Love is growing in the street,
Right through the concrete

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Beach Boys - LOVE YOU (1977)

If I played this album for someone I could never confidently expect an appreciative reaction. Even to a long-time convert like myself, the risibly cheesy lyrics and melodies still sound strange. It's appeal is difficult to describe to the skeptical... It certainly isn't anything to do with kitsch or irony. It might always be a puzzle to me why I revere it as highly as Pet Sounds or Surf's Up

Along with the stopgap release 15 Big Ones (1976) before it, this album bucks a trend of developing aesthetic maturity in the Beach Boys discography
. Dennis and Carl had grown considerably in significance in the years 1968-1973, and new members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplain, for their short time as Beach Boys on the consecutive albums 'Carl and The Passions: So Tough' and 'Holland', brought some refreshing hipness to the band's woefully unfunky sound. Owing more to Neil Young than Brian Wilson, 'Holland' (1973) stands as a true classic, but the public remained indifferent. Now that Brian was largely absent from their output, they were contemporaneously viewed as has-beens, even at the artistic height of their songwriting maturity.

Then came 15 Big Ones and Love You, which had the significant selling-point of boasting the words "produced by Brian Wilson" on the reverse; not seen on a Beach Boys album since Pet Sounds (1966).
15 Big Ones offered half an LP of 50s favourites, recreated with tongue affectionately lodged in cheek, and another half of original Beach Boys compositions. 'Had to Phone Ya' and 'It's OK' - the best of this category - also harked back, but instead to to the naive lyrics and carefree sounds of Wilson's own early songwriting career. One track, 'Just Once in My Life' (a cover), however, demonstrated the emotional punch the band was still fully capable of delivering, and that would be delivered with much greater sucess and concentration on Love You.

Love You's side one is utterly ridiculous. From the stomping synths opening 'Let Us Go On This Way' to the exuberant honky tonk of 'Mona', both the music and lyrics are best described as "well-oh-my-oh-gosh-oh-gee" ('Roller Skating Child'). With the heavy beat and bombastic synths/brass, it's resembles neither the barber shop surf-rock of their early days, the grandeur and sophistication of the Pet Sounds/ SMiLE era, nor the more mature musical developments on the Brother label. After years of searching for an image that would recapture the public, this album stands utterly naked of pretense. Without Tony Asher's philosophical elegance or Van Dyke Parks's inscrutable, verbose turns of phrase, Brian Wilson's lyrics honestly reflect an endearing simplicity in terms of subject. Whereas Carl Wilson's superb song of Imperialism, 'The Trader' (Holland) felt overcooked, lyrically, Brain here does not reach for poignancy at all. Instead he sticks to familiar topics of cars and girls. As he sings on 'Good Time': maybe it won't last but what do we care, my baby and I just want a good time

Side two is where things get interesting (it is a pity that this distinction is something lost on CD/media players). The opener, 'Solar System' is a strangely haunting one, and makes for a clear departure from side one, lyrically. With his quakey croon, Brian sings, in a wide-eyed tone, lines like "Saturn has rings all around it / I searched the skies and I found it" or "Solar system / Rings of wisdom". Combined with it's bright and carnivalesque instrumentation there is a child-like awe at these mysterious bodies. Similarly content are Mike Love and Carl Wilson's lead vocals on 'Airplane'. Both tracks share a sense of calm and hopeful wonder at the world.

'The Night Was So Young', following unexpectedly from the hilarious 'Ding Dang', is the strongest piece of songwriting on the album, and a shift from the naive contentment of its two preceding tracks. It's long, sustained chords and delicate vocals on the verses create a meditative, window-gazing mood ("Skies turning grey / There's clouds overhead / I'm still not asleep / In my bed") whilst the chorus breaks out in longing declarations like "is somebody going to tell me why she has to lie?". The arrangement is minimal and swampy, giving foreground to some simple but stirring harmonies on the chorus. The subtle mournfulness of the "doo doo doo doo doo"s and tasteful string-bends add much to the track with great economy. The following track, 'I'll Bet He's Nice' - sung by Dennis with a gravelly emotion verging on menace - is an unrequited love song for an ex, now with another guy. It shares the lovelorn mood of 'The Night Was So Young', but with a bitter edge that is only thinly veiled behind the playful electronic keys and nursery-rhyme melody. It features a gorgeous middle-eight sung by Carl.

'Let's Put Our Hearts Together' is in my opinion the most touching and lovely song the Beach Boys ever recorded. It's a duet between Brian and his wife, Marilyn. The tune is bright, happy and rolling. The tone is direct and earnest - mushy, even. The song is a straightforward and unguarded request to be love and be loved in return, including the ability to be vulnerable with another person. The song doesn't attempt to recapture a love of youthful inexperience but describes a more mature love which has grown defensive; wary of the serious pain of romantic failure and dishonest posturing:

- Take your time, don't worry
how you feel because
you know we've got forever

Maybe I'll come up with some idea
And you'll think that I was clever

- I never had someone
I need someone
To live with and be good to

- Don't worry 'bout your past loves
And if they never understood you

As Peter Buck comments in the sleevenotes of the CD release, "it's so personal that it's hard to listen to". The two would divorce just two years after the album's release. The song begins with Brian singing: "I don't want to tell you that I care for you / And have you just ignore me". Reminiscent of 'God Only Knows's famously contrary opening lines, this is a curious beginning for such a lovey-dovey love song. It's something that most people wouldn't have the honesty to say to a person in real life, never mind on record, but it's an entirely relatable sentiment - all the more true for its blunt eloquence. Something about Brian's rough-throated emotional honesty, set against the honied tones of Marilyn's Broadway vocal manner makes this track hopelessly sad to listen to. Though I don't believe it was Brian's intention to create a subversive song, I presume that having had a life such as his, it was simply not possible for him to write something naively idealistic about love.

The album ends hopefully with the tracks 'I Wanna Pick You Up', 'Airplane' and 'Love is a Woman'. The first features Dennis's gruff vocals on lead well-suited to the song's subject of father-infant love. 'Airplane' would have given a nice image of travelling and open-ended anticipation to end the album on, especially with its soothing, contented mood and sudden giddy coda of "can't wait to see her face", but the final track, 'Love is a Woman' ends the album on a big, brassy, sing-along send-off that is either cheesy or sarcastic - I'm not sure. It's enormously fun in the same way that the best tracks on 15 Big Ones are.

The complexities of this album's second side help frame the startling bombast and zeal of the first. Fans of Pet Sounds can play down the 'gee darn gosh'ness of the Beach Boys, if they wish, by focusing attention on the lush orchestration, experimentation with features of art music, Asher's trenchant lyrics etc etc. With Love You, you can't fool yourself that what you're listening to is cool. The music is brash and unfinessed, but nevertheless highly rewarding, with moods that are all the more true and timeless for the unconventionality of the sounds, and lyrics that carry greater profundity for all their surface simplicity. Multitracked vocals and symphonic are gone. What's left is naked and unashamed. @160


1. Let Us Go On This Way
2. Roller Skating Child
3. Mona
4. Johnny Carson
5. Good Time
6. Honkin' Down the Highway
7. Solar System
8. Ding Dang
9. The Night Was So Young
10. I'll Bet He's Nice
11. Let's Put Our Hearts Together
12. I Wanna Pick You Up
13. Airplane
14. Love Is A Woman

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath - COUNTRY COOKING (1988)

I was first introduced to the name Chris McGregor through seeing a set of his works played by a group of University Music students - not knowing at the time a thing about whose music was being played. At the close of their set they played a wild and winding 15-minute piece. It utterly entranced me. Its energy was sublime; unfolding powerfully with snakelike basslines, screeching saxophones and stern, regimented brass- all laid over a litany of African rhythms, inexhaustible in inventiveness. Its brilliance urged me to speak with the conductor after the set and ask whether there were recordings of this bandleader - this track in particular - on CD. He told me the name of the track, 'Dakar', and the album album, Country Cooking. So I noted it down, expecting later to find some blogger online who had this rare item.

I couldn't find it anywhere, however. 'Chris McGregor' search results were limited and were mainly about the the Brotherhood of Breath's excellent self-titled debut, which was given a CD re-release earlier in the decade. There was no hint of a re-release for the rest of the McGregor catalogue, however. I searched for a long time, presuming music this good couldn't be out of reach of the entire internet, but it took a good few months before I found someone in the USA with an old library copy. After £20 and a month waiting on air-mail it arrived!

So anyway, I'm happy to finally share such a rare item. The album is really a lost gem. It's timeless in sound; soulful, spirit-lifting music that's classy and Ellingtonian one moment, and then raucously wild the next. The band's Free Jazz experimentation is played down considerably on this recording, which is a disappointment because the strong melodic backbone of the his music is only improved when the Brotherhood are allowed some creative space to challenge these structures - as evidenced by earlier live recordings. I would love to hear some live variation on 'Dakar', but I've only been able to find live shows from earlier in the (not lofty) height of their notoriety: early to mid seventies.

Nevertheless, the album is dense, complex and full of personality, despite it's polished sheen. The album opens with the gentle and playful title track. Blissful woodwind romance on 'Bakwetha' meets abruptly with dizzy, swaggering horns on 'Sweet as Honey', laid over a sensitive Bill Evans-esque piano. 'You And Me (Sejui)' flits between funky, determined horn stabs and celebratory instrumental conversations. 'Big G' chugs along with a locomotive drive, occasionally spiraling into dramatic suspensions over spasmodic double-bass twiddling. 'Maxine', with it's romance and Garbarek-esque saxophone, reminds me a lot of Keith Jarrett's European Quartet at it's best, but with the richness of a Big Band orchestra. The album ends with 'Dakar', which, despite my complaints, is a downright important piece of music that would be a standard if there were any justice. @256


1. Country Cooking
2. Bakwetha
3. Sweet As Honey
4. You And Me (Sejui)
5. Big G
6. Maxine
7. Dakar