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Seeing as the Sunflower album is now only available on a twofer with Surf's Up I will review both albums here. .
First up is Sunflower and what a splendid album it is. At the time this was recorded Brian Wilson was withdrawing more and more into his own world and the other band member took it upon themselves to create an album using their own talents along with whatever input Brian was willing and able to offer. That may not sound like a recipe for making one of the best post Pet Sounds albums but it actually works.
Brian Wilson's contributions on Sunflower totals 7 of the 12 songs, mostly co-writing but the one written solely by him is the two minute wonder This Whole World. What a song this is! If you can read music the chord changes make no sense,. There are far too many changes and no sign of a regular chord progression at all but Brian Wilson makes this song rock. The lead vocal from little brother Carl Wilson is the icing on the cake and is a real highlight of Sunflower.
Dennis Wilson was the Beach Boy to really stand up and be counted on this album. The man we all thought was just a great live drummer (but mediocre in the studio) writes four songs, one of which is Dennis' most well known song a ballad that tugs at the heart strings called Forever.
Dennis has a style that is far removed from big brother Brian's but the contrast works here on Sunflower unlike some of the later albums by the boys.
Sunflower ends with the Smile outtake Cool Cool Water, and Surf's Up begins with the aquatically themed Don't go Near the Water.
So onto Surf's up we go and of the two albums here, this is my favourite. Maybe it is because I was given Surf's up for Christmas when I was 8 years old that it holds a dear place in my heart where only Pet Sounds keeps it company.
With the exception of Student Demonstration Time I enjoy every track here immensely, even take a Load off Your feet. Bruce Johnson's best song Disney Girls and Carl Wilson's best Beach Boy songs Long promised Road and Feel Flows are very enjoyable but once again Brian Wilson steals the album with three songs that blew my mind when I first heard them and not a lot has changed in the 28 years since.
First comes A Day in the Life of a Tree. It can be interpreted as a song about the environment but anybody that knows the life and struggles of Brian Wilson will come to the same conclusion I did and believe he wrote it about himself. The lead vocal is by the then Beach Boys manager Jack Reiley who was tricked by Brian (He though he was doing a sound test) into singing his one and only lead vocal. The haunting organ that opens the track gives way to some chirping birds and concludes with some of the finest harmonies ever recorded. Much like the tag to God Only Knows, the tag is a round with Jack Reiley joined by Smile lyric writer Van Dyke Parks and the underrated quiet man of the Beach Boys Al Jardine. It is mesmerising.
Next comes Till I Die. Once again this song sounds to me like Brian is writing about himself and his own mental problems though these days Brian says it is about how he feels small. This song also finishes with more incredible harmonies that surpass even those on A Day in the Life of a Tree.
Finally the album closes with a song that was intended for the abandoned Smile project, Surf's Up. For me this is the best song on this twofer and indeed one of the greatest songs ever written. For this 1971 version of the song Brian was coaxed out of his bed to sing on the new backing track because Brian original vocal didn't quite fit the timing of the new version. Unfortunately Brian couldn't sing it anymore so Carl sings the first section and gives a stellar performance. Brian's original vocal from the Smile sessions does feature in the second section however and is gorgeous. Again the tag is a wave of harmonies and quite stunning
Overall this twofer is great value and deserves a place in the collection of anybody that has even a passing interest in the music of the Beach Boys. It could very well be the start of a lifelong adoration of those Hawthorne boys as it was for me.
The only complaint I can muster with this twofer is that, unlike the other twofers in the series, there are no bonus tracks. If there is ever a reissue of this twofer I would hope that at least Dennis Wilson's Wouldn't It Be Nice To Live Again would feature because it is one of the very best Beach Boy songs but only a handful of people have ever heard it.
Sunflower is one of those albums which is critically acclaimed but has had little commercial success. Recorded at the end of the 1960s and finally released in 1970, it featured a lot of individual effort from the five Beach Boys and combined their talents in one album, taking many different guises before finally being released with these 12 tracks:
Slip On Through
This Whole World
Add Some Music To The Day
Got To Know The Woman
It's About Time
Tears In The Morning
All I Wanna Do
Our Sweet Love
At My Window
Cool, Cool Water
Another version was released in Europe which included the well known track Cottonfields, but these 12 are the original selection. The album was their 21st official release, the 13th made in studio, and is hailed by many as atrue collector's item. It is not one of the band's albums that is readily available in the shops, indeed, most shops are probably only likely to stock a 'Best Of' album from them these days, but if you can get hold of one of these abums, it is worth having a good listen to the feeling in some of these tracks.
My favourite track on the album is 'Forever'. It is written and sung with such passion by Dennis Wilson, the younger brother and drummer, that is surprised the rest of the band, who had long fought over whether Dennis deserved his place in the band at all, such were his antics and lack of self-control. However, the expression he shows in this track and in others including the opening track, 'Slip On Through' are magical indeed.
'Tears In The Morning' was a well written and melodic piece, and the rest of the album comes together well but in a rather emotional way. The raw emotion here on the album is something rarely seen in their work since the early 'Pet Sounds' album that launched them so well. The lack of commercial drive in this album is what makes it so special, and it is rare for me to find an album which so truly has so much emotion and subtle opinion in it, especially coming at a time when the Beach Boys' personal lives were being dragged around without much care by fans and critics alike.
If you can find a copy of this, I suggest getting it. I appreciate that the commercial element is missing, and as such you would need to be a staunch music fan as opposed to someone who likes a catchy tune in order to like this a lot, but it's definitely worth a listen to experience the emotion, particularly from Brian and Dennis Wilson, who were at loggerheads with each other throughout the Beach Boys' illustrious career, and before Dennis' death, despite being brothers.
Sunflower is on CD on amazon.co.uk in various guises and editions from around the £4 mark for a used copy. This is a bargain in my eyes, and would make someone a very good Christmas or even birthday present. Recommended.
Sunflower catches The Beach Boys at an odd stage in their career. Having basically single handedly created their sound up until Pet Sounds (1966) and beyond, Brian Wilson stepped back, and a more democratic period followed, embodied by several patchy, but lovable albums for capitol.
This was their first album for new label Warners, and it really sounds like a new start for the group. Gone is the muddy, cobbled together production of the preceding few albums- replaced here by a glorious ambient stereo production, light years ahead of anything else at the time, some KILLER songs from Brian, (cool cool water and this whole world are up there with anything he's written) and most notably from his brother Dennis, who contributes the romantic classic 'forever', knowing grinder 'got to know the woman' and futuristic (for the time) opener 'slip on through'.
In it's own way, this album is as much of a classic as is Pet Sounds, and points the way to a future The Beach Boys never QUITE managed to live up to, beyond 1973- and should not be missed out by even casual fans of the bands later sound. Highly recommended
Because the current layout of this album incorporates two records sandwiched together ('Sunflower' and 'Surf's up'), I will review both, but separately, as they show different musical representations and periods in time.
My interest in the music of The Beach Boys, like many others, began with Pet Sounds. After allowing the genius and magnitude of that 1966 recording to sink in, I grew curious about their other albums, and so took in the rest of their late 60's and early 70's output. Whilst the steady run of albums post Pet Sounds are still high on my overall list of favourites, at first listen Sunflower seemed to have the greatest affect on me, and still does today. This reaction is not only because of the songs themselves, but also due to the state of the group at the time.
Since the abandonment of the Smile album, Brian Wilson's apparent decline in mental health and musical interest and output had resulted in a series of well made, but ever so slightly disjointed records. Having retreated gradually from the writing and recording process, Brian's lack of input had forced the other members of the group to force the way ahead with their own contributions. Although the albums following Pet Sounds feature moments of brilliance both from Brian, and the other members, they are accompanied by other moments that simply do not fit in with their surroundings, or are not good enough, and so slightly disrupt the sound. In my opinion, Sunflower sees the group effectively 'come of age', and record an album that does not suffer greatly due to increased member input (Dennis Wilson in particular), and lack of writing, singing, and production from Brian. This increase in collective song writing quality is reflected in the music itself, which gives off an air of happiness, pride, and contentment. The photo on the cover of the album reflects this attitude, with the image of the group and various family members appearing to state, "Here we are, and here is our music". Sadly, many people agree that Sunflower was the last consistently great Beach Boys record, and the subsequent releases, (possibly excluding sections of Surf's Up, and Holland) never managed to maintain that same level of quality again.
'Slip on through' kicks off the album with Dennis Wilson on accomplished lead vocal, and is a thoroughly groovy affair, with the rest of the group harmonizing on the chorus section.
'This whole world' is a Brian Wilson composition, and features both he and Carl on lead vocals. The general feel to the track is happy, thanks to the uplifting backing vocals, and subtle touches such as the xylophone/glockenspiel present in the backing track.
'Add some music to your day' really grew on me. At first, I thought it was far too cliché and frankly rather dull, but after a while I gradually began to appreciate the contrast between the restrained lead vocals (shared through all the members of the group), and the soaring backing vocals, and it eventually became one of my favourites from the album.
'Got to know the woman' is a jaunty and slightly raunchy rock n' roll number from Dennis, which manages to surprise the listener with the ascending pitch in the chorus. Dennis's cheeky lead vocal shows his ability to diversify both lyrically, and musically from his other more 'sensitive' contributions such as 'Forever', and the driving rhythm of this song foreshadows some later efforts to appear on his solo album 'Pacific Ocean Blue'.
'Deirdre' is the first of two songs on the album penned by late addition to the group (1966/67) Bruce Johnson, albeit with help from Brian, and displays his considerable talent for melody and the creation of a rich, full sound. This song is clever, because it clearly shows influence from Brian's work, but at the same time remains a recognisably 'Bruce Johnson' composition.
'It's about time' is very much a song from Carl, Dennis, and Al, as it is fairly different in style from most of Brian's work. Carl sings a strong lead vocal, and there is a rare guitar solo in a song that is fairly powerful, and would have undoubtedly been good to play and hear live.
'Tears in the morning' is the other Bruce Wilson effort, this time credited solely to him. Once again his fantastic song writing ability is shown, and although his voice appears fairly weak in comparison to the likes of Carl, it seems to suit the song, and the message he is trying to put across.
'All I wanna do' is a fairly rare collaboration from this time between Brian Wilson and Mike Love, who were very different types of musicians. Any differences are thrown aside here however, with a truly peaceful and well-meaning song being the result. Considering some of Mike's later efforts on lead vocal, this piece shows how good he really could be when he had the creative help and guidance of his cousin Brian. Mike Love at his best.
'Forever' is perhaps Dennis Wilson's main song, the one that everybody knows him for, and defines him by. Written by Dennis and one of his close friends, it shows his understanding of expression of emotion through music, and the manner in which he sings (particularly the last verse) gives the impression that he is really putting his heart into the song.
'Our sweet love' is a piece written by Brian, Carl, and Al, and undoubtedly displays heavy influence from Brian in its structure and content. Carl's lead vocal is reminiscent of many of Brian's Pet Sounds songs, and drifts and weaves seamlessly with the flowing backing track.
'At my window' is a very interesting song, as it was written by Al Jardine with help from Brian, but sung by Bruce. Many find that Bruce's voice doesn't suit this song, but much like 'Add some music...' the song is a real grower. Bruce's gentle and simple singing puts across the innocent observational nature of the lyrics, and there is a definite 'Brian Wilson' touch to the song, with the spoken French words, and the explosive harmony preceding and following the final verse.
'Cool, cool water' is an effort originally intended for inclusion on the aborted 'Smile' album from 1967. Although written by Wilson and Love, it is a predominantly Brian song, as it features many traits typical of his Smile pieces, such as gentle relaxing sections arranged with more experimental interludes. In this case, the main body of the song appears to be a harmonious description of the various benefits of cool, cool water, with the vocal input perfectly restrained and in tune from all members. Halfway through the song the melody drifts out to be replaced by a period of swirling, windy noise, before re-entering into the main format again. Even though it was three years old at the time of inclusion (a long time in the 60's), it still sounds very much like it is the right piece to include on the album, and is yet another great composition from the creatively talented Brian.
Overall, Sunflower is often overlooked by general music fans and critics alike as an album from a period of declining output from the Beach Boys. However, I believe it to be a fine effort, and personally rate it second only to Pet Sounds in my list of their favourite albums (although Wild Honey and Friends are also very good). The cohesion and harmony of this album represent the last time that The Beach Boys were all walking down the same path to create an album as a more collective effort, as the next release 'Surf's up', although still a good collection, was not quite as together as a record. This makes 'Sunflower' for me a final true representation of just how good they really could be as a group of musicians producing high quality songs, and I rate as being an incredibly good album.
Surf's up is an album that contains a real mixture of songs. Whilst the other members do contribute significantly, it is a shame to see no original compositions or vocals from Dennis for whatever reason, as he obviously had a serious talent for writing and singing. There are some great songs on the record, such as 'Til I die', and 'Surf's up' which can be considered classic Beach Boys material, but there are also songs which pull the band in a newer and distinctly more socially aware direction, such as 'Don't go near the water' and 'Student demonstration time'. Along with this, there is input from Carl, with the inclusion of the essentially solo piece 'Feel Flows', and an enduring piece from Bruce, 'Disney Girls (1957)'. Although it is a good album, in comparison to Sunflower and other preceding albums, it seems a little disjointed, which may reflect a less harmonious group at the time of recording.
After the release of Sunflower in 1970, the Beach Boys were forced to re-think their approach due to a lack of sales and heavy criticism for being 'out of touch'. One of the decisions made with the management, and within the group itself, was to write songs that allowed the listener to relate to the band better, through references to current public affairs, attitudes and values. Some members of the band, Love and Jardine in particular took it upon themselves to fulfil this role, and attempted to create songs in this vein. Meanwhile, the other members continued to produce songs as they had done for the last album, which had more abstract meanings and song structures. Perhaps the most interesting section of the album is the sequence of three songs at the end, as they are the only pieces creatively written and arranged by Brian, and feature the most heartfelt and personal lyrics on the album, along with a fantastic completed inclusion from the aborted 'Smile' record 'Surf's Up'.
'Don't go near the water' is a composition by Mike Love and Al Jardine, which deals with issues of water pollution, and was obviously written as a piece for audiences to relate to as a statement. Love's vocals are restrained whilst Jardine's sound more passionate, providing good contrast, and the instrumental backing and harmonies are very performed, but this new territory doesn't really suit The Beach Boys as a group. Also, the ironic title reflects how more happy subject matter has become far more serious, rather like the fun of working together in a group was probably waning at that time.
'Long promised road' is a Carl Wilson contribution, and is fairly upbeat; with typically good lead vocals, and a loud/quiet format. This shows Carl's growing talent for song writing, and studio production.
'Take a load off your feet' is a song originally written and recorded in 1969 for the Sunflower album by Al Jardine with help from Brian. It is a fairly relaxed, fun piece with lead vocals from both Brian and Al. Because it was recorded earlier, Brian's vocal parts sound very clear, and Al also sings in a very accomplished manner, making it an enjoyable song to listen to.
'Disney girls (1957)' is the only Bruce Johnson composition included on the album. Much like his Sunflower offerings, this song shows Bruce's great talent for melodic, and effective song construction, as well as the ability to adapt his fairly weak voice (in comparison with the other members) to suit the gentle flow of the music. The backing vocals also compliment the song perfectly.
'Student demonstration time' is very, very different from everything else on the album, as it is an attempted heavy, and slightly scathing rock n roll number. Once again the subject matter is more socially aware, with Love clearly mentioning events from that period of time in the United States. Due to the form of the song, it really doesn't sound like a Beach Boys piece, and so sticks out like a sore thumb on the record. Whilst something like this is probably fun live, it really isn't very appropriate for album material, and for this reason is for me, the weakest track in the collection.
'Feel flows' is another Carl Wilson piece, and is probably his highlight on the album. The melody and construction of the song is very professionally well done, and the surreal-like quality to the lyrics fit in perfectly with the driving rhythmic and varied instrumental backing. The lead vocals are enveloped in a reverse echo effect which compliment the sound of the rest of the song, and show Carl to be a fantastically creative and aware musician, who was developing his talents greatly at this time in his career with The Beach Boys.
'Lookin' at tomorrow (a welfare song)' is a song written and sung by Al Jardine, and sounds a little bit like a Beatles piece to me, with an eerie lead vocal accompanies by fairly menacing acoustic guitar. Whilst it works as a song, it doesn't sound like a Beach Boys recording.
'A day in the life of a tree' kicks off the final three consecutive Brian Wilson songs at the end of the album, and is immediately recognisable as being one of his compositions. With the backing track written and performed by Brian on an atmospheric organ, and effective lyrics describing the thoughts and feelings of a tree, sung by guest writers Jack Rieley and Van Dyke Parks, this track is incredibly haunting and sad.
'Til I die' is very much a Brian Wilson song, and he has often described it as his most personal composition. The lyrics deal with themes of insignificance and death, subjects far darker than the rest of the album. The fantastically engineered harmonies and flowing music hark back to his earlier compositions from the time of Pet Sounds and Smile, and the lead vocals by Brian, Carl, and Mike are wonderfully well-sung, and fit in perfectly with the sombre mood of the song.
'Surf's up' is a song by Brian and Van Dyke Parks that had been floating around since the Smile sessions in 1966/67, and was finally finished in the studio by Carl, with help from Brian. Originally intended to be one of the main parts of the Smile album, the song features three sections (or movements, whatever ;) with fantastic musical and lyrical content. Brian and Carl's vocals are both stunning, but I cannot help but think how the original piece would have sounded had Smile been completed in 1967, when Brian's voice really was untouchable. Having said that, the decision to include this on the album was still a great one, as it is a true masterpiece of a song, and along with 'Til I die', the best track on the album, and a brilliant way to end the record.
'Surf's up' is an album that gives me very mixed feelings. Brian's contributions are absolutely brilliant, and show once more how good he was as a composer of honest, colourful music. Also, it is good to see other members exploring their own talents further and crafting good songs on their own, particularly Carl. However, this album is not quite consistent enough for me to rate it among my very favourites, as some of the songs do not fit in well enough with their surrounding numbers. Whilst many may see this as a positive display of diversity and expansion of individual talent and subject matter, I am much more in favour of consistent group efforts to be made into one harmonious album. This may seem like an overly high expectation, but after hearing such wonderful records as 'Pet Sounds' and 'Sunflower', it is slightly disappointing to see a change to the formula, even though it was probably enforced by their place in music culture at the time, and probably therefore inevitable.
When the two albums are bought together, I would advise that they are listened to separately, so that they can be understood and appreciated as two different works, or at least with the difference in mind. This will allow better understanding of the music and lyrics, and the way in which the albums form representations of where the group was at the time.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Slip On Through
2 This Whole World
3 Add Some Music To Your Day
4 Got To Know The Woman
6 It's About Time
7 Tears In The Morning
8 All I Wanna Do
10 Our Sweet Love
11 At My Window
12 Cool Cool Water
13 Don't Go Near The Water
14 Long Promised Road
15 Take A Load Off Your Feet
16 Disney Girls
17 Student Demonstration Time
18 Feel Flows
19 Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)
20 Day In The Life Of A Tree
21 Till I Die
22 Surf's Up