Another Beach Boys compilation? Already one of the most repackaged and anthologised bands ever, the commercial success of Brian Wilson’s live Pet Sounds shows some years back, and the triumphant release of the endlessly delayed Smile project, have seen even more record label activity of which this is the latest example. My parents owned two different compilations in the early ‘80s, imagine how many there are now in one format or another. This one is a sequel to 2004’s Sounds of the Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys, the cynic would conclude that by dint of that title this one must contain the second best. In mitigation this does at least strive for something different. Selected and sequenced by the surviving members The Warmth of the Sun aims to shine a light on some of their comparatively less well known material and as such is just about worthwhile. There are B-sides and tracks from ‘70s albums that were released to a chorus of apathy and indifference (such as Carl and the Passions: So Tough) whilst songs from Pet Sounds do not feature at all.
Despite their best intentions in casting a ‘wide net’ the inclusion of “It’s OK” is a ghastly mistake, this 1976 release was one best left on the refuse pile where it belongs. I often find myself in arguments with people who think the Beach Boys are frankly rubbish: over-rated, simplistic, trite, conservative fluff. This bland surf-lite atrocity replete with breathy background vocals that sound like outtakes from the soundtrack of a pornographic movie is heavy grist to their mill. It’s the sound of a band desperately trying to recapture former glories and doing a terrible ham fisted job of it. Thankfully there is also plenty that demonstrates what a multi-faceted act they were and also how much good music they went on to make after the twin career peaks of Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations”.
All Beach Boys ‘nay-sayers’ should be directed to “Surfs Up” (originally a track from the abandoned Smile project) a beautiful fragile tapestry that shifts in tone and mood adroitly, a million miles away from their early straightforwardly concise surf-pop. The same goes for Brian Wilson’s most naked self-commentary “‘Till I Die” which is set against a unusually sparse yet shimmering arrangement. The song captures Wilson on the precipice of self-annihilation: assailed by drugs, fame and the all too real spectre of his own commercial failure. All these elements were crowding in on his increasingly addled mind and it shows: “I’m a leaf on a windy day/ Pretty soon I’ll be blown away.” The lyrics are a stripped down meditation on the inconsequence and brevity of life sung by a man quite literally at the end of his tether. In contrast “Sail on Sailor” from 1973’s Holland (and recently featured on the soundtrack of Scorsese’s The Departed) is stridently upbeat and optimistic, even though by this stage Wilson had become a fully fledged recluse.
There are also plenty of well-known classics within the 28-track span of the album, the surging xylophone pop of “All Summer Long”, the pre-Pet Sounds production magic of “The Little Girl I Once Knew”, and the warm harmonies of “Break Away”. The song writing talents of brothers Dennis (Sunflower’s “Forever”) and Carl (Surf’s Up’s “Feel Flows”) are featured as well as Brian’s post- Pet Sounds work with Van Dyke Parks and his early trademark compositions with cousin Mike Love. The inclusion of “Don’t Go Near the Water” highlights the often overlooked ecological conscience which evolved within the band at the end of the ‘60s.
Those with only a cursory knowledge of the Beach Boys’ oeuvre will be surprised by the diversity of material it contains though it doesn’t quite cohere as an album. The shifts in tone are jarring and the contrast between the simple sunshine pop of their early career and their later drift into reflective melancholy is stark indeed. However if it encourages people to investigate their lesser known releases, in particular Friends and the excellent Sunflower, this compilation is to be warmly welcomed. Though it should be the last. Instead it’s about time Dennis Wilson’s gently beguiling Pacific Ocean Blue got the full re-issue treatment.