The Beach Boys are one of the stranger phenomena of rock. In 1963, they were responsible for some of the best rock by whites before the Beatles. They created a style, now dated, more sociologically than musically. The style has altered (improved, even), though not as much as the music itself.
The current album is a collage of several different phases of the group’s career. “Do It Again” is the best California rock song they’ve done since “Help Me, Rhonda,” an authentic lyric, fine hand-clap drum, lush in a more disciplined way than on Pet Sounds. “I Can Hear Music” has an interesting alto chorus, a balance of strong vocals rather than, as on most of the other cuts, a solo with backing. Almost, but not quite, tight enough. “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” is distinguished by subtle, even humorous, but nonetheless driving piano (here, as throughout their later stuff, Brian’s piano is the central instrument, rather than guitar). The chorus here is nasal, and is a disadvantage. The “psychedelic” guitar is seemingly out of place, but undeniably good.
“Be With Me,” by Dennis Wilson, uses woodwinds effectively, with heavy emphasis on brass that is, but for a couple of notes, quite tasteful. Again, this is reminiscent of Pet Sounds, where the major influence on Brian seemed to be Motown — a creative influence that, however, also fit right in with the temptation to over-sentimentalize the music. The fadeout on this piece is the highlight, a Space Odyssey-like distortion of strings and vocals. “All I want to Do,” with fine piano and a simple but perfect bass line, uses guitar better than anywhere else on the album. The vocal is, ultimately, convincing. “The Nearest Faraway Place” is an alternately interesting and grotesquely over-done instrumental.
The second side has the record’s two best pieces, one being the first band, “Cotton Fields” (that “Cotton Fields”), on which piano gives depth to harpsichord, the vocal is superb, the arrangement tight, and echo used better and more tastefully than by anyone since Phil Spector.
“I Went to Sleep” is not rock at all, but pop well-arranged. “Time to Get Alone” resolves the contradictions between pop and rock, with a real balancing of vocals tied together by simple but effective drums; violin, the most abused of all rock instruments, is employed with restraint. “Never Learn Not to Love” is a fine vocal, though the material itself is an uncertain mixture of pop and soul influences. “Our Prayer” is a nice prayer, but undemanding.
“Cabinessence,” the last cut on the second side, is one of the finest things Brian has ever done, a product of the Smiley Smile collaboration with Parks, whose extraordinary gift it is to make a cliche grow into a world: “Lost and found you still remain there/I’ll nind a meadow filled with reindeer —/I’ll build you a home on the range.” The totally orchestrated cacophony was an innovation in rock when they used it in Smiley Smile, and is still done here better than anywhere else. Piano imitates ukelele, and the solo vocal is gentle, but brilliant.
A good album, flawed mainly by a lack of direction (a sense of direction being last evident in Wild Honey), more a collection than a whole.