From the nasal raunch of “Surfin’ Safari” to the convoluted elegance of “Surf’s Up,” through more than ten years of recording and performing, the Beach Boys have sustained a strong musical identity, even though their original guiding light, Brian Wilson, has increasingly become merely a shadow presence. About the time of Today, other Beach Boys besides Brian and Mike Love began singing lead; by Friends, other members of the group besides Brian were contributing songs. Through it all, with rare lapses, the Beach Boys have clung, for better or worse, to their sound, a collective style that has shown a remarkable capacity for growth.
Holland is a cohesive portrait of that style’s most recent evolutions. In acknowledgment of Brian Wilson’s still honored if slightly mythological status, even within the group, the album both opens and closes with a new Brian opus. As usual, each is informed by a singular sensibility that, currently, seems inclined toward a kind of chamber rock. Blondie Chaplin’s superb vocal on “Sail On Sailor” situates that song between recent Stevie Wonder and vintage Beach Boys, although the expansive harmonies and insistent triplets ultimately assert the group’s own rights.
“Funky Pretty” is more on the guttural side of R&B. A cosmic love song to an astrological lovely, it mounts its grit in a swirl of harmonic complications, again underlining Blondie Chaplin’s more straightforward vocal dexterity with a defiantly baroque choral signature: Vivaldi meets the Regents on a magic synthesizer. It makes for a beautiful track, built on economical and even monotonous musical premises that delight in their unreasonably complex development.
Everyone in the group has contributed at least one song to Holland. Dennis Wilson’s intriguing, sluggish “Steamboat” comes replete with doowop embellishments and a waddling guitar solo, while “Only With You,” a track reminiscent of Dennis’ efforts on So Tough, is well-arranged and generally more successful than his previous ballads. Carl’s vocal on “Only With You” is genuinely touching and unabashedly vulnerable, a quality too often mistaken by macho rock cultists for a failing of rock integrity (as if the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me” wasn’t as much rock as Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else”).
Holland’s centerpiece is a trilogy titled “California Saga,” opened by Mike Love’s jaunty “Big Sur,” a mild ode to wilderness phrased in a Beach Boy variant of Southern California’s country-folk idiom. Things get a little heavy with “The Beaks of Eagles,” which incorporates a rather ponderous recitation, but Al Jardine’s neat vocalese almost recoups the lost ground. Anyway, the recitation fits in with the saga’s overall movement, which is straight toward Jardine’s “California,” a song that incarnates every historical facet of the Beach Boys in a rhapsodic fusion of “Cool Cool Water” and “California Girls.” The opening group vocal is simply stunning, building logically into one of Mike Love’s familiar leads, while the instrumental tracks add an appropriately quaint dimension with banjo, pedal steel and harmonica following the loping bass figure. Even a jarring reference to John Steinbeck cannot prevent this song from being the Beach Boys’ best chance at an AM hit since Brian’s exquisite “Marcella” flopped ignominiously last year.
Carl Wilson’s “The Trader” also stands out among Holland’s songs. A neatly floating composition, it recalls Carl’s memorable contributions to Surf’s Up. Carl sensitively interprets Jack Rieley’s elusive lyrics, which concern Indians and rampant mercantilism from the perspective of an ecological anti-capitalism, or something of the sort. “Leaving This Town,” which rounds out the album, is a subtly realized song by Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar that wholly transcends the eclecticism that marred their work on So Tough. Chaplin’s vocal is again outstanding, and the whole mood of the song, with its rich group harmonies, aching lead vocal, and methodical synthesizer solo, would not be inappropriate to Pet Sounds; it is another one of Holland’s several highpoints.
Included with Holland is a seven inch long-playing record of a fairy tale by Brian, Mt. Vernon and Fairway. It seems an appropriate creation from the imagination that gave us “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man” and “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony).” Excepting a brief appearance by Brian himself as the Pied Piper “from the far-away land of night,” the story is narrated by Jack Rieley, the group’s manager. In its recounting of an encounter with a glowing transistor radio playing divine rock, Brian’s whimsy perhaps strikes an autobiographical note. His occasional music for the tale is quirky and inspired, while the snippets of several new songs included are both frustrating and tantalizing. It hopefully does the rest of the group no disservice to remark that Brian, even in such enigmatic expressions as Mt. Vernon and Fairway, remains the Beach Boys’ most profound source of creative energy; it is Brian who sets the group’s musical standards.
The best testimony to Holland’s success is that it largely lives up to those standards. Like the finest Beach Boys’ work, Holland makes me consistently smile, as much at its occasionally unnerving simplicity of viewpoint as at its frequently ornate perfection. Although the Beach Boys may be an acquired taste, once the listener has granted them their stylistic predilections, their best records become irresistible. Their music long ago transcended facile categorization, and they now play what might as well be described simply as Beach Boy music. Unlike last year’s disappointing So Tough, Holland offers that music at its most satisfying. It is a special album.