Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sock it to me, wild honey!

In 1967, The Beach Boys were having some bad luck. After the critical acclaim "Pet Sounds" received and the chart success enjoyed by "Good Vibrations," fans and observers alike were primed for the massive payoff that was promised with the "SMiLE" project.

But "SMiLE" didn't happen, and "Smiley Smile" was issued in its place. A bunt instead of a grand slam? Perhaps. Carl Wilson described it that way, and it seems appropriate.

As interesting as "Smiley Smile" is, and despite the appreciation the album has developed in the last fifty years, it wasn't "SMiLE." No "Surf's Up," no "Cabinessence," a stripped-down production style and more simplistic material.

There was the critical dismissal following the "Smiley Smile" album and the band's withdrawal from the Monterey Pop Festival. Carl Wilson was engaged in a prolonged fight with the U.S government. The military was calling him to service, but he resisted on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. Brian Wilson was having issues concentrating and finishing things as his mental demons and chemical abuse started to catch up to him.

The Beach Boys' first stint of commercial and critical glory was over. 1967, a year that could have been their biggest and most important yet, ended up being a fizzle. But it wasn't a total loss, and there was some great material to be enjoyed. Not the least of which was the group's 13th album: "Wild Honey."

Oh no, the 13th album?

Some folks have a superstition that 13 is an unlucky number.

Hotels? A lot of them won't label their 13th floors as the 13th floor (straight to 14 ... I guess that's one way to do it, even if it is still the 13th floor).

Movies? A number of flicks have been created as part of the "Friday the 13th" franchise. ... A lot of those movies suck. I love the franchise, anyway.

Glenn Danzig penned a track for Johnny Cash titled "Thirteen." The lyrics talk about the misery and misfortune of a guy with the number 13 tattooed on his neck.

And there's a movie called "Thirteen Ghosts" that involved a machine, 13 spirits and a very odd cast that probably considered the flick an unlucky entry for their careers.

Have I made my point yet? Sometimes, 13 has bad connotations.

The Beach Boys' 13th studio album has a bit of the bad luck of 13, but the material transcends the "curse." The album, "Wild Honey" is one of the most overlooked gems of the post "Pet Sounds" Beach Boys.

 "Wild Honey" is a heck of a groove. It's sometimes referred to as The Beach Boys' R&B album. It's the group playing the instrumentation, a lot of organ work and a return to a "garage band" ethic of simple arrangements and songs that boogie. It isn't "Pet Sounds," but you can definitely see the group that did "Surfin' USA" on these songs.

Released in December of 1967, "Wild Honey" climbed to No. 24 on the U.S. charts. That beat "Smiley Smile," which had faltered at No. 41. It was the highest charting post "Pet Sounds" Beach Boys album the group would enjoy until 1976's "15 Big Ones" album (a record that owed much of its commercial success to a "Brian Is Back" campaign that heralded Brian Wilson's return as a dominant songwriter and producer ... even if the situation was more complicated than that and didn't see a return-to-form from Brian).

"Wild Honey" is a pretty big departure from the typical Beach Boys sound, but that's exactly what makes it so worthy. It's a great album, a lot of fun to listen to, with a lot of twists and turns and flourishes that make it an engaging collection of songs.

The Baldwin organ, the bass and the vocals are all boosted. There's a very organic feel to the songs, as the band members worked together to get this material put together. "Wild Honey" was pieced together at Brian Wilson's home studio. The group jammed together, writing a lot of the material together (something that hadn't happened much since before "Pet Sounds" ... "Pet Sounds" featured the lyrical work of Tony Asher, and Van Dyke Parks contributed a lot to the "SMiLE"/"Smiley Smile" materials).

With "Wild Honey," Brian got back together with Mike Love for many of the songs. The arrangements and productions were group efforts, earning a "Produced by The Beach Boys" credit on the album.

The songs themselves range from the classic ("Darlin'") to the evocative ("Country Air") to the subtly hilarious ("I'd Love Just Once to See You") to cool groove music ("Here Comes the Night"). There's a lot to like, as just about every track features something of real merit.

The lead off track, and the song that shares the album's title, features a theremin and an outstanding lead vocal from Carl. The song kicks ass and takes names, kicking off the album with a strong surefire hit (the song only climbed to No. 31, a genuine shame).

Following up is another outstanding lead vocal from Carl, featuring some nice group background vocals. "Aren't You Glad" has a nice stomping progression. It's an unusual arrangement, but the vocal delivery sells the track. The group enjoyed it enough to perform it at concerts in the late 1960s. There's a bit of a fuzz to the sound, but check out the low notes ... bass and organ, man, that's a killer combination that needs to be revived in music today.

"I Was Made to Love Her" is a cover of a Stevie Wonder song, again featuring the powerful pipes of Carl Wilson. It doesn't eclipse the original recording, but it's got a sincerity and group involvement that make it a delight. White soul, dig it.

Some of the best group vocals are featured on the following track, "Country Air." The lyrics are fairly direct and uncomplicated, focusing on the simpler things. "Get a breath of that country air / breathe the beauty of it everywhere / Mother Nature she fills my eyes." It's not a complex song, but it just feels right.

Next up is the only track from the album that has survived the decades in the group's touring list, and has been featured by the Mike Love/Bruce Johnston configuration of The Beach Boys AND the Brian Wilson touring band. "Darlin'" continues the album's trend of amazing Carl Wilson vocals, and the production features horns and a driving construction. The song was released as a single and climbed to No. 19. The song was a rewrite of a Brian Wilson/Mike Love tune called "Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby," though this production was originally intended for a group called Redwood ... which would become Three Dog Night. The Beach Boys heard a hit and reclaimed the song, and a hit it was (though it's a far cry from the No. 1 that "Good Vibrations" had claimed a year before).

"I'd Love Just Once to See You" is a pretty, understated track. Very simple, with a relaxed lead vocal from Brian. The payoff in this track comes from a gentle arrangement and a lyrical conclusion that comes right out of the blue. Brian's humor could range from subtle to slapstick to bizarre ... but when he confesses that he'd love just once to see you in the nude, well, isn't that pretty much perfect? A pleasant song with a hilarious ending, that's just what the doctor ordered.

The next track is one of the best songs on the album, "Here Comes the Night." Brian delivers a strong vocal, and the group instrumental and vocal performances are solid. If anything, it's the production that keeps the song from rising to being a better-known classic. But check out the zest in the lyrics. I defy you from listening to it and not find yourself bopping your head or tapping your toes, or dancing, or singing along. It's a killer track. (Avoid the remake of the track, which appeared on 1979's "L.A. (Light Album)" and as a single ... it's discofied Beach Boys, which just really doesn't hit the spot. Ever.)

"Let The Wind Blow" is a spiritual number, but some of the lyrics are a bit clunky. "Let the bees make honey / let the poor find money" is a bit ... meh. Still, the group sings together with some beautiful harmony and the arrangement is very gentle and comforting. The definitive recorded performance of the track (that's been released, anyway) may be on 1973's "The Beach Boys In Concert."

The last full track of the album is the most dated of them all, featuring an arrangement and lyrics that really don't wear well fifty years later: "How She Boogalooed It." "S-o-c-k-i-t to me!" indeed. Still, it makes for a fun novelty, and gives the album an uplift following "Let The Wind Blow."

The album ends with a snippet called "Mama Says" that many Beach Boys fanatics will recognized for being featured in different renditions of the "SMiLE" classic "Vegetables" (or "Vega-Tables). It's the group running through the lyrics at different tempos. Not too many words here, but the performance ends with a "POOF." What does the poof signify? An end to the magic of the 1960s Beach Boys innocence and Brian Wilson magic? Who can say?

There are some outtakes that surfaced years later. "Can't Wait Too Long," a cover of "The Letter," "Lonely Days," a resurrection of some "SMiLE" music with "Cool Cool Water" (an early version of the song that would be developed further for the first released version on 1970's "Sunflower") ... and then the 2011 "The SMiLE Sessions" box bestowed the ultimate era treasure: A "Wild Honey" period recording of  Brian Wilson performing "Surf's Up." I've featured the clip above, but one can hear how the esoteric lyrics and feeling of the original masterpiece could fuse with the instrumental styling of "Wild Honey" and its organ work for a wonderful treat. These outtakes are all uniformly excellent and highlight the creativity and brilliance of the period.

"Wild Honey" had the bad luck of being overlooked (and actively disliked) by many of The Beach Boys' remaining fans and advocates (Paul Williams and David Anderle originally panned the album, but came to praise it later), but the songs merit much more appreciation and love than they've received to date. No, there's nothing here that will ever eclipse "Surfer Girl" or "Little Deuce Coupe" or "California Girls," but there's so much great soul and fun and enthusiasm here.

The album features a stripped down, back-to-basics feel. A week later, Bob Dylan released "John Wesley Harding." Three months later, The Beatles released "Lady Madonna." Three months after THAT, The Band released their debut, "Music From Big Pink." Rock music started to put psychedelia on the backburner as a return to rootsy, more earthy rock and roll.

The Beach Boys beat all the big guys there. Dylan may get the credit for blowing big productions out of the water and returning rock music to its roots, but Brian Wilson and the gang have the earlier releases. Give "Wild Honey" a chance, let your hair down and have some fun. Good tunes for good times, and isn't that what The Beach Boys are known most for anyway?


There's more I'd like to say on "Wild Honey," including the studio setup and how the members of the band were interacting with each other at the time. I think it'd be also worth discussing where the album art came from ...

But in the end, my big goal with this review is to focus on the music. "Wild Honey" came at an interesting time when the group really had no idea what to do. "Pet Sounds" hadn't been the commercial success that everyone hoped it would be, "SMiLE" imploded and "Smiley Smile" mystified and disappointed many contemporary listeners. The band pulled together and released "Wild Honey" just months after "Smiley Smile." That's some fantastic energy, and it generated some marvelous music.

So, I'm going to let the music speak for itself. We can get into more details and discussion in the comments area. Hit me up, folks, share your thoughts, feelings and questions (or corrections! I sometimes operate under information that isn't always accurate). Looking forward to your interaction!


I know this review is another Beach Boys entry, and that my last several REAL entries were Beach Boys-oriented, too (a lot of attention was paid to "That's Why God Made the Radio"). Since it's been quite a while since I've done an honest-to-goodness music post, I hope you'll understand that I'm easing my way back into things. What better way to do that than with The Beach Boys?

My next review will be on material that isn't The Beach Boys. How's that for a deal?

Thanks for visiting, folks. I appreciate your patience and your readership, and the feedback I get in comments! You rock!

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