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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Beach Boys: Carl And The Passions - So Tough


1) You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone; 2) Here She Comes; 3) He Come Down; 4) Marcella; 5) Hold On Dear Brother; 6) Make It Good; 7) All This Is That; 8) Cuddle Up.

Here we have a bizarre, but intriguing page in Beach Boy history. At Jack Rieley's instigation, the band fired Bruce Johnston (allegedly for being rude and condescending to Brian, but in reality, as part of a wicked plan to purge itself from excessively «commercial» elements, in order to... sell more albums). At the same time, the official lineup was expanded by the addition of two guys from South Africa: Blondie Chaplin on bass, guitar, and vocals, and Ricky Fataar on drums and vocals. At the same time, Brian once again moved back in the shadows, barely contributing any­thing to the album. Result: the least «Beach Boy»-sounding album so far.

Basically, So Tough is an eclectic roots-rock experience. With Carl now sporting a full beard whose length openly challenged Mike's, and Al getting close up there, the whole image was now closer to The Band than ever before. So Tough has it all: barroom boogie, swampy blues rock, blue-eyed soul, even gospel. The only thing it does not have is even a faintest trace of the good old sunshine pop band that used to do 'California Girls'.

Even Brian, on those few contributions of his that actually made the grade, is moving here to­wards an earthier, rhythm-and-bluesier sound. 'Marcella' (an ode to Brian's masseuse, no less!) at least features the band's trademark harmonies; musically, however, it not only recycles a few moves from 'Wild Honey', but is also completely built around a chugging blues-boogie line of the «pub rock» variety (Brian himself admitted that he was taking the Stones as an inspiration, even if it is sort of tough to picture the song stuck in the middle of, say, Exile On Main St.).

But if 'Marcella' is sort of a blues-rock/lush-pop hybrid, then 'You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone', opening the album with a rough, bristly combination of tack piano, hard-rocking electric guitar, and relatively «street-tough» vocals from Carl, is almost pure pub-rock (again, with the exception of some intricately mixed harmonies in the bridge section). In the hands of the Beach Boys, it almost produces a kitsch effect — if not for the song's catchiness and Carl's sud­den miraculous ability to make his «gruff» manner of singing quite convincing, it could have been a gross failure; as it is, it is more of a gross surprise.

The real weak links on the album are those songs on which the new band members dominate. 'Here She Comes' has nothing to do with the Beach Boys proper; it's a Chaplin/Fataar collabora­tion, a semi-decent blues-soul number, very generically early Seventies, could just as well have been written by the likes of America (although I kinda like the swampy slide solo). The soul an­them 'Hold On Dear Brother' depends on how much credibility we issue to Blondie Chaplin's impersonation of Van Morrison (never mind that it is the former guy who is black, and not the lat­ter). Personally, I wouldn't contribute any. It's all kinda boring.

In the meantime, the «original» Beach Boys, under the influence of all this back-to-basics stuff, retort with contributing their first and, fortunately, last straightahead gospel number. Formally, 'He Come Down' is successful, but «celebratory» gospel is such a miserable art form in general that not even Beach Boy harmonies can save the tune from looking... «cooky». To make matters worse, Mike Love contributes some ridiculously «eclectic» lyrics à la George Harrison that throw in references to Krishna, Zarathustra, and the Maharishi, violating the sanctity of the genre and probably making the Rev. Jesse Jackson quite displeased.

Overall, this whole roots-oriented approach ended up something like 20% failure, 30% success, 50% stupefaction. The band itself was fully aware of how much change they were introducing, hence the album's convoluted title — the Beach Boys turning into «Carl And The Passions» (an actual name for Carl's earliest schoolday band) and complaining how it is «So Tough» to make this kind of record. To add to the stupefaction, the album was originally released as part of a 2-LP set with Pet Sounds, syndicated from Capitol, as the second LP — a tremendously silly mar­keting move that, naturally, did not work. Not to mention the side effect of this decision — every­body would be inclined to compare the two albums on their own merits. It was like, «That's the way we were then, this is how we are now» — make your choice?

But, in the end, So Tough is saved by the bell. Wobbling between the strange and the ridiculous on its first five tracks, it is finally directed to God's territory on the last three. Carl's 'All This Is That' is basically a twin brother to 'Feel Flows'; more annoying Krishna references in the lyrics aside, it is an elegant piece of «lush pop». The major hero, however, is brother Dennis, who re­turns triumphantly with two more compositions in his by-now trademark «rough beauty» style. Of these, the sprawling, aching, expressionist 'Cuddle Up' is the magnum opus, although it may require some time to work its subtle charm on the listener. Daryl Dragon (of the «Captain and Tennille» fame) is responsible for the orchestration, which, on its own, would be sappy-Hollywo­odish, but, in conjunction with Dennis' grizzly-soul delivery, which it echoes directly, produces an astonishingly cathartic effect.

So Tough was a commercial flop next to the relative success of Surf's Up, and it's easy to see why: the market was already oversaturated with roots-rock product, and the last thing anyone nee­ded was to see a band least associated with roots-rock go roots-rock as well. In the end, Rieley simply pushed the Beach Boys too far: his failure to procure any serious respect for this new dire­ction was the first step that eventually led to his parting ways with the band, and, to extrapolate this even further, a major reason for the band's eventual capitulation to the nostalgic Mike Love vibe. It is one thing to demand «seriousness» and «keeping up with the times» — but an entirely different thing to set up alien role models, competition with whom does not come out naturally. Maybe they should have looked up to the Moody Blues instead?..

On the other hand, time has certainly been kinder to So Tough than to any of the Love-reign-era records. At the very least, this album is a serious attempt to break the ice, and if we ma­nage to forget that this is the same band that gave us Pet Sounds — as much as the stupid execu­tives at Warners tried to prevent us from doing that — it is all at least fairly competent by the sta­ndards of 1972. And then Dennis and Carl come along and push it firmly into thumbs up territo­ry.

Check "Carl And The Passions - So Tough" (CD) on Amazon
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  1. Dean "and the Passions—Very Weak" LaCapraraNovember 16, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    Sorry to argue with the king of reviews, but I dislike this record. Nice that "Marcella" definitely grew on me over the past decade or so while always a fan of "All this is That." Dennis contributes two forgettable songs that are likely the least impressive of all he gave to our heroes.
    Pairing this with Pet Sounds was an obvious hint of the desperation they faced after Bruce split (Brian entering his first life-threatening drug phase didn't help much!). I have this with the superior Holland: So Tough is their worst studio album since the debut, which at least you can excuse for their inexperience/ages of everyone.
    Here they are mostly on auto-pilot. Thumbs down.

  2. Very much a mixed bag for me. The Brian songs are very good (though nowhere near the ones on Surfs Up). and the Dennis songs are excellent. But I just dont care at all about the Fataar/Chaplin contributions. These aren't Beach Boys songs!

  3. The reason Bruce Johnston left is because he was the only Beach Boys who saw that Jack Rieley was a crook. You can read about it in the Beach Boys bio Heroes & Villains by Steven Gaines. Rieley came to the Beach Boys with fake credentials and a lot of the good things he supposedly did for the bands were actually the work of other people who were around the band at the time, like their business manager Nick Grillo.

    Rieley the con man had the Beach Boys wrapped around his finger, except Bruce Johnston who was a lot smarter and educated than his bandmates. No offense to the Wilson brothers but they weren't exactly Rhodes scholars. Bruce knew Rieley was a crook but the other Beach Boys stood by him. A decision they would end up regreting.

  4. The album that seems to indicate the strangeness of this band better than any other (perhaps with the exception of Smiley Smile). Not sure why Carl thought going this "roots rock" route was great but of course, Jack Rieley may be to blame. As much as the guy may have been a crook, he did help bring the band to some interesting artistic choices and brought them back into the lime light.

    Not gonna go into the "Bruce Johnston vs. Jack Rieley" debate. Bruce seems like a good guy and he's written a few good tunes for the band (Deirdre and Disney Girls especially qualify) but it's kind of one word against the other.

    I've been delaying getting into the review of this album. Well, see, it's a weird album. Brian's presence is next to nothing on this album. Love Brian, but I can bet at this time he had little to no interest in pursuing a weird "roots rock" style. He CAN do it (Back Home and other stuff shows that) but back then, probably not. Hilariously, "You Need a Mess Of Help To Stand Alone" and "Marcella" remain stands outs on this album for me. I know Brian "needed a mess of help" (sorry, I couldn't resist) to finish these songs but they're typical Brian of the period: catchy, melodic, quirky and a little under developed but sublime.

    The rest is...okay, Carl and Dennis rule supreme here. "All This and That" is gorgeous (simple but beautiful in a way only the Beach Boys could manage) and "Cuddle Up" remain highlights. I know "Cuddle Up" isn't exactly catchy but its POWERFUL and emotional in that weird Dennis way. "Make it Good" is a tad less powerful but still interesting in that it's heavily (and well) orchestrated. Who knew "The Captain" (Darryl Dragon, orchestrator of the tunes) had any talent at all?

    "Here She Comes" and "Hold on Dear Brother" take up 10 minutes of the album and are written by Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. They aren't worthless but I'd honestly rather hear a "Mike Love" song than a tune by these fellas.

    In fact, I'd rather hear "He Come Down" by Mike, Carl and others. Yes, that's right: I actually rather enjoy this strange gospel tune. I think it's catchy, if a bit stupid. I actually love that it's praising MEDITATION more than the typical gospel subject. Silly and trashy but catchy: what else can one expect from a song with a Mike love co-writing credit? Plus, the band is much better at handling gospel than Queen.

    So, an album that sounds NOTHING like the Beach Boys but which still qualifies. Not every thing is perfect but its at least WORTHY if its not GREAT. Not my favorite and I rarely listen to it but I'm glad it was made and glad I own it.

  5. What a pleasure to discover this blog! This is the first Beach Boys review I read here, because it's kind of a litmus test. The album is generally considered a wretched low point by many Beach Boys fans, but I always liked it for what it is - a solid early-seventies rock album. It sits happily enough alongside Abandoned Luncheonette, The Wild, The Innocent ... and any number of similarly eclectic exercises. It does not sit as happily in the Beach Boys' canon, but who cares? Listened to as an individual album, out of the context of a sequence of the band's albums, it's an entertaining, varied, and occasionally moving treat.