Track List: Slip On Through, This Whole World, Add Some Music to Your Day, Got to Know the Woman, Deirdre, It’s About Time, Tears in the Morning, All I Wanna Do, Forever, Our Sweet Love, At My Window, Cool, Cool Water
Intro: It’s difficult to imagine now, since decades of critical reevaluation and praise, as well as generations of subsequent musicians singing their praises, how un-hip the Beach Boys were at the post-Woodstock and Monterey Pop beginning of the 1970’s. The Boys’ no-show at Monterey, prevailing musical trends, and Jimi Hendrix’s famous remark about the Boys being a “psychedelic barbershop quartet” as well as the line in his “Third Stone from the Sun”: “To you I shall put an end, then you’ll never hear surf music again.” (That turned out to be an inaccurate interpretation of a truncated lyric, but the damage was done), along with Brian Wilson’s disappointed (his very personal Pet Sounds was not a sales success, thanks to Capitol Records’ boneheaded promotion, which included the release of a Greatest Hits compilation that further undercut sales and the legendary drug-addled, star-crossed follow-up SMiLE session crash and burn) withdrawal from principal songwriting (in fairness, he was also busy producing other acts in this period during his more lucid periods)…all conspired to relegate the BB’s to also-ran status. But in the wake of Brian’s post-SMiLE flameout, they were far from idle; the other WIlson brothers, Carl and Dennis, as well as cousin Mike Love and bandmates Al Jardine and Brian’s touring replacement Brian Johnston, did their best to pick up the slack and released several albums in the period immediately preceding this release, many of very high quality. This was the Boys’ first album for Warner Bros., with whom they signed just before their Capitol contract expired. It was the second on their own Brother Records label. They had every reason to be optimistic; with Brian seeming to be interested in making music again, a slew of new studio tech to play with (they even listed most of it in the sleeve notes), a host of new songs either in the can or in the works, and a new record label- but unfortunately the best laid plans just didn’t work out for the group. This album underwent at least two different configurations, both under different titles and both rejected by WB head Mo Ostin before Sunflower, in this format, got the go-ahead. And, it was not a hit, inexplicably reaching only #151 on the US charts, an inauspicious debut to their disappointing (sales-wise) Warner Bros. period. For the whole convoluted story, go here. Still, it got great reviews for the most part, and has become a favorite of many fans, to the point where it’s generally regarded as one of the group’s best albums. Here’s an interesting blog, unfortunately idle since February, about the recording of this album.
Track By Track:
SLIP ON THROUGH: This one launches in without an intro or a count-in, just a cowbell- and slinky-horns-punctuated riff that ushers in the trademark vocal harmonies on the chorus. Dennis Wilson, beginning to assert his creativity in the studio, wrote and sang lead. Lyrically, nothing elaborate- it’s a c’mon and love me type song that does get things off to a rousing start and at 2:17 is just long enough to not wear out its welcome.
THIS WHOLE WORLD: Brian’s first contribution finds him on top of things arrangement-wise, mixing and matching tempos and keys with reckless abandon a la “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. However, this one doesn’t quite have the same depth as earlier triumphs; telling is the first line: I’m thinking ’bout this whole world… and it becomes a McCartneyesque rumination on how much better things would be if we all loved each other, blah blah blah. Based on idle speculation instead of deeply felt conviction, it sums up why so much of his post-Sounds input suffered in comparison. Which is not to say that this isn’t a very good track- it’s one of the best on a very good album, catchy as hell and of course well sung by Brian and Carl and the other fellows.
ADD SOME MUSIC TO YOUR DAY: Take what I said about “World”, and substitute “music” for “love” and you get the gist of this, the first single from the album. Still, this is a clever and often winning song with a drop-dead gorgeous melody, dealing with how much music is/was a part of our lives, as true in 2008 as it was in 1969. I’m especially fond of this verse:
They’ll play it on your wedding day
There must be ’bout a million ways
To add some music
To your day
A winning, warm sentiment, and it’s a goosebump moment when the Boys sing the title in unison as the song winds down.
GOT TO KNOW THE WOMAN: This one’s a wannabe Motown-ish soul stomper, and it does succeed after a fashion. Another Dennis composition, and he does convince as he tells us in no uncertain terms how horny he is for a young lady he just met. It’s on par with previous BBs Motown-ish exercises, like “WIld Honey” and “I’d Love Just Once to See You”.
DEIRDRE: Bruce Johnston’s first contribution to Sunflower proves once more that he could really bring the sap like nothing short of a Vermont maple tree. This is an old-fashioned sounding, golly-gee-whiz starry-eyed love song for the titular inamorata, sashaying along with flute flourishes after each verse and of course the swelling harmonies before the chorus. In many cases, Johnston’s style didn’t always agree with me, but this is a grand and glorious and slightly overlooked track, which has gradually become a favorite of mine (as if you couldn’t tell).
IT’S ABOUT TIME is Carl’s spotlight; it’s a rocking little declaration of self-reliance, punctuated with some twangy distorted guitar licks, kind of a piece with “Got to Know the Woman”. It’s no major revelation, but it is an urgent, catchy tune and fits in very well, keeping the album grounded.
TEARS IN THE MORNING: Johnston’s second contribution is nowhere near as successful as his first; where “Dierdre” at least had a sunny cheerfulness about it, this one’s weepy and self-pitying, and the melody meanders. Very skippable.
ALL I WANNA DO is quite possibly my favorite on this album; its echoey, ghostly vibe and beautiful melody make it distinctive and captivating. Lyrically, it’s simple if not simplistic; the singer is pledging his troth to the object of his affection. But the melody and arrangement- the harmony mix on the lines “My love is burning brightly/like moon and stars shine nightly” is breathtaking- make all the difference. This one’s Brian and Mike Love, with one of Love’s best vocals.
FOREVER once again spotlights Dennis’ songwriting abilities; no less an authority than Brian himself said “Forever has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a rock and roll prayer.” It’s another pledge of devotion to the singer’s lady love; vocals are most prominent in the mix but there is minimal instrumental accompaniment present.
OUR SWEET LOVE: One line in this Brian/Carl/Al Jardine composition is telling in regards to how desperately the Boys wanted to be accepted by the Love Generation:
I thought about a summer day
And how the time just floats away
Pretty things like incense and flowers
I wanna make them part of…Our sweet love
Problem is, to the groovy people listening to Led Zeppelin II, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, and Let It Be, (the Beatles album, not the Replacements) well, this sort of thing just sounded quaint and old fashioned, especially considering the overly precious arrangement it was given. It’s a nice enough song, and time has been kind to it…but it’s for BB fans only, and there just weren’t as many of them at that stage of the game.
AT MY WINDOW: Brian’s stoned rumination on the birds outside must have caused some askance looks when presented to the others, but the eldest Wilson sibling still had enough mojo to craft a strong, lovely melody for it. It would have made an apropos single in tandem with his equally stoned slice-of-life tune “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”, I do believe.
COOL, COOL WATER is one of the multitudes of leftover song fragments from SMiLE, and while it is fleshed out to an amazing 5 minutes with the help of a lot of studio tomfoolery, it still sounds more like a fragment than an honest-to-goodness complete track. Mostly an a capella dual lead between Brian and Mike, this one has its ardent admirers, citing its “inspired simplicity”… but I have never really understood what all the fuss is about.
Outro: I was a slow convert to the music of the Beach Boys; as a kid growing up I had heard many of their classic hits like “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around”, but never thought of them as on a par with the Beatles or anybody like that. They were just a lighthearted AM radio band, as far as I knew. I saw them once in a while in my early teens, in their kaftan-wearing hirsute phase, but paid them no real heed. Then, a chance hearing of 1971’s Surf’s Up track “Feel Flows” on a Warner/Reprise Loss Leaders compilation in my late teens completely threw me for a loop. “Flows” was a druggy, distorted Carl WIlson track that sounded totally unlike anything I had imagined the Beach Boys could sound like, and my notorious curiosity consumed me. That led me to read the up-and-down history of the group, including Brian’s decline and information about a whole bunch of albums (including Surf’s Up) that were out of print and damn near impossible to find anywhere. But I persevered, acquired a couple of band histories, and even eventually acquired nearly all of the post-1965 albums, either on vinyl or in the CD reissues…and truly became born again hard into Beach Boys fandom. Sunflower was not an immediate favorite; I knew Christgau gave it a good grade but he had a soft spot for the band anyway, especially back in the late 60’s-early 70’s; He even gave 1967’s Wild Honey an A+! Only two or three of the songs- “All I Want to Do”, “Add Some Music”- hit me where I felt it, but after repeated listenings I eventually saw the light and like many I do consider this one of their best efforts. Top five, anyway.