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The Beach Boys Wild Honey (1967)

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Definitely a huge improvement over Smiley Smile in every possible way – except that Smiley Smile is such an oddball record it can’t even stand to comparisons. Anyway, the critics bashed it in any case because by the time of the album’s release it was obvious the Beach Boys were no longer ‘on the cutting edge’, and the disillusionment was at its peak. And, of course, sales plummeted down both because of the bummer of the predecessor and because by now America turned its attention towards the Summer of Love bands, San Francisco and stuff. You know.

In the process, Wild Honey was missed. It’s not a masterpiece – but it’s the first in a lengthy, lengthy series of hit-and-miss albums where minor chef-d’oeuvres walk hand in hand with “weird” stuff as well as with ugly filler, a situation not unlike the one with, say, the late Kinks’ catalog. By now, Brian was in a pretty malfunctioning state: it’s not that he was completely “disabled” as rumours sometimes go, it’s just that he was essentially disinterested in making ‘perfect’ music.

You know, when your dream world crumbles around you and the project of your life comes to naught and you find yourself unjustly despised and forgotten and you still have to commit yourself to making music, if only for the sake of your comrades and the few remaining fans, what good can come out of it? It’s amazing that Brian even could be further writing good songs. But essentially, starting from Wild Honey, the Beach Boys go back to becoming a real ‘band’, maybe even more so than ever before. At around this time, Dennis and Carl started to emerge as songwriters, Mike Love took over the lyrics, and Carl even started trying his hand at production – all spurred on by Brian’s example.

The only true genius in the band was Brian, of course, but let us not forget the importance of influence within a single band. Would George Harrison go on to produce such a masterpiece as All Things Must Pass had he not spent a dozen years working side by side with Lennon and McCartney? I know I can’t prove it, but every rational and irrational thought I’ve ever had tell me ‘no’. So let’s not underestimate the separate Beach Boys’ abilities, either. A lot of ugly things came out of it, but a lot of beauty as well.

In any case, the majority of Wild Honey numbers are still dominated by Brian’s song writing. But it’s a kind of song writing that has nothing to do with the barocco beauty of Pet Sounds, and even less so with the weirdness of Smiley Smile. It’s a nice pop album with not a single true stinker in sight; neither do we see the Beach Boys’ harmonies – apart from two or three numbers, the classic multi-track harmonizing is almost entirely replaced by isolated lead vocals.

Wild Honey has often been called the Beach Boys’ ‘soul’ album, which, to my mind, is due to two factors: (a) Carl’s wailing vocals on several of the tracks which defy the “pre-established pattern” by going all over the place and rising to passionate screaming from time to time; (b) their cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’. Otherwise, it’s just a pop album. It’s just instrumentated in a pretty different way; organ, electric piano, Theremin, and a cappella singing come in to replace primitive Berryesque strumming of the earliest stuff. It’s simple – for the most part, and certainly fell out of the contemporary culture like a stone. But so did the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society.

It’s telling, though, that the best number on here is undeniably ‘Darlin’ – a number written by Brian as early as 1963 (why the hell didn’t they put up the song on an album like Surfer Girl is beyond me, it’s stronger than almost everything on there). It’s a fully-produced up-tempo number that’s really distinguished by an adventurous brass section and Carl’s magnificent vocalizing – there’s a wonderfully subtle ‘fragility’ to his vocals that gives a feeling of insecurity and maybe even ‘cowardice’ even as the singer is wailing about how ‘I love the way you soften my life with your love’.

Few other songs come close to the level established by this piece of brilliancy: maybe the title track, with its almost “astral” Theremin riff and more of that funny Carl wailing, this time positively psychotic.

Minor highlights abound, though. ‘Easy-going’, light quasi-throwaway numbers at close sight turn out to be quite endearing, like, for instance, the simple piano-led ‘Aren’t You Glad’ (a bit in the ‘Good Day Sunshine’ vein, if you know what I mean, only more romantic), or Brian’s tiny ditty ‘I’d Love Just Once To See You’ where he betrays his feelings in the end by adding ‘…in the nude’. Tee hee. ‘Let The Wind Blow’, while I don’t find it too memorable, has a strong vocal harmony showcase, if only to remind us that the Beach Boys were still strong at their main game even if, for whatever reasons, they preferred to hide it on most other tracks.

The other upbeat tunes are actually first-rate, as well: the Stevie Wonder cover is pretty energetic (of course, it was also given to Carl – Wild Honey is, without a doubt, the place where the guy really found his vocal style), and ‘Here Comes The Night’, with its complex and unpredictable chorus – I particularly love the moody organ pattern on it, which adds an entire new dimension to the song – is beautiful, if only you manage to forget the hiccupy disco remake on L.A.

I suppose the only upbeat number that a Beach Boys lover can have trouble with is the ‘rock sendup’ ‘How She Boogalooed It’, where even Carl’s vocals can’t help the feeling of corniness; not coincidentally, it’s the only number on the record written by the other members of the band without Brian’s support. But I don’t find it offensive – the guitar/organ interplay is interesting at the least, so it works for me. Finally, let’s not forget the delicious ‘Country Air’ with its convincing celebration of “outside” delights… remember I mentioned Village Green Preservation Society? the two albums certainly have their moments in common.

Finally, we get ousted out of the record by Brian’s mantraic chanting of ‘eat a lot, sleep a lot, brush ’em like crazy, run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy’ (‘Mama Says’) – weird, eh? – and taking a chance to reevaluate what we just heard, we come to the conclusion that it’s one of the Beach Boys’ strongest albums of the Sixties. No, it’s not innovative, but neither, in a direct sense, was the White Album. What IS innovative about both of these records is that both the Beach Boys and the Beatles go and ‘revisit their roots’ armed by their newly-found experience, professionalism, and amazing musical discoveries of the past two years.

Neither ‘Wild Honey’ nor ‘Here Comes The Night’ nor ‘Darlin’ would have been able to sound that good in 1963; Brian Wilson had to go through Pet Sounds and Smile to establish that style. That’s progress, in a certain sense.

May 5, 2013 Posted by | The Beach Boys Wild Honey | | Leave a comment