Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: 'Beach Boys’ Party!: Uncovered and Unplugged'

There was an astonishingly natural progression from Beatle album to Beatle album as Revolver built on the developments of Rubber Soul while Sgt. Pepper’s inflated the ones on Revolver and so on. The Beach Boys were another matter. This is largely because Capitol, the label that treated The Beatles’ artworks so shabbily in the U.S., placed unfair demands on its top American act. Brian Wilson most certainly is that rare example of the pop genius, but even a genius needs time to replenish the inspiration reservoir. Capitol had little respect for such matters, so Wilson and his band were forced to intersperse a relatively uninspired album like Shut Down Volume 2 or an assemblage of new and old tracks like Little Deuce Coupe among the excellent LPs like All Summer Long and Surfer Girl or jumble filler with masterpieces on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). This surely frustrated Brian Wilson, especially after he heard Rubber Soul, which blew him away because of its consistent quality and mood. Hearing that album in late 1965 is what drove him to create his defining work, Pet Sounds. Had that album followed Summer Days, The Beach Boys’ catalogue might have started to seem as though their work was finally progressing more naturally.

Instead, Capitol demanded more product for the coming holiday season. So The Beach Boys decided to knock out a record as hastily as possible, gathering in the studio with nothing more than a couple of acoustic guitars, bongos, their flawless harmonies, and a bunch of covers they could dump out for the Christmas shoppers. Mike Love devised the idea to dub on some chattering and beer-glass clinking to give the impression that the tracks were cut at one of the guy’s houses during a party instead of at Western Recorders Studio in Hollywood.

Beach Boys’ Party! is hardly among the band’s greatest albums, but a project that began as a sloppy stop-gap before becoming a full-fledged gimmick has had a pretty impressive life. Not only did it spawn the last of the old-style Beach Boys hits with a cover of The Regents’ “Barbara Ann”, but it was a genuine predecessor to the “unplugged” fad of the nineties. And though it was a definite backwards step after Today! and the best of Summer Days, it did contain some very good music that is easier to appreciate today than it must have been fifty years ago when albums like Rubber Soul, Highway 61 Revisited, Otis Blue, and My Generation were new releases. Today, it’s easy to enjoy the ace trilogy of Beatles covers, Al Jardine’s sincere take on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and Mike and Brian’s angelic harmonies on the should-be-considered-a-classic “Devoted to You” without feeling forced to compare this music to anything The Beach Boys or any other band was doing at the time.

Beach Boys’ Party!: Uncovered and Unplugged makes it even easier to appreciate this music, as Mark Linett’s new stereo mixes strip away the faux “party” chatter that was often very inappropriate on the original album, especially when the guys make a mockery of Al’s Dylan tribute. This new double-disc set also fills in the story with versions of numerous songs that didn’t end up on the original album, which really would have been better if it had lost novelties like “Alley Oop” and “Hully Gully” or piss-takes of the band’s own “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe” and used Brian’s attitudinal yet good-humored version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby” or a hootenanny-turned-funky version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” instead. There are also some fascinating song choices that shed light on other grooves in the band’s discography. The boys try out Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block No. 9”, which Mike Love would later rewrite as the little-loved “Student Demonstration Time”. There’s an abortive attempt at “Ticket to Ride”, the song that inspired “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, and a fleeting tease of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, a song that Brian would remake years later. Uncovered and Unplugged may not be the monumental release that the Pet Sounds or SMiLE Sessions were, but then again, it is not a document of a monumental work. It is, however, a document of a very interesting and a very fun one. Uncovered and Unplugged also affords an opportunity to hear something precious you won’t hear on those Pet Sounds or SMiLE sets: The Beach Boys playing in the studio as a real band. It’s worth the price of admission for that alone.
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