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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Beach Boys: L.A. (Light Album)


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

3 comments:

  1. Pretty honest review of a rather lambasted album. I actually think Al and Mike's songs are HIGHLIGHTS of the album. Al stealing a Bach melody at least made sure that the song was memorable and the arrangements isn't bad. "Sumahama" is a bit cheese ball but has to be the best song Mike Love ever wrote on his own. The melody is good, the arrangement is lovely (if cliche, as you mentioned) and the lyrics...well, yeah they're shit but what do you expect?

    Brian checks in with two good songs: Good Timin is melodic but rather blandly arranged. Shortening Bread is ridiculous but hilarious. Stealing the show again even without trying...gotta love Brian.

    Bruce shows he's the master of cheese with "Here Comes the Night." Skillfully arranged vocal harmonies save this one for me and (as you've said) it's not the worst disco song ever. It's catchy (Here Comes the Night was a good song) and well arranged. Just WAY too long. Sheesh, 11 minutes?!

    Carl checks in with three songs. They're melodic and no doubt heart felt but these aren't the kind of melodies that stick in your heads. The arrangements aren't great. Dennis does fine with his songs, as always. Not exactly masterpieces but fine, moody and melodic-ish.

    To me, this album is at least respectable. The band seemed to be TRYING here. M.I.U. gets by because of the fun, catchy up beat songs but gets let down by the slower songs. If that album had been balanced with some of the slower songs here, maybe we'd be talking. But the arrangements are a huge step away from the more retro arrangements of that album. They're more contemporary which isn't a huge problem. Just a slightly higher level of cheese than normal.

    So, the band is trying to come up with a new sound and style (and its the last album seriously dominated by Wilsons that the band ever did). That's respectable. The results...hey it soothing. 100 times more melodic and enjoyable when compared to Adult Contemporary music even if it does produce a rather similar effect (soothing, relaxation).

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  2. Dean "T.O. (TorontO) LaCapraraDecember 28, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    Haven't listened to all ten songs too much over the past three years when used vinyl bought, yet can safely claim if they were all up to standards of "Good Timin'," "Baby Blue" (loved since the box set mid-1990s) and "Lady Lynda" then we'd probably have another classic here.
    The other cuts all sound either lethargic or reek of selling out: ten-minute disco laugh the obvious disaster. Never too fond of "Sumahama" while Brian's new song is an old children's tune! Luckily those other three winners are great, making this an overlooked mini-gem.

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  3. I also have a soft spot for this album, despite its obvious flaws. This was the last halfway creative gasp of the Beach Boys and almost all of this is at least halfway reasonable.

    Two corrections to the original review (actually, the reviewer might have mixed titles up). "Angel Come Home" was written by Carl, but as he deemed it too personal it was entirely sung by Dennis (which brings his number of lead vocals to 2 1/2 - a BB album record). "Baby Blue" is the song where Carl and Dennis share lead vocals.

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