Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review: The Beach Boys' '1967—Sunshine Tomorrow'

1967 was a tough year for The Beach Boys. While their chief rivals The Beatles were dropping jaws with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brian Wilson terminated his struggle to create SMiLE, an ambitious project that would have made Pepper’s sound like Please Please Me. Despite an invitation to perform at the taste-making Monterey Pop Festival, The Beach Boys pulled out, supposedly out of fear that they would look pathetically unhip sharing a stage with the likes of Hendrix, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane. Unable to follow up on the smash commercial and artistic success of “Good Vibrations” in 1966, our boys from Hawthorne seemed to be in a pretty grim way in ’67.

They didn’t give up though, and if The Beach Boys could not (or would not) keep up with pop’s rapid progress, they would at least keep working. In the waning months of this ignominious year, they managed to release two albums. While Smiley Smile was a pale shadow of the grand SMiLE, sounding more like the demos that might have proceeded that project than the ultimate result of it, it was at least weird enough to sound fairly contemporary. And along with the two monumental singles that anchor Smiley Smile —“Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”—it has some pretty little sketches, such as the psychedelic doo-wop of “With Me Tonight” and the heavenly Hawaiian sojourn “Little Pad”.

The Beach Boys final album of ’67 was much stronger, eschewing weird psych trends for an earthy soul sound exemplified by the divine minor-hit “Darlin’”, the funky title track, and an unexpected yet terrific cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”. Interestingly, though, the production continued to be as thin and underdeveloped as that of Smiley Smile despite the density soul demands. The thinness was particularly odd considering that Wild Honey was only mixed in mono.

To commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, Wild Honey has received its first stereo mix, and this new presentation is the centerpiece of a double-disc set called 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow. While mono has always been the ideal Beach Boys format, the new stereo mix of Wild Honey actually sounds fuller than the mono original, pumping bass sounds to richer levels without allowing them to distort or overwhelm. Clarity is incredible, and details such as the warm backing vocals on “Wild Honey” and previously buried horn lines on “Aren’t You Glad” and “Darlin’” flower out of the mix. This new mix might even turn a really good Beach Boys album into a great one.

Since Smiley Smile has always been available in stereo, it is not as spotlighted as the album that followed it on Sunshine Tomorrow, though session highlights of both albums are included. Smiley Smile is represented by such items as a whistling version of “Vegetables” extended by a minute, a gorgeous tag recorded for “Wind Chimes”, and a more forceful alternate snatch of “With Me Tonight”. However, Wild Honey remains the focus of this set, and its outtakes and session highlights are more revelatory. There’s a cool outtake previously issued on the Hawthorne, CA CD called “Lonely Days”, an alternate version of “I Was Made to Love Her” with a wild a capella coda, and sessions that spotlight such odd elements as the Theremin in “Wild Honey” and what sounds like the mutant offspring of a tack piano and a ukulele on “Aren’t You Glad”. A Wild Honey-era demo of “Surf’s Up” that finds Brian performing his masterwork alone on piano in his home was previously issued at the end of the first disc of The SMiLE Sessions but it includes an extra minute and a half of talk and false starts leading into the performance here. A nice thing all these sessions reveal is that despite the crushing blow of seeing SMiLE aborted and the dropping popularity of his band, Brian Wilson had not yet checked out in late 1967. In fact, he still sounds very much in charge and creatively juiced as he runs the Smiley Smile and Wild Honey sessions.

Although The Beach Boys passed on Monterey, they continued their roadwork in 1967, and the stage aspect of their career is also very well represented on 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow. The unreleased live album Lei’d in Hawaii leads the way with its first official release (though “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Barbara Ann”, a couple of songs associated with that scrapped project, are absent), and the quality is excellent. Rehearsals from these shows basically amount to clean, studio versions of “With a Little Help from my Friends”, The Box Tops’ “The Letter”, and Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”, all rendered in the sparse, organ-centric Smiley Smile style. The sound quality of four songs recorded in Honolulu is less impressive though it is historically significant since it marks Brian’s brief return to the stage.

Smiley Smile and Wild Honey may not be as timeless as Pet Sounds, but they are both tremendously interesting albums with a fair share of great tracks between them, and it’s very cool to see these oft-ignored albums get the attention they receive on 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow. Hopefully Friends, the album that really found The Beach Boys returning to form, will get similar treatment on its 50th Anniversary next year.

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