Review: Beach Boys Plumb Vaults for Post-â€˜Pet Soundsâ€™ Gems
Heavenly acapellas, covers, stoner ramblings, and other rarities from the 1968 â€˜Friendsâ€™ and â€™20/20â€² sessions are spruced up and issued on the latest digital dump from the bandâ€™s fabled vaults
TheÂ Beach Boys
WakeÂ the World: The Friends Sessions
I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions
Brian Wilson once conceded that whileÂ Pet SoundsÂ may be his best album,Â FriendsÂ was his favorite. Released in 1968, shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the supremely chill, transcendental-meditation-poweredÂ FriendsÂ LP was less beloved by record buyers. ByÂ BeachÂ BoysÂ standards, it tanked, peaking at Number 126 on theÂ Billboardcharts, the bandâ€™s lowest-ever LP rank. Perhaps, in the midst of so much cultural chaos, it didnâ€™t speak directly enough to the urgency of the time.
Listening to theÂ FriendsÂ sessions 50 years later, in the midst of our current cultural chaos, it may be easier to hear the projectâ€™s logic, and its beauty.Â Wake the World: The Friends SessionsÂ andÂ I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 SessionsÂ are two of the latest entries in the bandâ€™s annual vault-scraping to protect the copyright on unreleased material, which otherwise would expire after a half-centuryâ€™s time. (The band also releasedÂ On Tour: 1968Â â€” 100-plus tracks of live recordings from the period.)
Issued straight to digital (though physical releases havenâ€™t been ruled out), the session sets are aimed atÂ BeachÂ BoysÂ superfans. But thereâ€™s a broad appeal to these essentially deconstructed albums â€” issued apart from the final LPs, unlike most outtake collections â€” that makes them easy to dig, and lets the music be heard afresh. In the case of theÂ FriendsÂ sessions,Â this is partly because the finished album was a set of delicate miniatures; only two of its 12 songs clocked in above the three-minute mark. The title waltz, for instance, appears in this new release as kaleidoscopic instrumental for harmonica, vibraphone, strings, electric piano, a drum shuffle played with brushes, and more. Itâ€™s followed by an a cappella version, the rising and descending harmonies in relief against a backdrop of churchlike silence. Taken together, they almost constitute an avant-garde remix. Three versions of â€œTranscendental Meditationâ€ work together equally well â€” itâ€™s better and definitely weirder than the original. Almost all the included a cappellas are magical. After all, theÂ BeachÂ Boysâ€™ collective voices were a unique instrument â€” as if Stradivarius made a single violin â€” and hearing them isolated is a joy, almost regardless of what theyâ€™re singing.
The arrangements are some of Brian Wilsonâ€™s most interesting, with lovely international inflections. â€œEven Steven,â€ an early version of â€œBusy Doinâ€™ Nothinâ€™,â€ is an elegant bossa nova, like the final version, but taken at a slightly brisker tempo. The piano figure on an instrumental bit of â€œAnna Lee the Healerâ€ (a song about the bandâ€™s masseuse, apparently) sounds transposed from Joe Cubaâ€™s 1966 Latin boogaloo hit â€œBang Bang,â€ though the vibe is decidedly more chill. â€œDiamond Head,â€ with its slide guitar and ukulele, conjures Hawaiian music through the lens of Martin Denny-style exotica, but with more imagination.
I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 SessionsÂ is less rich, perhaps because of Wilsonâ€™s receding role. Two of the original albumâ€™s highlights â€” â€œOur Prayerâ€ and â€œCabinessenceâ€ â€” were 1966 outtakes from the abortedÂ SmileÂ project, and arenâ€™t represented here. Other standouts were covers: Ersel Hickeyâ€™s 1958 â€œBluebirds Over the Mountainâ€ (recently revived by Robert Plant and Chrissie Hynde) and the Ronettesâ€™ â€œI Can Hear Music.â€ The variants here are tasty, as are Wilsonâ€™s dizzying high notes on the fragment of â€œWalk on By.â€ Burt Bacharach was a big influence on him at this point. Wilsonâ€™s solo cover of Loveâ€™s â€œMy Little Red Book,â€ another Bacharach-Hal David gem, appears onÂ Wake the World. Itâ€™s long circulated as a bootleg, and spruced up here itâ€™s a marvel, veering from goofball high drama to heart-wrenching musicality and back in the space of a line or two. As a portrait of an unstable genius with his heart on his sleeve, it might be the most arresting thing here.
Honorable mention goes to material written by brother Dennis Wilson, just beginning to come into his own as a songwriter. The a cappella of his â€œLittle Birdâ€ and the remix ofÂ Â â€œA Time to Live in Dreamsâ€ are beautiful. So is â€œNever Learn Not to Love,â€ albeit in an unsettling way. Dennis had just gotten involved with the Manson family, and though Charles Manson isnâ€™t credited as co-writer, the song is generally accepted to be a revision of his â€œCease to Exist.â€ That backstory always highlighted the songâ€™s creepiness; the a cappella here brings it out even more.
Then thereâ€™s Dennisâ€™ trippy spoken-word excursion on a piece of tape titled â€œThe Gong,â€ teetering between what sounds like stoned studio hijinks and something scarier. (â€œMaybe thatâ€™s my problem: self destruction,â€ he says at one point.) Whatâ€™s ultimately most fascinating aboutÂ Wake the World: The Friends SessionsÂ andÂ I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions, aside from how they put a magnifying glass on the bandâ€™s mastery, is how the recordings humanize a group whose catalog is built on flawless pop gems â€” showing not only the seams in the construction, but crud and sweat and instability behind it all. Rather than undermining them, it makes theÂ BeachÂ Boysâ€™ accomplishments seem all the more impressive.