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Though I suspect many musicians are loath to admit it, sometimes it pays to keep things simple. And that's the crux of what made The Beach Boys' second album such a pleasure. It arrived in 1963, before the Beatles-led rock 'n' roll revolution upped the stakes, before Brian Wilson endured a period of personal hell fighting to produce the bloated epic (and until recently, unreleased) SMiLE, in a prolonged struggle to recapture the immense critical acclaim that Pet Sounds had been afforded. It was before the band became something of a conceptual guinea-pig, before they started passing lead-vocals around anyone and everyone in the group, before some of the distinctive surf-pop sparkle had begun to dissipate.
But nearly fifty years on from its original release, there's an endearing lack of pretentiousness to Surfin' USA. It's a straight-up surf-pop album which, though a little conservative at times with its themes, largely plays to the strengths of a band that, it's often easy to forget, was extremely young at the time. With a runtime of 24 minutes, it's considered by modern standards slight enough to be routinely bundled alongside its predecessor Surfin' Safari. But 'slight' is too derogative a description; maybe 'streamlined' is more apt. After all, it's marks a logical evolutionary step from their debut; reprising most of what was promising before, and making it sound bigger and better.
It's certainly among The Beach Boys' most cohesive early records; Mike Love and Brian Wilson take lead vocals on three tracks each and share duties on the likable closing number "Finders Keepers", whilst the glut of instrumental tracks allow the remainder of the band to showcase their talents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the album's opener "Surfin' USA" is its biggest draw. Though the contentious lifting of its distinctive guitar riff from Chuck Berry's "My Sweet Little Sixteen" is something of a moot point, there's no question the band stamped their mark on the tune; immensely catchy and chirpy from start to finish, it's beautiful harmonies and brilliantly effective vocal overlaps, as well as Love's unmistakable west-coast tones, make for a glorious, up-tempo classic which hasn't diminished one bit over time.
Indeed, whilst there's no question they like to stick closely to tried and tested themes (cars, surfing and occasionally women), it's the Love vocal tracks that are quintessential early-Beach Boys. His songs buzz with big 'n' busy choruses, with melodies that flow with an easy smoothness. In "Shut Down", Love regales us in an unexpectedly engaging tale of racers battling in a 409 and a Stingray, whilst "Noble Surfer" is an even better one that is an ode to a man of the waves ("A surfin' Casanova with his customised board, a Woody and his dirty white jeans/He takes his choice of honeys up and down the coast, the finest surfer yet to make the scene").
Brian Wilson penned the majority of the album, and it's his vocal tracks that are the most adventurous, hinting at the route the band would take when he became more hands-on with production duties, though they're also inconsistent. "Lonely Sea" is his biggest personal success; a starkly pretty ballad that is noticeably stripped-down, his precise vocals and the gorgeous, deep harmonising make it by a distance the most affecting work on Surfin' USA.
"Farmers Daughter" and "Lana" are comparatively awkward however. Both are hindered somewhat by Wilson's gaudy, shrill falsettos, whilst the former, a fairly innocuous ditty, falls foul of tame lyrics and lines that, by modern interpretation at least, seem like dodgy, half-innuendo ("ain't got no place to stay/glad to help you plough your field, farmer's daughter").
Whilst five instrumentals may seem to labour the point given the relative lack of diversity among some, they were a means of showing a side of a band that "played" as well as "sang". The results are occasionally outstanding, especially if you consider that lead guitarist Carl Wilson and rhythm guitarist David Marks were, at the time, sixteen and fourteen respectively. "Misirlou", inspired by Dick Dale's surf interpretation (later reintroduced to the popular mindset via Pulp Fiction) is an absolute cracker. The brooding, exotic, panicky chords will be an instant fixture even to younger ears, due to its latter-day cinematic associations. This is followed by one of TBB's best self-made efforts "Stoked"; from the outset, the booming, massive guitar licks will have you transfixed in what is a devilishly funky, virtuoso (almost) one-man show from Carl Wilson.
The remainder of the instrumentals are a bit of a patchwork, and by the closing phases the jangly jams start to blend a little bit. A heavier reliance on instrumental and "borrowed" material in the second half also suggests that deadlines might have had a role in stopping the album from being all it could have been; it was the first of three albums the band would release in a period of only seventh months - a crowded schedule in any era. It's re-treading of certain vocal and melodic formulas means you'll like most of it or little of it, and it's only lyrically eloquent in fits and starts, but for a brief LP, it certainly packs its share of highlights. Surfin' USA's easy to listen to, easy to appreciate, and most of all, easy to enjoy.
Surfin' USA; Stoked; Misirlou; Noble Surfer; Shut Down; Lonely Sea
"If everybody had an ocean, across the USA/
Then everybody'd be surfin', like Californ-I-A"
Tracklisting: 1. Surfin U.S.A. 2. Farmer's Daughter 3. Miserlou 4. Stoked 5. Lonely Sea 6. Shut Down 7. Noble Surfer 8. Honky Tonk 9. Lana 10. Surf Jam 11. Let's Go Trippin 12. Finders Keepers 13. Baker Man