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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Beach Boys: Holland


1) Sail On Sailor; 2) Steamboat; 3) California Saga: Big Sur; 4) California Saga: The Beaks Of Eagles; 5) California Saga: California; 6) The Trader; 7) Leaving This Town; 8) Only With You; 9) Funky Pretty; 10) Mt. Vernon And Fair­way - Theme; 2) I'm The Pied Piper; 3) Better Get Back In Bed; 4) Magic Transistor Radio; 5) I'm The Pied Pi­per; 6) Radio King Dom.

The title implies that the album was mostly written and recorded in sunny Afghanistan, where the Beach Boys had to migrate after Dennis Wilson had bedded the last virgin in the States. (That in­ci­dent is, of course, transparently described in 'Sail On Sailor' with the simplest of metaphors: "I work the seaways / Past shipwrecked daughters of wicked waters"). Unfortunately, history has concealed from us what exactly happened out there, but supposedly the last King of Afghanistan's removal from power in 1973 was somehow connected. How else would you react if, without a warning, Mike Love invaded your country?

Seriously, though, Holland is a watermark. It represents the end of the short-lived «Beach Boy Renaissance» period; their last album under the supervision of Jack Rieley; and the last time ever that the band would at least pretend to some sort of artistic importance (Love You would be more of an accidental aberration than a strong, concentrated effort to be reborn). The album failed to go gold, but was not a commercial disaster, either, and gained some critical support as well — im­plying that, perhaps, more of the same would follow — but, with Carl and Dennis following their genius brother on the roads to self-destruction, this was not to be.

Like every other post-Pet Sounds album, Holland is a mixed affair. It is clearly a very careful and thoughtful record; I would even go as far as to say that it is the band's most intelligently con­strued and performed work since 1966. There is not a single sheer embarrassment here à la 'Stu­dent Demonstration Time'; not a single half-finished snippet to leave the listeners grinding their teeth in frustration; not a single reckless experiment for experiment's (and insanity's) sake. It is also the only album in the band's catalog on which they show themselves capable of handling «mature» issues with adequate maturity (e. g. on Carl's 'The Trader', a convincing ode against the evils of colonialism and racism).

On the down side, Holland may be a bit too «heavyweight» for the Beach Boys. It's not even the fact that almost all of the tracks are emotional downers (yes, even 'California Saga'; we'll get to that in a moment) — what with the band's then-current state, that would be expected. It is the overall sound of the record, heavily dominated by various sorts of keyboards and highly dense baroque harmonies, that gives the impression of clear-cut melodic hooks sacrificed in favour of soulful atmosphere. And that impression does not go away with additional listens: unfortunately, at this point it simply seems to me that most of the songs here are not too well-written.

In-frickin'-fact, as much as I hate to admit it, the best creation on Holland, the way I currently see it, is the nostalgic 'California Saga', written by none other than our good friends Al Jardine and Mike Love, the «normal working guys» of the band. Pretty soon they would be having this band standing on its hind paws and jumping through burning hoops, but at the moment, being stationed in one of the artsiest places in Europe, they felt obliged to come up with something suitable, and developed this three-part suite that, for once, sounds like a genuine love confession, rather than a well-calculated commercial bait (its very format would prevent it from being released as a single, and it never was).

From the gentle opening waltz of 'Big Sur', through the pathos-imbibed, but far from cheap-soun­ding, «grand» piano-backed poetic recital of Robinson Jeffers' poem "The Beaks Of Eagles", to 'California' proper, the sunniest-sounding bit on the record that evokes distant memories of 'Ca­li­fornia Girls', this ten-minute Love/Jardine piece is, by all means, the highest point they ever sca­led — perfect proof for the idea that «commercial accessibility» and «artistic impulse» can go hand in hand, even when these are the same hands that have so often found their resting place on Brian Wilson's throat. 'California', in particular, mixes the brightness and bounce of surf-pop with a country-rock flavor, not forgetting to draw on the band's entire vocal harmony experience.

On the other hand, Dennis' contributions are a little disappointing, not the least because, for some reason, Dennis does not take the lead vocal on them — and his manner of composing and arran­ging material has always seemed to me compatible only with his own manner of singing: it was all about the contrast between the gruffness of the voice cutting across the lushness of the music. Here, however, Carl takes over the microphone, and the overt sweetness of his delivery, combi­ned with the overt sappiness of the music, completely ruins 'Only With You' for me — it ends up sounding like generic early 1970s soft balladry, even if it honestly does not deserve to sound that way. 'Steamboat', structured melodically to resemble the steady clang and roll of the engine, is a bit more interesting, but also a bit more sleep-inducing. In short, these are Dennis songs without the Dennis essence — no visible signs of ache, paranoia, or disturbance of any kind that used to constitute the marrow of his artistry (and would soon continue to do that in his solo career).

Carl's own 'Trader', as I already said, is one of the band's most successful attempts at a little social bite, but even as it succeeds as a serious statement, it is not a masterpiece of songwriting — lots of emphasis on the lyrics which roll along in a monotonous manner, and, although some of the lines are delivered beautifully, even the beauty gets tedious after a while if the artist does not stray from the exact same «beauty line» every once in a while. And it does not help that, at over five minutes in length, this second-lengthiest song on the album is immediately followed by the first-lengthiest one — and also the weakest link: the unhappy duo's (Chaplin and Fataar's) 'Lea­ving This Town', a languid, near-comatose piano ballad that, of all things on Earth, seems to have been inspired by Elton John's 'Rocket Man' (as well as by ELP's 'Lucky Man' when it comes to the tedious synthesizer solo). Not only does this song have nothing to do on a Beach Boys album, it is simply not a very good song, period. Maybe if Elton played and sung it, and Keith Emerson took charge of that synth solo... but let us turn our thoughts to merrier matters.

Chaplin and Fataar's second contribution, 'We Got Love', was eventually replaced by Brian's 'Sail On, Sailor' (the former would later resurface on the ensuing live album); a wise move, but, alas, 'Sail On, Sailor' is not one of Brian's masterpieces, either. Its mixed folk/R'n'B-ish flavour is not the man's proper specialty, and even if the lyrics could be said to capture the band's, and Brian's own, turbulent state at the time, the capture is rather perfunctory. Plus, why the hell is Blondie Chaplin singing it and not Brian himself? Even if, by 1973, he'd already mostly lost his old voice, a «cracked» Brian Wilson delivery of these troubled lyrics would sound far more authentic. Much better is 'Funky Pretty', the real «lost gem» from this album — a gloomy, moody chunk of piano-based art-pop, also with R'n'B overtones, but far more complex and less easy to crack.

On the other hand, it is also telling that Brian's real major «project» of 1973, included as a bonus EP together with the original Holland, was a musical «adult fairy tale»: 'Mount Vernon And Fair­way', a sort of allegorical tale about an unhappy prince discovering «The Pied Piper» in a magic radio. (Yes, children, «the prince» is Brian Wilson, «The Piper» is his musical genius, and the brothers who re-discover «The Piper» after it conceals itself from the prince are... well, take a guess). The project is anything you want it to be — intriguing, sad, disturbing, etc. — but it cer­tainly ain't no precious mini-symphony. The music is actually quite minimalistic and, by Brian's usual measures, totally predictable. There is some fieldwork here for Freud's and Jung's disciples, but for the average music lover? Nope.

All in all, Holland is decidedly a mixed bag, and it is better to treat it as a whole — a respectable stab at respectability — than concentrate on its individual aspects one by one. Still, even with all its flaws, it managed to sound relatively modern, and keep the band's head above the water for a bit more time. Besides, any album on which Mike Love manages to own ten minutes worth' of artistic integrity automatically warrants a thumbs up.

Check "Holland" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Holland" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Holland in "...sunny Afghanistan"?


  2. Okay I should have read that paragraph fully!

  3. I want to add that Sail on Sailor isn't really a pure Brian Wilson song. Like just about every song from that period it has a bit of history. From wikipedia (sorry for the long quote):
    "When the Beach Boys submitted the original version of Holland to Warner Brothers in October 1972, the album was rejected by the company for lacking a potential hit single. After discussion among Warner executives, an associate, Van Dyke Parks, said that he had a tape of a song that he had co-written with Brian Wilson entitled "Sail On, Sailor." Warner then told the Beach Boys to drop what the company perceived as the weakest track, "We Got Love," and replace it with the Wilson-Parks tune. The song eventually featured contributions (some dating back from 1971) from Ray Kennedy and Tandyn Almer, and underwent some lyrical revision from Beach Boys manager Jack Rieley.

    Vocals for "Sail On, Sailor" were recorded in late October 1972, some time after the Beach Boys had left Holland. However, Brian Wilson was not involved at all with the song's recording sessions, leaving the basic track to be recorded by Brian's brother Carl and ex-Flame and then-Beach Boys members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin. The lead vocal was first attempted by Dennis Wilson, who sang the vocal once before leaving to go surfing. Carl was the next to attempt a vocal, but he then suggested that Chaplin make an attempt. After two takes, Carl decided that Chaplin's vocal would feature as the lead.

    "Sail On, Sailor" was released as a single in 1973, backed with "Only with You." However, the single only reached #79 on the singles charts. "Sail On, Sailor"/"Only with You" was re-released in 1975, and ended up charting higher, at #49.

    Statements by Parks on Wilson's message board, however, suggest that the song was not really worked on by Wilson, but rather that Wilson gave him a few chords with a small melody. Parks states that part of the reason it was so heavily stressed to be a mostly Wilson composition (indeed, Parks had to sue to gain any credits at all) is because Warner Brothers had demanded Wilson return to writing music and to the front of the band—something Wilson was not willing to do.

    It has also been stated by former Beach Boys engineer and mixer Steven Desper that the song was actually completed just after the release of Surf's Up in late 1971. The song was then remixed and a Blondie Chaplin vocal was re-recorded onto the original track."

  4. A version of "Only With You" with Dennis on lead vocals came out with the Pacific Ocean Blue / Bambu sessions album in 2008. I believe it was newly recorded for the Bambu sessions; whether or not a demo of it exists from the Holland sessions, I have no idea.

    I agree with your consensus in broad strokes, although I like it, and individual songs, a bit more than you do. It's an album which tends to emphasize atmosphere over hookiness; for me, the atmosphere works, but I recognize that it mayn't for a lot of people. Certainly tracks like "Steamboat" and "Leaving This Town" work this way, with the latter as a slightly melancholy "moving on with life" vibe, and the former as a relaxing, "float down the river" vibe.

  5. (cntd. from previous)

    Overall, the "California Saga" and "Funky Pretty" are probably the best songs, with the childish and completely off-the-wall EP constituting the worst material; it speaks to the state of mind of both Brian and the band that it was included with the album upon release. I like every song on the album in and of themselves, and as a group, but some of them (e.g., "The Trader" and "Sail On, Sailor") feel a bit immature; the former, as you noted, needs more melodic development to justify its length; and although I like "Sail On, Sailor" for what it is, I feel that a better produced recording (maybe rockier, with a traditional BB "wall of harmonies" backing vocal arrangement) would've helped hide the somewhat weak verse, chorus, and bridge melodies.

    BTW, a remastered version of the album has been released, with tracks from the aborted late 1974 "new album" sessions included - some decent, occasionally great material there, and some funny/dorky stuff such as Mike Love's take on "Battle Hymn of the Republic". :P Pity they didn't work out more of this kind of material, instead of abandoning the trajectory and forcing Brian back into the spotlight when he wasn't nearly ready for it (which may have helped him down another spiral of personal problems over the next several years....but who outside of the band and family/close friends knows for sure? Not necessarily our business anyway).

  6. I mostly found Holland boring - on the par with "Pet Sounds". I have nothing against albums of slower kinds of music, when it's jazz, or Dire Straits, but Beach Boys just can't do it in any interesting manner.

  7. Dean the Holland-admirer LaCapraraNovember 28, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    Never been there and think it's part of the Netherlands but not 100% sure. All the same, amazing how the guys came back with something nearly up there with Surf's Up (or at least 20/20).
    All seven contribute in some way, though Brian's voice cannot be heard anywhere. Love the opener and most of side two. "Funky Pretty" is the only less-than-stellar track including Dennis's fine "Steamboat"/California Saga. "Mount Vernon..." is acceptable too especially the little musical bits they added to a confusing story. Their last really fine LP unless Brian's Love You counts.

  8. I've relistened to this again in lilght of this review and I think it confirms this album as my favourite Beach Boys album.

  9. The original lyrics to Sail On Sailor were originally a lot harsher and a lot less quizzical as on here. (Ray Kennedy recorded a version with his short lived supergroup KGB - hunt it out on Youtube.)

    Their '74 sessions are a weird affair. Most of what's had on bootlegs is, uh, of iffy quality. (Including a version of Battle Hymn of the Republic with Mike Love at his most nasal! And a rerecord of Ding Dang with sexualized lyrics.)

    One part of Mt. Vernon and Fairway - I'd Better Get Back To Bed, to be precise, was later extended to a full song by Brian in the Love You era, named Lazy Lizzy, with pedophilic lyrics.

    Dennis was originally supposed to sing Sail On Sailor - apparently he decided to skip the session for surfing. A true Beach Boy!

    Brian's only confirmed vocal appearances are on the tag to Funky Pretty and California. (aside from the EP)

  10. A stand out album in the Beach Boy's catalog. This whole period was a time of confusion and weirdness. This album is no different. Everybody contributes and is at the top of their game: I disagree about Steamboat and Only With You. Two highlights of the album that show off Dennis's increasing abilities. I'd rather they were sang by him, yes but Carl does fine.

    Brian's participation in the album is in fact over stated. "Sail on Sailor" as mentioned is kind of barely a true Brian song. The melody and arrangements reek of Brian but this song was pulled out of him rather harshly by the band (and Van Dyke Parks wrote significant sections of it). Still, it's a good song showing off Brian's never failing melodic sense.

    "Funky Pretty" is a highlight. It's the most complex song on the album: all the weird shifting rhythms, time signatures and keys are done so smoothly and effortlessly that it goes done like candy. Everybody gets a chance to sing and it really does seem like a rare moment of fun on the album.

    Because the rest of the song is dead serious! Dennis's previously mentioned songs are typically romantic and serious for the guy. Carl sings his heart out on "The Trader" one of the last truly stunning songs the guy did. It has a good melody, solid music, decent lyrics and its even multi-part. Weirdly serious for the band, but as you mentioned, they pull it off.

    Of course, the "California Trilogy" is an oddly serious (and oddly successful) collaboration between Al and Mike. The first part is soothing and catchy, with Mike showing off lovely vocal moves. The second part is a tad more questionable but the music and vocal melodies remain stellar around the stiff reading of a rather shitty poem. And the third part is the catchiest part of the album: if Mike composed that vocal melody, kudos. Its solid, if derivative of past works.

    And "Mount Vernon and Fairway" is unspeakably strange with interesting music but a rather insane premise. I really think they just added it to the album to make it look like Brian was more involved. Maybe Carl added it to appease his brother (their relationship as strained but maybe he thought it would help Brian out) but I'm glad they released it. Not because it's a masterpiece but because it's fun to listen to.

    So, the band has created an atmospheric, serious and mature piece of work that is amongst their most respectable (if not exactly lovable) album. They've showed they can survive without Brian artistically and even commercially. Naturally, they throw that all away four years later. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

  11. To be fair, part of the suite was released a single. The title was reworked as "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)" and its marked by an alternate mix. Its currently available on "The Warmth of the Sun" compilation.