Review: Beach Boys Plumb Vaults for Post-‘Pet Sounds’ Gems
The Beach Boys
Wake the World: The Friends Sessions
I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions
Brian Wilson once conceded that while Pet Sounds may be his best album, Friends was his favorite. Released in 1968, shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the supremely chill, transcendental-meditation-powered Friends LP was less beloved by record buyers. By Beach Boys standards, it tanked, peaking at Number 126 on the Billboard charts, 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 the Friends 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. Wake the World: The Friends Sessions and I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions 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 released On Tour: 1968 — 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 at Beach Boys 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 the Friends sessions, 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, the Beach 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 Sessions 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 aborted Smile 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 on 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 of “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 about Wake the World: The Friends Sessions and 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 the Beach Boys’ accomplishments seem all the more impressive.
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