Friday, August 18, 2006

The Beach Boys Love You

In my opinion, The Beach Boys Love You, Brian Wilson's 1977 "comeback" album, is every bit the masterpiece in its own understated way as Pet Sounds was eleven years earlier. I realize there are probably only four other people on planet Earth who are likely to think that statement makes me anything less than certifiably insane, but there you go.

If Smile was supposed to be a "Teenage Symphony to God" then Love You is "Childlike-Adult Chamber Music to No One In Particular." By 1977 Brian Wilson's canvas was no longer epic in scope, and the intense emotions of the teen years have been replaced by the more mundane pleasures and tribulations of adult life; appreciating the way Carson picks up the slack when guests are boring, or capturing the simple pleasure of washing a baby's hair.

One of the things that distinguishes this album from Pet Sounds, and much of the Beach Boys best work, is that Brian was also the primary lyricist on the album. For better and worse, Love You is about as pure an expression of Brian-ness as you will find, certainly more so than Pet Sounds or Smile. It's no secret that Brian was extremely "troubled" during this period in time, and it shows up on this album in a number of ways; the perfect studio craft of "Good Vibrations" is long gone, replaced by a "leave not-quite-well-enough alone" aesthetic, and some of the lyrics are bizarre. Songs like "Solar System" remind me of the "mail us your poem and we'll put it to music" creations compiled by Tom Ardolino on the Beat of the Traps LP and more recently on The American Song Poem Anthology.

I imagine that the other Beach Boys had no more of a clue what Brian was up to here than they did during the recording of Pet Sounds or Smile, but Brian's brothers loved him, and Mike Love recognized that the Beach Boys sold more with Brian than without, so they were willing to serve as his muse one last time. I don't know if it's realistic to think a record this strange could have found a mass audience in 1977, but it's a shame that it was released in the middle of a label switch and without hardly any promotion.

I realize 2007 will come and go without a Special 30th Anniversary Limited-Edition CD/DVD Reissue of Love You, and it will never have the cultural currency of Pet Sounds, but it means just as much, maybe more, to me. The most recent reissue of Love You is on a two-fer with the not as wonderful 15 Big Ones and has killer liner notes by Peter Buck of R.E.M. Frankly, that's good enough for me. I can live without the surround sound DVD and fuzzy packaging. And if you can't find a cut-out of Love You in a used record store for a couple bucks, you just aren't looking.

So in "tribute" to Brian's 1977 masterpiece, I offer you two cuts from a 1990 Brian Wilson tribute album, Smiles, Vibes and Harmony. Like all tribute albums, this one was extremely uneven, split between neo-garage rockers' takes on early Beach Boys material, and artier bands failing to capture the magic of the late sixties-era material. There were two covers of songs from Love You on the compilation, and I believe they were my first introduction to this material. They were decent enough to make me curious about the album they came from, and if they do the same for you then I will have performed a real service.

I cannot tell you much about Sharky's Machine, other than that I remember they released an album on Shimmy Disc that didn't impress me too much at the time. They did have the good taste to cover "I Wanna Pick You Up" a gem originally sung by Dennis Wilson. Dennis' vocal on the original is very touching, but it's also shocking; he clearly packed some hard living into the seven years between "Forever" and this cut, and his voice was wrecked by cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and lord knows what else. Sharky's Machine capture the charm of this song better than might reasonably be expected. Das Damen on the other hand pretty much ruin "Johnny Carson" by trying to turn it into some sort of jokey, psychedelic freak out. But they get major props for picking this song to cover in the first place, and I bet their presence on this compilation was what prompted me to buy it in the first place. Some enterprising indie label should put together a tribute to the entire album.

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