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This Beach Boys "Twofer," joins together of the 1968 Friends album and 20/20 from the following year.
The Beach Boys had an ever changing sound at this point in time. From the perfection of Pet Sounds in 1966 with its lush instrumental backing tracks, 1967 brought us the stripped down home studio sound of Smiley Smiley and 1968 gave us the soulful Wild Honey. It's a fair bet that anyone around at that time had no idea what the next releases would be like.
The instrumentation through most of this album is softly strumming guitars or ukulele, piano, a bit of organ, some strings here and there, woodwind and soft percussion. It's all so gentle and relaxing. .
First Friends, the track listing;
Meant For you
Wake the World
When A Man Needs A Woman
Anna Lee, the Healer
Busy Doing Nothin'
That title of the last track gives a very big clue as to what this album is all about and how it sounds. What we have here is surely The Beach Boys' most laid back album released at a time when rock was developing a harder edge. Needless to say, it was a commercial flop with its highest US chart position being in the mid 100's. Over here in the UK, we Beach Boy loving folk gave it a more respectable high of number 13.
Chart success however, is never an indication of quality. Many an album ignored by the record buying public on its initial release turns out to be great and this album fall into the category.
We open with Meant For You, a song that last just 38 seconds long but that's all it needs to set the mellow scene for what it is to come. It has Mike Love on lead vocal giving one of his softest ever vocals, and it's great. Mike Love, in case you don't know, sings the leads on songs such as California Girls, Surfin' USA and Fun, Fun,Fun. He's also the bass in the harmonies. On this lead he uses something closer to his bass harmony voice than his usual lead style .
The title track is in ¾ time and has a lead by Carl Wilson, the voice of God Only Knows. As always his vocal is beautiful and as is to be expected on this album this is another laid back track with gorgeous layered harmonies. It has an odd mix in that the drums and bass are so up front but that's not a bad thing in this case.
Brian Wilson has his first lead vocal of the album on Wake the World. A cyclical song that starts in the morning and ends at night, this is another very short song that only just struggles over a minute and a half. It's a great song however and is perfect as it is. If it was longer it would just be padding. You can always put it on replay if you need to hear it more than once.
After all these vocals in a low register it wouldn't' be The beach Boys without a falsetto lead and we get one on Be Here in the Morning.
By 1968 Brian's falsetto had lost it little of its sweetness due to his much talked about lifestyle so it has a slightly different tone. But wait, this isn't a Brian Wilson falsetto, this is the clean living Al Jardine whose best know leads are Help Me Rhonda and Then I Kissed her. At this point in time it is near impossible to tell some of Brian and Al's vocals apart which was quite fortunate because Brian was no longer touring and Al did a great job live. Many an argument has taken place over the years about whether vocals from this period were Al or Brian. They can sound totally different at times, but quite often in the late 60's and through the 70's there is always a vocal that sounds like it could be either one of them and the arguments begin. .
Back to the song, and this is another easy going ¾ song with lots of organ, strumming ukulele and some bells sprinkled on it. Lovely.
When A Man Needs a Woman is the facts of life according to Brian and was written while his wife was pregnant. It seems Brian was assuming he'd have a son, I hope he wasn't too disappointed when Carnie and Wendy turned up. Passing By follows this and this is a song with no lyrics, just Oooh's and aaah's by Carl, Brian and Al. Very nice.
Anna Lee, The healer is another Mike Love lead and tells the story of a faith healer. I like the piano line on this very much and once again the harmonies are perfect.
Up until now all the songs have been written by Brian Wilson in collaboration with some of the other Beach boys. Now we reach a couple of Dennis Wilson songs, Little Bird and Be Still. Little Bird was the first Dennis penned song that was recorded and it's an excellent song too. Dennis is a great and underrated singer and give very good vocal performance on both his leads here This is one of the standout tracks of the album.
Busy Doing Nothin' is another Brian song, this time written solely by him and it's totally different from anything else he had written up to this point in his career. It has a kind of bossa nova beat and the lyrics can be best described as "Slice of Life." In much the same way as I'd Love Just Once To See You from the Wild honey album this song is Brian writing about what he does all day and is written during his reclusive phase. Another beautiful song from Brian here but given the subject matter in hand it is tinged with sadness.
Diamond Head is an atmospheric Hawaiian instrumental that fits in here perfectly unlike the very last track, Transcendental Meditation. For me this is the weakest song on the album and I'm not very keen on it. I've always considered this song to be something to wake us up and bring us back to the real world.
The track listing for 20/20 is;
1) Do It Again
2) I Can Hear Music
3) Bluebirds Over the Mountain
4) Be With Me
5) All I Want To Do
6) The Nearest far Away Place
7) Cotton Fields
8) I Went To Sleep
9) Time to get Alone
10) Never Learn Not To Love
11) Our Prayer
This album isn't dominated by Brian Wilson compositions like every other album was up to this point and so is a mixture of all kinds of styles in one quite short album. I say Brian Wilson doesn't dominate this album, I should clarify that I mean numerically. Quality wise Brian's songs are without doubt the high points of the album.
Starting with Do It Again which is arguably the best collaboration between Brian and Mike Love. This is an upbeat number with an amazing effect on the drums in the intro. The songs looks back on those happy times of carefree surfing. Given where they were in their careers and how Brian's mental condition had deteriorated through the years I'm sure those days seemed a life time ago for Brian when this was written.
I Went To Sleep is the next on the list of Brian compositions for this album. This is another 3/4 waltz and has a truly beautiful melody. This is a very laid back affair as you'd expect from the title. I've always felt it would have fit in perfectly on Friends. It is another in Brian's slice of life songs. It's a lovely song. Short but lovely.
Time to Get Alone is one of those songs that Brian tinkered with a rerecorded more than a few times. This final version is excellent. With the lead vocal by Carl and yes, another 3/4 time signature. This is a song with an incredible vocal harmony arrangement and takes a few listens to hear everything that's going on. There are some lovely strings in the arrangement that you may take time to notice. It's one of the highlights of the album for me.
Closing the album we have the two Smile outtakes. Our prayer is a vocals only and is just The Beach Boys blend at its finest. It sounds very spiritual but with harmonies this heavenly how could it not.
Cabinessence is for me the very best song here and could very well my favourite song of all time. It is creative with poetic, obscure lyrics by Van Dyke Parks and is a musical masterpiece. It has three sections and each is wonderfully crafted. This song has amazingly complicated vocal harmonies. Just listening to the backing track is a joy. This is a truly awesome piece of music.
As for the songs not written by Brian Wilson the pick of them are I Can Hear Music, and Be with Me and Never Learn Not To Love
Written by Phil Spector and originally recorded by the Ronnetes I can Hear Music is one of those rare times when a cover actually surpasses the original. Brian had nothing to do with this song at all and Carl was in charge of the sessions, vocal arrangements and he sang the lead vocal too. It's a very good song and a classic. .
Be With Me is written by Dennis Wilson and continues where he left off on Friends. This is an excellent song with a beautiful arrangement. A little eerie, but certainly one of his very best.
Never Learn Not To Love is another Dennis song. I say it's a Dennis song, it was originally written by Charles Manson and called Cease to Exist but Dennis changed some lyrics and turned it into a proper song, not just the mutterings of a crazy man. With these two songs I hope Dennis managed to shake off the "Just a drummer," tag. He was a very talented songwriter.
The Nearest Far Away Place is a Bruce Johnson instrumental and is quite clearly influenced by Pet Sounds. The best way to describe it is adult contemporary. Not nearly as good as what influenced him to write the song in the first place but this is a very nice instrumental with a pretty melody.
The remaining songs Blue Birds Over the Mountain, All I Want to Do and Cotton fields aren't favourites of mine at all.
On this twofer we also get five bonus tracks. Breakaway is the first. It has one of Brian's great vocal arrangements. This song was the last music the band released under Capitol Records, thus the title Breakaway.
Celebrate the News is an excellent big production from Dennis. The lyrics in this also hint to a similar theme to Breakaway.
We're Together Again is a short song that I would I wish was longer. Like all the bonus tracks here it would have enhanced the 20/20 album if it replaced any of the weaker tracks there.
Walk On By is a Burt Bacharach cover with excellent vocals from Brian and Dennis.
Old Folk Home At Home/ Ol' Man River is curious but a very nicely done cover of two songs, one an American classic the other from a musical. I wonder if this could have been expanded or indeed was and is in the vaults somewhere
Overall this is an excellent Twofer and has a lot of material that is virtually unknown outside the hardcore Beach Boy following or those that bought the twofer thinking they would be getting something that was Fun, Fun, Fun but got a very nice surprise.
Friends is definitely the stronger album but 20/20 has its fair share of highlights and is possibly commercially more catchy on first listen.
For anybody wanting to hear a totally different Beach Boys sound or is just curious as to what else they did besides the hits and Pet Sounds this is an excellent starting point.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Meant For You
3 Wake The World
4 Be Here In The Morning
5 When A Man Needs A Woman
6 Passing By
7 Anna Lee The Healer
8 Little Bird
9 Be Still
10 Busy Doing Nothing
11 Diamond Head
12 Transcendental Meditation
13 Do It Again
14 I Can Hear Music
15 Bluebirds Over The Mountain
16 Be With Me
17 All I Want To Do
18 Nearest Faraway Place
19 Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song)
20 I Went To Sleep
21 Time To Get Alone
22 Never Learn Not To Love
23 Our Prayer
25 Break Away
26 Celebrate The News
27 We're Together Again
28 Walk On By
29 Old Folks At Home/Ol' Man Rive