THE BEACH BOYS: SURFER GIRL (1963)
1) Surfer Girl; 2) Catch A Wave; 3) The Surfer Moon; 4) South Bay Surfer; 5) The Rocking Surfer; 6) Little Deuce Coupe; 7) In My Room; 8) Hawaii; 9) Surfers Rule; 10) Our Car Club; 11) Your Summer Dream; 12) Boogie Woodie.
There may be a slight overload of surf-related song titles here, but the problem ceases to be a problem with the first notes of 'Surfer Girl' — a song whose shallow, insignificant lyrics (unless you happen to be one of the lucky few who really did encounter the love of your life on a surfing trip) contrast so much with the beauty of the melody and vocal arrangements, it's not even amusing. How many people have shunned and avoided the Beach Boys for their image, one that is so easily detachable from their substance with but a little effort and goodwill? Much more than the Beatles — and only because the Beatles, during their early years, happened to be just a tiny bit more «mature-looking» in terms of lyrics and general image.
Huge changes here, much more so than the difference between the titles Surfin' USA and Surfer Girl would really have one believe. For one thing, Brian Wilson asserts his role as sole producer: he is now unquestionably the heart and soul of this band, credited as full writer or co-writer (in the latter case, usually responsible for everything but the lyrics) on ten of the tracks and «arranger» on the other two. For another thing, this is where the band starts employing professional session musicians — at the time, mainly limited to Hal Blaine on drums, replacing Dennis' powerhouse, but, according to Brian, erratic drumming (Maureen Love, Mike's sister, is also credited for harp playing on 'Catch A Wave', but that could hardly be called «professional support»); in the future, session players would replace the band almost entirely. Good? Bad? For the purposes of Surfer Girl, somewhat irrelevant, I'd say; for the future — well, like it or not, Pet Sounds would not have been the way we all know it without session musicians.
Finally, Surfer Girl shows strong signs of hope that someday, in some way the Beach Boys would be overcoming the filler problem. Both sides of the album muster enough awesomeness to begin with not one, but two phenomenal songs in a row (that's already 4 out of 12, more classics than on their previous two records put together). The title track and 'In My Room' are a wee bit simplistic compared to the really flourishing period of Brian's balladry writing, but the boys had fully learned how to transform their collective vocal acoustic powers into mind-blowing angelicity — strangest thing ever, here was a kind of sweet beauty created from the simplest ingredients by a bunch of teen idols, and it wasn't banal or cringe-worthy.
Comparisons between 'In My Room', Brian's and Gary Usher's first attempt to cover a little more serious lyrical ground, and the Beatles' 'There's A Place' crop up all the time, just because both happened to be recorded in the same year and dedicated to the same subject (a little introverted escapism), but in terms of reaching for heights, there is really no comparison: John's is basically a happy pop-rocker that has the overwhelmed guy retreating to his personal corner to think over a girl's love confession, whereas Brian's is really a prayer to solitude, with the lyrics and the slow, lullaby-like, melody perfectly molded together.
The sequencing is such that you are supposed to be shaken out of both of these dreamy beauties by the two far more dynamic surf anthems — 'Catch A Wave' and 'Hawaii' respectively — which, in their own turn, represent the pinnacle of the surf genre for these guys. Surfboard sales must have skyrocketed with these songs occupying the airwaves, since both create a totally paradisiac atmosphere — on 'Catch A Wave', Maureen Love imitates the breaking of the wave in question with such a lovely harp flourish you'd think the wave were a cuddly little friend (instead of the huge salty monster it actually is — has any surf musician ever tried writing of the dangers of surfing, if only just for a change?). And, of course, Brian's falsetto on 'Hawaii' is legendary, even if the song is basically just a flat commercial to touristic Polynesia.
The attractions of Surfer Girl do not begin and end with these four songs — there's also 'Little Deuce Coupe', the band's most elegantly composed and least stupid-sounding car anthem so far; 'Your Summer Dream', another of Brian's prayer songs that is really no worse than 'In My Room', just a little more predictable in terms of lyrics; and a couple more surf-rockers like 'Surfers Rule' that may be a bit annoying next to the classics, but are still heads and tails above what the boys were writing less than one year before. Clear-cut filler is essentially restricted to a couple instrumentals ('Boogie Woodie') and occasional bits of teenage stupidity ('South Bay Surfer' — early Beach Boys are almost always at their worst when they try to take a direct aim at humor, which is no surprise considering that the band's biggest humorist was also its biggest asshole).
The silliest thing about the album, really, is the cover — that photo must have been taken from the same session that yielded the shot for Surfin' Safari, and, if anything, begs for two questions: (a) how on Earth can it take someone one whole year to unload a surfboard? and (b) what on Earth are five guys going to do with one surfboard? (The correct answer, of course, is: Give it to Dennis, since he was the only one in the band who knew how to surf in the first place). Bar that circumstance, a thumbs up most of the way.
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