30

From the nasal raunch of "Surfin' Safari" to the convoluted elegance of "Surf's Up," through more than ten years of recording and performing, the Beach Boys have sustained a strong musical identity, even though their original guiding light, Brian Wilson, has increasingly become merely a shadow presence. About the time of Today, other Beach Boys besides Brian and Mile Love began singing lead; by Friends, other members of the group besides Brian were contributing songs. Through it all, with rare lapses, the Beach Boys have clung, for better or worse, to their sound, a collective style that has shown a remarkable capacity for growth.

Holland is a cohesive portrait of that style's most recent evolutions. In acknowledgement of Brian Wilson's still honored if slightly mythological status, even within the group, the album both opens and closes with a new Brian opus. As usual, each is informed by a singular sensibility that, currently, seems inclined toward a kind of chamber rock. Blondie Chaplin's superb vocal on "Sail On Sailor" situates that song between recent Stevie Wonder and vintage Beach Boys, although the expansive harmonies and insistent triplets ultimately assert the group's own rights.

"Funky Pretty" is more on the guttural side of R&B. A cosmic love song to an astrological lovely, it mounts its grit in a swirl of harmonic complications, again underlining Blondie Chaplin's more straightforward vocal dexterity with a defiantly baroque choral signature: Vivaldi meets the Regents on a magic synthesizer. It makes for a beautiful track, built on economical and even monotonous musical premises that delight in their unreasonably complex development.

Everyone in the group has contributed at least one song to Holland. Dennis Wilson's intriguing, sluggish "Steamboat" comes replete with doo-wop embellishments and a waddling guitar solo, while "Only With You," a track reminiscent of Dennis' efforts on So Tough, is well-arranged and generally more successful than his previous ballads. Carl's vocals on "Only With You" is genuinely touching and unabashedly vulnerable, a quality too often mistaken by macho rock cultists for a failing of rock integrity (as if the Fleetwoods' "Come Softly to Me" wasn't as much rock as Eddie Cochran's "Something Else").

Holland's centerpiece is a trilogy titled "California Saga," opened by Mike Love's jaunty "Big Sur," a mild ode to wilderness phrased in a Beach Boy variant of Southern California's country-folk idiom. Things get a little heavy with "The Beaks of Eagles," which incorporates a rather ponderous recitation, but Al Jardine's neat vocalese almost recoups the lost ground. Anyway, the recitation fits in with the saga's overall movement, which is straight toward Jardine's "California," a song that incarnates every historical facet of the Beach Boys in a rhapsodic fusion of "Cool Cool Water" and "California Girls." The opening group vocal is simply stunning, building logically into one of Mike Love's familiar leads, while the instrumental tracks add an appropriately quaint dimension with banjo, pedal steel and harmonica following the loping bass figure. Even a jarring reference to John Steinbeck cannot prevent this song from being the Beach Boys' best chance at an AM hit since Brian's exquisite "Marcella" flopped ignominiously last year.

Carl Wilson's "The Trader" also stands out among Holland's songs. A neatly floating composition, it recalls Carl's memorable contributions to Surf's Up. Carl sensitively interprets Jack Rieley's elusive lyrics, which concern Indians and rampant mercantilism from the perspective of an ecological anti-capitalism, or something of the sort. "Leaving This Town," which rounds out the album, is a subtly realized song by Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar that wholly transcends the eclecticism that marred their work on So Tough. Chaplin's vocal is again outstanding, and the whole mood of the song, with its rich group harmonies, aching lead vocal, and methodical synthesizer solo, would not be inappropriate to Pet Sounds; it is another one of Holland's highpoints.

Like the finest Beach Boys' work, Holland makes me consistently smile, as much at its occasionally unnerving simplicity of viewpoint as its frequently ornate perfection. Although the Beach Boys may be an acquired taste, once the listener has granted them their stylistic predilections, their best records become irresistible. Their music long ago transcended facile categorization, and they now play what might as well be described simply as Beach Boy music. Unlike last year's disappointing So Tough, Holland offers that music at its most satisfying. It is a special album.

- Jim Miller, Rolling Stone, 3/1/73.

Bonus Reviews!

Nobody making music in the Sixties distilled the myths and frustrations of teenage America better than Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Customized cars. California girls, cruising for burgers -- they caught it best, because they were it. But the times changed, and the ante with them; the Beach Boys' popularity, and the quality of their music as well, have waned slightly in the past few years. Beginning with the brilliant Pet Sounds, they made a concerted effort to be "relevant" and "innovative" -- in any case, to transcend their roots -- but this made them erratic and awkward just as often as it made them stunningly, eloquently melodic. Brian retreated more and more from active participation in the band, and last year they picked up two South Africans -- Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin -- who succeeded mainly in making their last album, Carl and the Passions, one of the most uneven of their career.

All of which makes it a special pleasure to say that Holland, their newest release, is a moving, finely crafted record. It is not only musically strong, it also achieves a comfortable compromise with the odd-man-out stigma that has dogged them ever since they traded in all their surfing gear for acid and meditation.

Don't retch and run when I tell you that much of this album is concerned with ecology. The Beach Boys' music is uniquely suited to such by-now mundane themes as the preservation of forests. Brian Wilson's arrangements, with their symphonic depth and Phil Spector-like waves of looming sound, always had a vivid, breathtaking quality that was nearly cinematic; you got the impression he could write brilliant movie soundtracks. The music on Holland is at once strong, stirring, worthy of a Dimitri Tiomkin, and as lulling as supermarket Muzak -- perfect aural Valium. It's a subtle, tender, often lavishly programmatic record that comes as close as anything yet has to transcending the banality of the conservationist-polemic-as-art line.

It's also cornball as hell, particularly the core of the album, the three-part "California Saga." Art rock, 1968-style, is not dead as long as there's music like this around; the instrumental background could be the Moody Blues performing excerpts from "King of Kings." It is sheer brocade, framed with such profundities as "Lenin has lived and Jehovah died, while the mother-eagle hunts her same hills," and "A whisper of the world will let you soar with your soul." The poet Robinson Jeffers is also back in there somewhere -- not that it matters, for it is the highly individual pretensions of Mike Love that shine through with each cliché.

Even better is "Sail on Sailor," a beautiful mixture of old New Orleans r-&-b balladry and classic Beach Boys harmonies, with a taste of the Band in the vocals and instrumental fills. It's an obvious AM hit, too. Many of these songs seem almost like some weird meeting of Stephen Foster and Charles Reich, and the miracle is that even old reactionaries like me find it pure balm. Both Foster and the Band show up again in "Steamboat," although Beach Boys manager Jack Reiley's lyrics weaken the effect -- lines like "Banks of thirsty lies" are better left to Jethro Tull.

The rest of the material isn't quite as strong, but all of it is palatable, moody, borderline middle-of-the-road. "Leavin' This Town" is a pleasant, Beatlish ballad; "Only with You" sounds almost like a Pet Sounds outtake; and "Funky Pretty" even manages to make the customary astrological banalities bearable. "Mount Vernon and Fairway," which occupies the bonus EP enclosed, is a little fairy tale by Brian, and it sounds vaguely like a Francis Lai score for some French soap opera. It's all about a young prince in a tinsel kingdom who has a magic transistor radio, and cosmic four-year-olds of all ages will find it a delight.

If much of this review's praise sounds somewhat backhanded, it's only because I find the Beach Boys themselves trapped by their style; they were most significant and profound when they weren't writing about high school and cars -- and all their attempts to "move with the times" have only resulted in more self-consciousness. But if Brian Wilson's art is often uncomfortably close to Muzak, so is much of the finest pop music being produced today (Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, Marvin Gaye's albums, even Miles Davis' recent work). You can swim in its lush images or just let it fan you from the background; either way, it's really nice to have around.

- Lester Bangs, Stereo Review, 4/73.

Every Beach Boy gets some innings as writer, lead vocalist and producer on this eclectically fascinating LP, which came out of their recent Holland sojourn. The single is "Sail On, Sailor," a pop pick in Billboard on Jan. 6. Album is actually 1 1/2 sides, with insert of 7-inch LP disk featuring Brian Wilson's biggest contribution, a childishly whimsical fairy tale titled "Mt. Vernon And Fairway" about a prince with a magic transistor radio.

- Billboard, 1973.

The past year has been a bountiful one for fans of the Beach Boys. First there was Carl And The Passions - So Tough, then a reissue of Pet Sounds last spring and now Holland, a collection of nine new songs to get us through the new year. For the aficionado, sampling a fresh Beach Boys album can be likened to discovering the merits of an untried wine -- it's an event! Well, to continue the analogy a little further, let's say that Holland is a light sparkling Burgundy that leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

No matter where they travel (their current refuge is Holland), the Beach Boys never quite lose sight of the Southern California shoreline. Side one of the new LP presents a three-track, ten-minute suite touching on the fortunes and foibles of one long-heralded territory -- "California Saga/Big Sur," Mike Love's unobtrusive paean to the comforting splendors, "California Saga/The Beaks Of Eagles," pits the imagery of Big Sur poet Robinson Jeffers against the more primitive incursions of rhythmic harmonies; and "California Saga/California" sends us back through a funnel of Alan Jardine's fashioning into the big breakers of a beach splashed in the sunshine of a new world.

Every Beach Boys' record seems to have a couple of songs which rise above the others. And just as Surf's Up brought us the title tune plus Bruce Johnston's inspired "Disney Girls (1957)" and So Tough boasted "He Come Down" and "Marcella," this album vaults into the mystic via "Steamboat," a Dennis Wilson-Jack Rieley collaboration which paddles flashes of beauty through the consciousness with a relentlessness that is disarming, and "Only With You," a song composed by Dennis and Mike Love that is a clean statement of feelings set against a sparse musical backwall. For all its conventionality of view, this album remains oddly touching. All in all, this album is only the latest in what has become a string of Beach Boy LP pearls.

- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 3/73.

I admit that this sounds real good -- it's engineered clear and bright as a redwood mountain stream -- but to overlook what's doing the sounding is formalism as deliberate stupidity. That is, the actual music and words are murky and dim. I suppose that in time their tongue-tied travelogue of Big Sur may seem no more escapist than "Fun Fun Fun," but who'll ever believe it's equally simple, direct or innocent? C

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The California sun mixed with mysticisms and some outrageous sound experiments (all with a great beat). A failed effort to renew the group's sound with a change of venue (to Holland) that is salvaged largely by the presence of one great rock number ("Sail on Sailor") and a conceptual piece ("California Saga") that has a phenomenal middle section. * * *

- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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