Friday, June 8, 2007

The Beach Boys - The Warmth of the Sun (****)

For all the fuss and acclaim tossed The Beach Boys’ way (not to mention their insurmountable legacy), it wouldn’t be thought of as out of the ordinary if you only owned one of their full length albums. Of course, that album should be Pet Sounds (if it’s not, we have problems), one of the most perfect documents of teenage angst, lost love and spiritual renewal in existence. It was also the group’s last grasp at greatness, at least in terms of full-length albums. Pretty much their entire catalogue outside of the music they made circa Pet Sounds and the aborted SMiLE is inconsistent at best and horribly dated worst. On the bright side, this makes The Beach Boys perfect candidates for the compilation treatment, which they are aware of and, for better or worse, have been milking for over three decades. It has paid off in an unexpected way however with the great new 28-track, career overview The Warmth of the Sun, which takes an alternate path around all the obvious Beach Boys hits and focuses on the overlooked, and quite frankly better songs that the group produced both pre and post-Pet Sounds.

The Warmth of the Sun is being marketed as a sort of companion piece to 2003’s Sounds of Summer compilation, which is probably the disc most casual Beach Boys fans reach for at barbeques or family get-togethers. I have news for these people however—The Warmth of the Sun is probably the best single-disc Beach Boys compilation currently available, assuming you own Pet Sounds (of which no songs appear here). The disc is thankfully short on those early, fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys singles (which comprised most of Sounds of Summer) that haven’t aged very well, yet continue to dominate oldies radio. Don’t get me wrong, these songs certainly have their place, but nowadays they mostly work as time capsules or pure nostalgia for those long lost teenage years and endless summer nights. However, this period did produce a handful of great moments, which continue to hold up well. These tracks kick off The Warmth of the Sun on a bright, sunny note with songs like “All Summer Long,” “Little Honda” and the fanatically infectious “Hawaii.” Also, for those who believe that Brian Wilson’s genius sprouted during the Pet Sounds sessions, they will be in for a surprise with “You’re So Good to Me,” “Kiss Me Baby” and “Let Him Run Wild,” all of which presage Pet Sounds and show glimpses into the serious minded approach that he would embark on in the coming years.

The disc is not chronological, but there is still a very pronounced gap halfway through the disc where the tone changes. The release of Pet Sounds fits right between track 13 (“Wendy”) and track 14 (“Disney Girls”), which effectively splits the disc in two. From this point on, the material becomes darker but continually grows stronger until you reach the last quarter of the record, and you realize you are listening to some of the most beautiful recordings the world has ever known. There’s Dennis Wilson’s somber “Forever,” Bruce Johnston’s underrated “Disney Girls” and Carl Wilson’s jaw dropping “Feel Flows” among others, but like always Brian Wilson steals the show. Brian post-Pet Sounds was an unstable individual to say the least, which kind of perversely led to his best and most ambitious songs he had ever attempted. It’s perhaps best represented here by the proto prog-pop epic “Surf’s Up,” which never loses its way through its three complex movements. The highlight of the disc, and perhaps the strongest song Brian Wilson ever wrote, is the achingly gorgeous “’Til I Die,” a song that Mike Love famously fought against the group releasing (and did I mention that thankfully there is very little Mike Love on this comp.?). The disc closes, appropriately enough, with the title track—a song that stands alongside “Don’t Worry Baby” (not included here) as the apex of pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys.

Like I said before, the Beach Boys weren’t ever really an “album” band. The one time Brian consciously attempted to craft a full length, it nearly destroyed him. Their pre-Pet Sounds records were littered with covers (of which three are present here and account for the lowest points on this disc), and their post-Pet Sounds albums continually (but thankfully) resurrected years-old SMiLE songs for inclusion. However, with Brian finally completing SMiLE a few years back, he has effectively rendered most of their other records obsolete (although I would still highly recommend Surf’s Up and even Smiley Smile to paint a complete picture). The Warmth of the Sun picks up the slack, nicely compiling most of the group’s better songs even while avoiding their most fertile period. In this way it works as a great purchase for the uninitiated as well as those looking to dive further into one of pop’s deepest and most indelible catalogues.

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