Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rock Bottom: The Beach Boys

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted three sources, the AllMusic Guide and Rolling Stone (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

I guess it depends on how you look at it, but a lack of consensus about which of your albums is the worst is probably not a good thing. Starting with 1978's M.I.U. Album, The Beach Boys recorded a notorious trilogy (completed by the 1979 follow-up L.A. (Light Album) and 1980's Keepin' the Summer Alive) that have kept fans arguing.

While all three albums feature terrible cover art, unnecessary versions of '50s and '60s hits, and curious artistic choices, Keeping the Summer Alive tends to narrowly edge out the others.

AllMusic Guide's Rob Theakston finds the album "ripe with mindless throwaways and lifeless filler" and advises: "avoid this one at all costs." The reviewing fans on Amazon got out their thesaursi and came up with these adjectives: uninspired, lackluster, horrible, horrid, plodding, dull, flat, sterile, bland, lousy, and appalling.

Anyone who loves the Beach Boys as much as I do spends a certain amount of their time being a defender
("No, listen to Love You again. It's ahead of its time") and an apologist ("I know there are a lot of songs about cars and girls, but it's the style that really matters"), but there are some things we just can't justify. Keepin' the Summer Alive is one of those things.

However, I do offer some caveats to consider:

1) Pet Sounds aside, The Beach Boys will not go down in history for making artful, well-constructed albums. In fact, the term "singles artist" might as well have been invented just for them.
That is to say, the majority of their albums were brilliant singles surrounded by mediocre filler. Or, a bad album by them is the rule more than the exception.

2) The Beach Boys by design were a group with a limited shelf life. Their major subjects were the thrills of youth: crushes on pretty girls, drag races, school pride, and, yes, surfing. Even the brilliant, celebrated Pet Sounds was an album of adolescent longing and confusion. Basically, they probably shouldn't have lasted to 1980.

The first point we can't really do anything about, but the second deserves some delving into. Some history: After the triumph of Good Vibrations and the failure to deliver Smile as it was intended, the Beach Boys entered a very interesting phase of their career. Early and mid-'70s high points like Sunflower and Surf's Up showed signs of growth, into mature depictions of life and love and even a bit of social consciousness. Holland featured multi-cultural members (Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chapman)! In an alternate universe, the group could have continued on this path, making commercially-ignored but respectable albums. Unfortunately, something shifted. A yearning for the glory days of fame and commercial success seemed to take over, and thus the Beach Boys began the slow painful process of becoming a nostalgia act.

That's basically where Keepin' the Summer Alive finds the band. Consider the times: By 1980, we'd alrady seen '70s acts like the Raspberries and Cheap Trick had take the Beach Boys sound to its next logical place (and power pop was born), punk had firmly asserted itself in the form of the Ramones (who were basically a faster, dirtier version of the Beach Boys), and New Wave was in full swing (with the B-52's taking the surf sound and adding avant garde sensibilites). This is the perspective Rolling Stone reviewer Stephen Holden writes from when he says that Keepin' the Summer Alive is "anachronistic" and "unbelievably naive."

Is it fair to hold a band's new work up to their past standards, or even to those of the bands they inspired? I guess that's one of the eternal questions of rock criticism. My answer: It's not fair, but context is almost impossible to remove. At any rate, the songs on Keepin' the Summer Alive simply aren't good enough. Had they come from a young New Wave band, with sparkling timeless arrangements, they still would have been bad songs.

The title track, written by Carl Wilson with Randy Bachman, sounds like Christopher Cross doing a TV theme song. The vocals are strained and the harmony is buried and sporadic. The other song the pair created is a somewhat-charming country tune called Livin' With a Heartache that might have fit better on a Carl solo record.

Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote 5 songs for the album, and they range from terrible to okay. Sunshine sounds like a Smiley Smile reject, vaguely psychedelic, but with steel drums. Oh Darlin' has bad lyrics (sample: "To love and to be loved is so inspiring / And that's why every lover's so desiring /Of the love they're seeking never retiring") but a nice allusion to God Only Knows in the coda. The wobbly When Girls Get Together has no such salvation, being both musically and lyrically awful (apparently all female conversations center around men).

A couple of the Wilson/Love tracks fare better, mainly because they hew closer to the classic Beach Boys sound. Some of Your Love builds up a nice head of steam, evoking early feel-good singles by the group. Goin' On is even better, and is only slightly diminished by an ill-concieved saxophone solo.

A soulless cover of Chuck Berry's School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) and the boring Santa Ana Winds round it all out.

Oh, but there's one more. Endless Harmony is an intersting bit of self-mythologizing ("Ocean lovers who like to harmonize / They're all cousins, friends, and brothers /And they make their mothers cry"). Most of the song sounds kind of like Neil Diamond's Love on the Rocks, but the end bursts into a old-school style Beach Boys choral coda. It would have been pretty effective if the lyrics in the coda weren't a stiff invitation to come see their next concert.

We all know the harmony wasn't endless, and that's what gives Keepin' the Summer Alive an unintended air of sadness. It was the last album to feature all the entire "classic" line-up of the group (Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Dennis Wilson). Dennis Wilson died in 1983, Brian Wilson made one more album with them before going solo. In a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment, the band did eventually make that commercial comeback they'd been hoping for, with Kokomo becoming a 1998 #1 hit. However, it was a limited return, as 1992's Summer in Paradise became the REAL worst Beach Boys album ever, only exempted from inclusion here by the non-participation of Brian and Dennis Wilson.

The band limped along, playing the nostalgia circuit. Carl Wilson died in 1998, Mike Love and Al Jardine fought over the use of Beach Boys name. Brian Wilson, on the other hand, has enjoyed a renaissance of sound and spirit, the only one who really is keeping the summer alive.

Authors Note: This is album review #188.

No comments: