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Recording Reviews: 8/11/00

Friday, August 11, 2000

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

'In Concert'

3 1/2 stars

'Sunflower/Surf's Up'

3 stars

It's amazing to think that "America's Band" was ever as adventurous in concert as on these two nights in the winter of '72 and the summer of '73 -- adventurous enough that I remember being disappointed by "In Concert" when I bought a beat-up used copy back in high school. I was looking for another "Endless Summer," I suppose. Instead, I got a bunch of songs I'd never heard before and very little in the way of cars or surfing U.S.A. As fate would have it, through the years, the band would learn to cater to the kind of fan I was in high school, leaving Brian Wilson's pioneering spirit by the wayside.

Wilson wasn't in the touring band as captured on "In Concert," but the man is clearly there in spirit. Four songs drawn from "Pet Sounds," Wilson's masterpiece, are joined by a handful of chart-topping hits and such lesser-known treasures as "Heroes and Villains," "The Trader" (an excellent Carl Wilson showcase), "Darlin'," "Let the Wind Blow" and "Marcella."

Recent acquisition Blondie Chaplin does a fine job singing lead on "Sail on Sailor," the opening track. He loses points a few song later, though, beaching the boys on a truly lamentable "Leaving This Town," one of two cuts here I hope to never hear again. Ricky Fataar (of the Rutles) sings the other dog, a song he co-wrote with Mike Love and Chaplin as insipid as its title, "We Got Love."

The only other disappointment is a reworked "Help Me Rhonda," deprived of the riff that apparently makes the song. But these are minor gripes spread out across a 20-song collection marked by great performances of classic songs -- an aching Al Jardine performance of "You Still Believe in Me," a drop-dead gorgeous Carl vocal on "Caroline No," an older, more majestic "California Girls," "Don't Worry Baby," "Good Vibrations," "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B." among them.

Plus, you get to hear a disenchanted Mike Love send a seldom-more-beautiful "Surfer Girl" out to "all you oldies but moldies fans." Today, of course, he spends his summers on nostalgia tours.

Ostensibly the drummer and/or cute one, Dennis Wilson does the family proud with "Slip On Through," the soulful, rocking tune that opened the "Sunflower" album nearly 30 years ago today -- like "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with a heavenly choir of Wilson family harmonies. It's one of four songs Dennis wrote or co-wrote on this underrated treasure. The rock 'n' roll parable "It's About Time" is essentially filler, but "Got To Know the Woman" brings a lusty, piano-fueled Sun Records swagger to Sunflower land (with backing vocals cribbed from "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "Long Tall Texan," Beach Boys concert staples in the early days). It's on "Forever," though, that Dennis really shines. In fact, you could add it to "Pet Sounds" and call it a minor improvement. Even Brian says as much, in interviews conducted for the liner notes this very April, calling it "the most harmonically beautiful thing I've ever heard."

The other highlights come from Brian's pen. A bouyant "This Whole World," among the writer's all-time greatest, gives the optimistic vibe of early hits a "Pet Sounds" sense of grandeur. "Our Sweet Love," with a breathtaking vocal from Carl, is cut from the same romantic cloth as "God Only Knows." And "Cool, Cool Water" finds the fractured genius at play in the sandbox, searching for the psychedelic good vibrations of his wild, experimental youth.

It's not all golden. "Add Some Music To Your Day," while blessed with yet another gorgeous Brian melody, is undermined by words that may have sounded deep to hippies smoking pot in 1970, or so the Beach Boys clearly hoped. There's little chance, though, that a kid who'd been to Woodstock would have had the patience for the hopelessly syrupy "Deirdre" or Bruce Johnston's other contribution as a writer, the "Mr. Bojangles"-like "Tears in the Morning."

No one bought it anyway. The album spent just four weeks in the Billboard Top 200, never climbing higher than a weak 151. "Surf's Up," the followup, is marred by an obvious struggle to capture the heart of the flower children with a topical solution. "Don't Go Near the Water" is a well-intentioned plea on behalf of the water, but it's hard to get past lyrics as corny as "Toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble bath/So let's avoid an ecological aftermath." Here's hoping they at least used mouthwash in their anti-toothpaste revolution.

"Don't Go Near the Water" is a masterpiece compared to Mike Love's adaptation of the Leiber-Stoller classic, "Riot in Cell Block #9." Inspired, in part, by the killings at Kent State University, "Student Demonstration Time" is no "Ohio."

A welcome sense of humor saves what could have given "Student Demonstration Time" a run for its money as the point at which the album bottoms out, Al's "Take a Load Off Your Feet." It's kind of cute, but in a good way, not like Johnston's Eisenhower-era tribute "Disney Girls (1957)," a song so sappy Captain & Tennille would later cover it.

With Dennis sitting this one out as a writer, it's up to his brothers to save the day. And they do, at least a little. Carl's wistful meditation on life when the warmth of the sun just doesn't cut it anymore, "Long Promised Road" is a ballad of heartbreaking beauty, while his other contribution, "Feel Flows," offsets Love's and Jardine's heavy-handed social commentary with a cryptic call to "retire the fences."

Brian closes out the album with a three-song suite that more than makes it worth your while. Look beyond the less-than-subtle message-rock of "A Day in the Life of a Tree" and the tree emerges as a metaphor for Brian's own declining sense of self. It hurts to hear the embattled boy genius sing, "For years, my limbs stretched to the sky/A nest for birds to sit and sing/But now my branches suffer and my leaves don't bear the glow they did so long ago." Untrue, if these three songs are any indication. "'Til I Die," a haunting meditation on his own mortality, is classic Wilson, sadly beautiful. And then, he ends the album with "Surf's Up," an epic recorded for "Smile," the legendary would-be masterpiece Brian was forced to abandon after breaking down while trying to top the bar he'd set with "Pet Sounds." Flawed but brilliant, like the world he painted in his songs.

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