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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Beach Boys: Sunflower


1) Slip On Through; 2) This Whole World; 3) Add Some Music To Your Day; 4) Got To Know The Woman; 5) Deirdre; 6) It's About Time; 7) Tears In The Morning; 8) All I Wanna Do; 9) Forever; 10) Our Sweet Love; 11) At My Window; 12) Cool, Cool Water.

Well, now we know who was the de-facto leader of the Beach Boys circa late '69 / early '70 — brother Dennis! It is his song, and a typically his song, that opens the album; and altogether, he gets four of them, a feat never to be repeated. That is almost as much as Brian contributes to this record (in fact, exactly as much if we exclude Brian's material left over from older sessions). In between the two of them, the brothers dominate Sunflower, making it a somewhat less collective effort than the overtly democratic 20/20; and that actually helped with the critics, who (justifiedly) saw this as an attempt to return to the naïvely romantic, but still profound art-pop of the old days. It didn't help with the public, though. Even the singles mostly bombed.

Why didn't the population at large like Sunflower? Answering that question could be a culturolo­gist's wet dream. Not being one, I could still risk suggesting that, by the end of the Sixties, the one big pop market, having become way too large for the people to assimilate in one go, had al­ready begun splintering into multiple small ones — and the Beach Boys simply fell through the cracks. Although Brian was still not well, and the rest of the band had their multiple problems, too, 20/20 at least sounded like the band had finally remembered how to put out records (because, let's admit it, Smiley Smile was a joke; Wild Honey was way too rough-hewn; and Friends was way too minimalistic), and Sunflower solidified a «formal return to form». All of its twelve tracks are songs — including even those whose length does not exceed two minutes — and all of the songs are taken good care of — including even the bad ones, of which, fortunately, there are few. So what happened?..

Actually, what may have happened is that Sunflower avoided genre definition. It is an odd me­lange of influences both old (some of it sounds very Sixties) and new (some of it sounds very Seventies), but it does not have any sort of central running theme that would hit a loose nerve in the common listener around 1970. These days, such things are normal — and that is why, with time, people learned to appreciate Sunflower more than they used to — but in the age of the con­cept album, armadillo tank and all, I can sort of understand why record-buying people would be shunning Sunflower. As a «rock» album, it was nothing next to Led Zep, and as a «pop» album, it was far too disjointed and subtle next to the concentrated charm of Karen Carpenter.

But, as it happens, it just contains lots of good songs. Dennis' trademark style is all over 'Slip On Through' — which just bursts in without knocking, a simple, bawdy, rough melody, a slightly off-kilter rhythm, vocal harmonies that seem to come from an entirely different song, brass back­ing that seems to come from still another song, a climactic chorus, and it's all over before you can actually put a tag on it. He also submits a fairly creepy «dark rocker» ('It's About Time'), which is about as close as the Beach Boys ever got around to being «apocalyptic»; unfortunately, his other rock'n'roll number ('Got To Know The Woman'), written in a cocky vein, is all but incompatible with Beach Boys aesthetics, and sounds out of place here (I'd rather listen to Alex Harvey if I wanted that particular kind of sound). Yet this small blunder is easily forgiven for 'Forever', his most anthemic song so far — and, arguably, containing his sweetest vocal delivery on any record (by the time Pacific Ocean Blue came along, his voice was already way too alcohol-shot to suc­cessfully mus­ter sweetness).

At the same time, there is some serious revitalization on Brian's part. 'This Whole World' is lively, loud, and optimistic; no one could easily imagine that the man to write it would be spending most of his days as a lost recluse. 'All I Wanna Do' is not just tender, but a bit otherworldly: apparently, they are experimenting with voice effects there, because the modernistic psycho-wobbling makes it impossible to discern who is taking the lead vocal (Mike?). The lead single 'Add Some Music To Your Day' is, indeed, the most «commercial» song on the album, and a far cry from the com­plexities of 'Good Vibrations' or even 'Break Away', but as a nice, harmless little pop song whose only purpose is to ask you to add some music to your day, it works. (Although, chances are that if you are listening to it in the first place, you already have added some music to your day. Whether it may actually make a real music hater change his mind is something that no one probably has tested yet. Hey there, music haters round the world, this one's for you!).

Continuing the trend of saving the best-from-the-past for last, Sunflower says goodbye to you with 'Cool Cool Water', another five-minute suite rescued from the rubble of Smile and brought to relative completion, with Mike Love adding new «comprehensible» lyrics that actually fit the suite's «watery» mood — it does flow on smoothly, gently rocking the listener on its waves of never-faltering harmonies, quite different from the violent Sturm-und-Drang of some of the other tracks on Smile. Really beautiful, «becalming» stuff.

All in all, despite a few blunders here and there — chief among them Bruce Johnston's two origi­nals, which sound positively lame and out-of-style next to everything else; at least 'Deirdre' could pass for cuddly Harry Nilsson-ian fun, but the attempt at pain-in-my-heart blue-eyed soul ('Tears In The Morning') is a blatantly corny fake — anyway, despite a few blunders, Sunflower is yet another of these fabulously strong late-period albums: formerly overlooked by the masses, today given its due by the cool minorities among the masses. Even if, «brain-wise», it could have been done «smarter» to pass the acceptance threshold in 1970, «heart-wise», it is one of Brian and Dennis' finest hours. Thumbs up.

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


  1. Speaking of Smile! The Smile Sessions comes out today folks. And yes, it's pretty damn awesome.

    Sunflower certainly is too, though I prefer Surf's Up just a little bit more (though putting those two on the same disk makes for on of the very best twofers).

  2. Dean "#1 Beach Boys Fan?" LaCapraraNovember 2, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    I love this album even if relatively few people (diehards/critics aside) know or care that it exists, albeit now paired with the marginally superior follow-up. To have all six Californians working together remains a treat even more than 40 years later.
    First bought cassette, sold it and bought vinyl while occasionally playing 2-fer I don't own. My only gripe is they should've replaced "Tears in the Morning" with "Slip on Through," putting a potential hit as opener instead; they had a few unreleased gems on the 1993 box which may have worked. Still, crazy about 10 songs here including "Add some..." which I know George hates. By the way, loved your old site and keep up the good work doing this one.

  3. The Beach Boys were actually considering making Dennis the bonafide leader in '69... but the Manson affair ruined those hopes entirely. Shame, because he was the best songwriter in the band next to Brian.

  4. To the last commenter: really?! I thought Mike and Al, even then, didn't really get along with Dennis. Any online sources available with more details on this?

    Love this album. One of the few where everyone worked together to create something that (a) sounded good, (b) was fairly inventive and interesting (at least by their standards), and (c) was mostly consistent from song to song. Sure, Brian and Dennis have most of the songwriting credits between them, but all of the others contribute - I like Bruce's two songs, even though they're both fairly sappy (esp. "Tears in the Morning"), Mike does a great lead on "All I Wanna Do", Al co-wrote "At My Window" with Brian, and Carl contributes some excellent vocals as well as co-writes on a couple of songs (especially good on "Our Sweet Love" and "This Whole World"). A pity they couldn't keep this level of group collaboration up.