Review: Beach Boys Plumb Vaults for Post-‘Pet Sounds’ Gems
Heavenly acapellas, covers, stoner ramblings, and other rarities from the 1968 ‘Friends’ and ’20/20’ sessions are spruced up and issued on the latest digital dump from the band’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 band’s lowest-ever LP rank. Perhaps, in the midst of so much cultural chaos, it didn’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 project’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 band’s annual vault-scraping to protect the copyright on unreleased material, which otherwise would expire after a half-century’s time. (The band also releasedÂ On Tour: 1968Â ”” 100-plus tracks of live recordings from the period.)
Issued straight to digital (though physical releases haven’t been ruled out), the session sets are aimed atÂ BeachÂ BoysÂ superfans. But there’s a broad appeal to these essentially deconstructed albums ”” issued apart from the final LPs, unlike most outtake collections ”” 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. It’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 “Transcendental Meditation” work together equally well ”” it’s better and definitely weirder than the original. Almost all the included a cappellas are magical. After all, theÂ BeachÂ Boys’ collective voices were a unique instrument ”” as if Stradivarius made a single violin ”” and hearing them isolated is a joy, almost regardless of what they’re singing.
The arrangements are some of Brian Wilson’s most interesting, with lovely international inflections. “Even Steven,” an early version of “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” is an elegant bossa nova, like the final version, but taken at a slightly brisker tempo. The piano figure on an instrumental bit of “Anna Lee the Healer” (a song about the band’s masseuse, apparently) sounds transposed from Joe Cuba’s 1966 Latin boogaloo hit “Bang Bang,” though the vibe is decidedly more chill. “Diamond Head,” 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 Wilson’s receding role. Two of the original album’s highlights ”” “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence” ”” were 1966 outtakes from the abortedÂ SmileÂ project, and aren’t represented here. Other standouts were covers: Ersel Hickey’s 1958 “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” (recently revived by Robert Plant and Chrissie Hynde) and the Ronettes’ “I Can Hear Music.” The variants here are tasty, as are Wilson’s dizzying high notes on the fragment of “Walk on By.” Burt Bacharach was a big influence on him at this point. Wilson’s solo cover of Love’s “My Little Red Book,” another Bacharach-Hal David gem, appears onÂ Wake the World. It’s long circulated as a bootleg, and spruced up here it’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 “Little Bird” and the remix ofÂ Â “A Time to Live in Dreams” are beautiful. So is “Never Learn Not to Love,” albeit in an unsettling way. Dennis had just gotten involved with the Manson family, and though Charles Manson isn’t credited as co-writer, the song is generally accepted to be a revision of his “Cease to Exist.” That backstory always highlighted the song’s creepiness; the a cappella here brings it out even more.
Then there’s Dennis’ trippy spoken-word excursion on a piece of tape titled “The Gong,” teetering between what sounds like stoned studio hijinks and something scarier. (“Maybe that’s my problem: self destruction,” he says at one point.) What’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 band’s mastery, is how the recordings humanize a group whose catalog is built on flawless pop gems ”” 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 Boys’ accomplishments seem all the more impressive.