THE BEACH BOYS: L.A. (LIGHT ALBUM) (1979)
1) Good Timin'; 2) Lady Lynda; 3) Full Sail; 4) Angel Come Home; 5) Love Surrounds Me; 6) Sumahama; 7) Here Comes The Night; 8) Baby Blue; 9) Goin' South; 10) Shortenin' Bread.
The follow-up to M.I.U. Album is a somewhat more collective effort — we now have writing and arranging contributions from all five members, and, in addition, Bruce Johnston is back from exile, taking the producer's seat and setting the stage up for the band's final descent into Reputational Hell. But that wouldn't truly occur until next year; in 1979, the band was still floundering, and L.A. at least saw a couple risks taken, a couple opportunities made use of, and a few embarrassments that were at least surprising in all of their embarrassing boldness. It is the last Beach Boys album I could claim to «like», if hardly respect.
More collectivism means more eclectic choices, and a sense of creative chaos and commotion that, one could say, rivals 20/20 — just like ten years ago, the album involves everybody vying for attention and no creative control whatsoever, à la «anything goes». In 1969, this worked fine; in 1979, it could hardly be the same way. With Brian's mind still in a haze and Brian's backlog of solid material mostly exhausted; with Dennis focusing what drugs and booze condescended to save of his talent on his solo career; with Carl's passion for «angelic arrangements» gradually turning into an embrace of «adult contemporary» values; and with Mike's and Al's ever-increasing penchant for corny gimmicks — clearly, L.A. promised to be a mess, and it was.
The main anti-hero of L.A. still turned out to be Bruce Johnston, whose main claim to fame here is the rearrangement of 1967's 'Here Comes The Night' as a hot eleven-minute disco number. The only time the band ever dabbled in disco, it was a critical disaster, but still managed to snatch its approximately five seconds of fame (given that 1979 was disco's last year of prominence) among club-goers. All I can say is — if you manage to forget that this is the Beach Boys (or think about it as some trendy joker's remix of a Beach Boys number, without the band themselves being involved), it's a fair enough disco attraction for the likes of John Travolta. Nothing more. But it does waste eleven minutes of running time...
...which, given the quality of some of the material, could have certainly been put to better use. As far as I am concerned, this is Dennis' last big hurray: 'Love Surrounds Me', an outtake from the sessions for his second solo album Bamboo, which never came to pass in his own lifetime, is a typical D.W. confessional number (grizzled vocals + tender string and keyboard arrangements = Dennis heaven), and 'Baby Blue' is a nearly-ambient atmospheric piece that may not be too memorable, but is grand and lush in classic Beach Boys tradition.
Brian's contributions, both of them outtakes from older epochs, bookmark the album: 'Good Timin' is a retro ballad, with harmonies straight out of 'Surfer Girl', but mixed with... some might say, maturity, others would call it mid-age soft-rock boredom (heading straight into mid-age and finding more tolerance for soft-rock each day, I still give it a plus); and 'Shortenin' Bread' is just a goofy, dumb old coda that would not be out of place on Love You. His presence is thus drastically reduced from M.I.U. times — but, in those troubled days, would anyone notice?
Al's 'Lady Lynda', a fast-paced ballad tribute to his wife loosely based on a Bach piece (! — guest musician Sterling Smith plays the actual melody of 'Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring' on the harpsichord), is not great, but modestly catchy and humble enough to be pleasant; Mike Love, in the meantime, sets his sight on the Far East and delivers 'Sumahama', the first song in the Beach Boys catalog to have been written exclusively by him (if we count 'Big Sur' as only part of the collective 'California Saga') — and a fairly decent Japanese-stylized trinket it is, even if everything about it, each single chord and each single lyric, sound clichéd. Somehow, when all the clichés fall into place, I still find myself liking it every single time. At the very least, everyone simply has to admit that, in choosing between 'Sumahama' and 'Kokomo'... that is, if one is ever forced to choose between... never mind.
Curiously enough, my conscience selects Carl Wilson as the largest failure of L.A. His three numbers presage the soft, sweet, and utterly hookless adult contemporary he would sink into in his own solo career, and even sharing lead vocals with Dennis on 'Angel Come Home' does not help matters much (even if that's just the right way Dennis could always save one of his hookless numbers from failure — by singing it like a TB-stricken street bum with a big heart). His brief artistic rise in 1971-73 and his vocal presence on some of Brian's best numbers had always obscured the fact that, to a large part, he simply missed the opportunity of rescuing the band late in its career — abandoning invention and creativity and relying entirely on the dubious power of «beautiful» synth tones and formally «beautiful» singing.
But even so, the production on these C.W. numbers is still miles ahead of what we would be seeing very, very soon. As it is, L.A. is the last Beach Boys album I would — with a fair warning — recommend to anyone. At the very least, it is diverse. There's your adult contemporary balladry, your Saturday Night Fever, some Bach, a Mikado tribute, Dennis' bully-eyed soul, you name it. Even if you happen to think it all sucks — a respectable opinion — the think is well worth happening. A gullible thumbs up it is.
Check "L.A. (Light Album)" (CD) on Amazon
Check "L.A. (Light Album)" (MP3) on Amazon