THE BEACH BOYS: HOLLAND (1973)
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.
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