SEVERAL months ago Rolling Stone ran a piece about how the Beach Boys have been trying to change their name, and, with it, their image, Ultimately the group decided that they were, after all, the Beach Boys and to pretend otherwise would be fraudulent. Well, the Beach Boys are still the Beach Boys, and in their latest album, Sunflower, they prove that surfing can be as much of a viable alternative for the seventies as it was for the sixties.
Sunflower is mainly an album of love songs and it may well be the best album the Beach Boys have produced since they started taking drugs. The album is oddly out of touch with whatever has happened in this country since "Help Me Rhonda" was released. The music is still plastic California music; except for an occasional venture into rhythm and blues, the Beach Boys stick with intricate harmonies woven around simple, familiar melodies. The production and engineering throughout the entire album is brilliant, enabling the Beach Boys to execute complex overdubbing and special electronic effects with subtlety.
Lyrically, the songs are either embarrassingly irrelevant or refreshingly naive, depending on how you look at them. Listen carefully to the lyrics. At a time when America is near civil war, can anyone else sing things like "my life is growing like a big old tree" and be serious?
Most of the songs, however, are good enough to compensate for the group's lyric impotence, and the Beach Boys are at their best when performing the rhythm and blues songs of Dennis Wilson or Brian Wilson's cuts.
"Got to Know the Woman" and "It's About Time," two of Dennis' songs, are as close to hard rock as the Beach Boys are likely to get. "Got to Know the Woman" is a simple rhythm-and-blues tune that builds gradually to a Phil Spector-like wall of sound. "It's About Time" is a somewhat pretentious ballad about self-realization-"Little did I know the joy I'd find in knowing I am only me"-but an incredible rhythm section and some of the best guitar work the Beach Boys have ever done make this one of the best songs on the album.
Brian Wilson's new songs feature the more familiar Beach Boys' melodies. "This Whole World" and "All I Wanna Do" mark a return to the old surf ballads. "Add Some Music to Your Day" and "Cool, Cool Water," two more of Brian's songs, also depend on the intricate harmonies that made the Beach Boys famous. But "Add Some Music to Your Day" is a clinically detailed study of music, full of absolutely ridiculous lyrics ("You're sitting in a dentist's chair/And they've got music for you there . . . Your doctor knows it keeps you calm/Your preacher adds it to his psalm").
"Cool, Cool Water" is an equally preposterous tribute to water. The song is full of electronic simulations of rainstorms and water flowing from a faucet in varying degrees of intensity. The song is backed up by incredibly complex harmonies and punctuated by the lyrics (sung a cappella ): "In the ocean or in a glass/Cool water is such a gas."
On any Beach Boys album, we can expect a certain amount of schlock, and, one again, they don't disappoint us. "Deirdre," which tries to justify its lyrics with the pun "dear, dear, Deirdre," sounds like Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "The joker is Wild" played at half-tempo. Likewise, "At My Window" is a cutesy sentimental ballad, full of sound effects of birds chirping.
On the other hand, criticizing the Beach Boys on the basis of their sentimentality really isn't fair-almost all of their songs are pretty sentimental. What is remarkable about the Beach Boys is not so much their sentiments as the musical backing they provide for them. "Tears in the Morning," for example, a Bruce Johnston song that certainly has its moments of melodrama, has a very simple melody which is saved by imaginative backing from a French accordion, a xylophone, violins, and multiple-part harmony. All the songs, no matter how trite the melodies, are recorded with a warmth and fullness that is rare in any record production.
It will be interesting to see whether anyone buys Sunflower. The Beach Boys' image being what it is today, Sunflower will probably be dismissed as another piece of decadent plastic rock and find itself without an audience. Decadent it certainly is, but it remains one of the best arguments for plastic rock around.