Let’s change things up a bit from the heavy metal insanity of my last review shall we? Let’s review the sweetest, gentlest music I can think of off the top of my head. That’ll do!
In the world of 60’s orchestrated folk pop, the Mama’s and the Papa’s sometimes seem to get a bad rap. At least to this reviewer. “Hippie crap!” is one such refrain from various anti-fans around the world. “Fey nonsense, pre-built drama foisted on the brain dead and stupid!” is another. Or perhaps these are the jeers I’m imagining my punk rock friends throwing at the Mama’s and the Papa’s.
Or perhaps I’m simplifying things. Probably as this is often times my “modus operandi.”
The Mama’s and the Papa’s were definitely a bit “soft” but this was actually their advantage: in a world of increasingly heavy rock and roll values, they represented a bit of the old “ultra violently beautiful” if you will. That is to say, they took the “Pet Sound” vibe and ran with it.
That isn’t really fair to the Mama’s and the Papa’s or creative leader John Phillips but there’s some truth there: their lush, evocative and fully arranged folk style had similar production flourishes when compared to that Beach Boys masterpiece.
Throw in a solid bit of melancholy from Phillips, the only songwriter in the band and you got a similar sound, style and vibe. But with it’s own creative persona that we’re going to delve into here in a moment.
But first I must mention the vocal harmonies. We’re about to gush here.
The Mama’s and the Papa’s vocal harmonies were, without a doubt, the most luscious, complex and fully realized in the world of pop in the 60’s (and perhaps even to this day). Yes, even more so than the Beach Boys.
I’m not knocking the Beach Boys with this statement: it’s just that, at his best as vocal arranger, Phillips was either at Wilson’s peak level or surpassing it on every other song. While not a strong singer himself (he was the only member to never sing lead) he was backed by the amazing singing voices of wife (and scamp) Michelle Phillips, “Mama” Cass and Denny Doherty.
All three were knock out singers with their own individual style and amazing ability to blend in with each other. “Mama” Cass was a knockout blues belter who could tear down the house with a single screech; Doherty was an old style crooner who could also hit heavy moments when necessary; Phillips was a bit more coy, not a stronger singer, but of a bit of a sex kitten vocally.
I’m sure little of that makes sense but let’s move on.
Of course, the Beach Boys have The MP’s beaten on a lot of other levels: composition wise, Wilson handily beats Phillips. Phillips songs tend to vacillate around simple folk/pop forms and melodies: catchy and solid but not groundbreaking the way Wilson’s best work remains.
Instead, Phillips (and the in house orchestral arrangers) lavished his simple songs on this amazing debut album with deep, endless but appropriate arrangements that made each song seem like a mini-epic.
Amazingly, the arrangers were able to avoid complete mush most of the time: sometimes, they left the arrangements as simple as the song needed. For example, “California Dreaming” (their signature song) starts out with an evocative guitar figure that dances around the melody before you’re SLAMMED in the face with a wall of vocal harmonies.
The song’s arrangements grow lusher but not excessively, capping off with a simple, beautiful, wintery flute solo that actually makes the song feel more epic than originally envisioned.
Riding the waves of Phillips vocal harmonies one can often ignore or miss his lyrics. That’s a mistake. While no means the next coming of Dylan, Phillips simple tales of heart ache (influenced by his own bad decisions making and poor life decisions) creates simple poetry that can hit you harder than all the “darkness at the break of noon”-type Dylan passages put together.
Take, for example, “Go Where You Wanna Go” perhaps the best song on here. Yes, “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming” (both were on the same album) are more famous and justifiably so but “Go Where You Wanna Go” really gets to the heart of the Mama and Papa’s legend.
The lyrical message is timeless” “go where you wanna go and do what you wanna do with whoever you wanna do it with” may sound like hippie gibberish but it’s actually a command from Phillips to Michelle as a way of trying to force her out of his life.
This makes Michelle’s plea of “you don’t understand/that a girl like me can’t love, just one maaan” all the more heart rending. Even if the lyric is “CAN love just one man” (which it may be, but I always hear it as “can’t”) the sentiment possesses and incredible power due to the circumstance of the band at the time.
The orchestra has this amazing ability to kick in at just the right time on this album: the next segment with the plaintive lyrics of “three thousand miles, that’s how far I’ve gone” (or whatever) are backed with a simple but beautiful orchestral part that brings tears to my eyes every time.
Perhaps I’m just a sentimental sucker. But I even get a kick out of the “rocking” tunes on the album such as “Straight Shooter” (with it’s simple but cool looping riff) and boastful lyrics. Sure, it may seem a tad stale as a “real’ rocker but as a change of pace it really works.
Likewise to “The ‘In’ Crowd” which if the first showcase of Cass’s vocal skills. She belts out this simple tune with all the bluesy bluster and delicacy (at times) that the song requires. It’s another example of the type of blustery boastfulness that may seem out of place but which sure sounds cool when it’s arranged and sung so well.
Then there are the covers: the Beatles “I Call Your Name” is an excellent song enhanced by the MP’s vocal presence and slight cabaret style. “Do You Wanna Dance” is the most slowed down, wimpy take of this particular song I’ve ever heard which gives it a pleading, despairing feel absent from the more exciting Beach Boys take.
“Spanish Harlem” is a beautifully arranged tune that again may seem out of place if you’re a hard core “style and tone” fanatic (i.e. all albums must have a singular tone and style unique to them) but which adds a nice touch of diversity to the proceedings.
I’m honestly tempted to go through every song and review them individually as each song brings something to the table: the simple gentleness of “Got a Feeling” and the exuberance of the cover of “You Baby” being perhaps the best songs I hadn’t yet mentioned.
Honestly, I could write a whole review of the vocal harmonies of this album, focusing on all the nooks and crannies of the call and response, subtly shifting textures and adrenaline pumping excitement of some of these harmonies.
Yes that’s right: I said adrenaline pumping. The opening harmonies on “Go Where You Wanna Go” are head spinning in their complexity and trying to sing along to them will give you fits. But I try every time.
Basically, the Mama’s and the Papa’s were a highly unique band from the very start that head their own unique variation on a style, a genius vocal arranger with solid songwriting skills, four solid singers, amazing arrangements and impeccable taste.
And terrifyingly difficult home lives. But I won’t go into that: that’s been discussed to death. The band was able to cling together for three more solid albums (the second, self titled album being perhaps even better than this) while pumping out one crappy reunion album in the 70’s.
The best way to experience this band is to get a compilation of their first four albums (I bought a two CD comp, “All the Leaves are Brown” that collected all four in the early 2000’s which apparently went out of print one minute after I bought it) and just sit down and listen to them all in a row, starting with this one. You really won’t believe your eyes and ears.
Songs to YouTube:
You have probably heard the hits so try out “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “Straight Shooter,” “Got a Feeling” and even “Hey Girl” to see the different styles the band was capable of producing. They weren’t just constantly in ballad land.
As a young man, I despaired of moving to Marquette to continue my studies because a) I hardly knew anybody there b) went there for a girl who had broken up with me the day I registered for classes and c) the distance and snow. I had never lived anywhere so far from home or anywhere that was so prone to four foot snow storms.
A random snow storm on my way back up to class one day backed up traffic so bad on the I-75 that I made a diversion into Cheboygan for the night, stopping at Wal-Mart and randomly buying “Smiley Smile/Wild Honey” by the Beach Boys.
The strange sounds of the acid warped “Smiley Smile” confused me: my young mind associated the Beach Boys with the lameness (to me at the time) surf hits while “Wild Honey” possessed a simple, stripped down pop/R&B approach that sounds a lot like a lot of minimalistic indie bands of today.
And each were soaked in a sense of positivity held down by a sense of deep sadness that reflected the heart of composer and producer Brian Wilson perfectly: a radiant, child-like genius that wanted to express complete positivity to destroy the demons that were killing his mind and which infected his joyful music with a sense of foreboding that made the late 60’s/early 70’s Beach Boy albums vastly under rated forms of true rock and roll beauty.
Of course, the band ravaged and destroy their own reputation with obvious commercially shilling, complete suck-hack jobs of albums and songs and “Kokomo” a song bad enough to ruin the reputation of The Beatles, Beethoven, Bach and even Richard Nixon for all eternity.
Naturally, Brian had little to do with this: he was completely bonkers and was only just getting by with the care of Eugene Landy, a doctor who went too far and invaded Brian’s life completely to the point he was getting songwriting credits on Brian’s (solid but weird) solo albums.
Landy was able to save Brian from self destruction but he had to go and Brian was able to pick up his life (with the help of a young bride) and although not demon free (that would be impossible) was able to overcome his demons well enough to begin touring and even finishing up the album “Smile” that had eluded him so many years ago and which had contributed to the destruction of his mind.
So, Brian was finally back and was writing some solid music and was once again a force in music. The Beach Boys had folded years ago and were now little more than a traveling county fair oldies act led by Mike Love and a crew of scabs.
And then the band turned 50. So, of course the still living original members (without poor Dennis or Carl Wilson) got together to crank out a suck job of an album not worth a damn.
Or so I figured: until I saw Brian was not only on board but was writing most of the album and producing everything. In the past, this had led to such strange albums as “20 Big Ones” and the masterpiece “Love You” but Brian was “back” and my expectations were slightly elevated.
And the album came out: and of course I bought it. “That’s Why God Made the Radio” was designed to be the classic swan song the band deserved (and is much more deserving of that title than their last album, the stupid country cover album “Stars and Stripes Volume 1”) and it definitely sounds the part.
The harmonies are there: Mike, Bruce and Al all sound great (never druggies, they kept their voices strong) and they sing their hearts out on the trademark Brian Wilson harmonies. Wilson himself is still a bit rough around the edges but he doesn’t go off key.
And the material is there too: “Think About the Days” is a solid acapella and piano introduction that reminds one “Our Prayer” from “Smile” or “One for the Boys” from “Brian Wilson.” And lead off single, “That’s Why God Made the Radio” has the perfect mix of “simple but genius” melodies and flawless surf arrangements and playing that highlighted the band’s best material.
The album then goes through a variety of summer themed songs such as “Spring Vacation,” “Shelter” and “Daybreak Over the Ocean” a Mike Love composed song that is probably the weakest tune here but leagues about the shill he was putting out in the 80’s.
And then the album ends with a heart felt trilogy of songs that slow things down and get introspective with carefully paced melodies and arrangements that end with “Summer’s Gone” a lament to the passing of summer and perhaps a lament to the passing of the band (Love quickly kicked the other guys off their won 50th Anniversary Tour and replaced them with his typical scabs).
In spite of the bad vibrations (heh) that come from the usual Mike Love shenanigans, this album is a pure return to form right? The sound is there: the style is there. Brian is writing and producing. No one expects a masterpiece from a 70 year old in a style patented when he was in his 20’s but this album sounds like it’s worth the money, right?
Generally, yes: it works as a solid swan song for the band and I was rather excited listening to it the first few times. It really SEEMED like the old times were back but with a new twist reflecting the band’s age: they were no longer singing about surfing but simply celebrating the nostalgia of the old days.
This is all good stuff but the more I listened to the album the more I felt the nagging sensation that…Brian’s heart wasn’t really in this stuff. And this is the most important aspect of the Beach Boys: how focused and dedicated Brian is to the music. With apologies to the rest of the band, they could be anybody: the Beach Boys was Brian’s band (and to a lesser extent, his brothers’) and I don’t need Al Jardine singing harmony to make me feel like I’m listening to the Beach Boys.
Basically, the guys who aren’t Brian sound completely dedicated to the project: they sing their heart out, Mike writes an “okay” song and even original “second” guitarist David Marks puts in a solid performance, having grown a lot on the instrument since the band’s early days.
But the problem here is Brian. It’s not that Brian isn’t writing good music (this is catchy, well composed stuff) it’s simply that we’ve seen this kind of thing from Brian before. Everything seems highly calculated, carefully considered and composed to fit “The Beach Boys” sound.
But what is the “Beach Boys sound?” Many will cry out that it’s surf rock: yes, for the first few years, it definitely was surf rock. But then Brian moved onto to writing more complex rock and nearly baroque level ballads.
Then the band moved into weird psychedelic insanity, into a weird pop mode, some kind of odd minimalistic acoustic style, a weird melange of soul/rock/pop/and MOR in the early 70’s and then into a semi-roots rock band for a few albums which mutated into a hideous Broadway style group for an album before Brian recorded a “synthesizers and drums” album before the band started dabbling more in soft rock balladry and stale surf rock.
Which of these styles is represented on this album? Basically, the stale (but well written) surf rockers, some well written soft rock ballads and nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia. Nothing on the album is exciting or unique to the album: it sometimes sounds under arranged instrumentally in a way that Brian’s recent releases have not.
And therein lies the problem: I think Brian sort of rushed this out for the tour without putting a lot of thought into it. His best work in the last few years have been albums he’s taken his time on and which really touched his emotions and spurred him on to put his absolute heart into it (the Gershwin cover project, “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Smile” basically).
To these ears, this sounds the most like a “contractual obligation” album that Brian has ever produced. Sure, the Beach Boys have produced way worse albums but these represented at least Mike Love’s honest attempts to stay relevant and keep the band afloat. It didn’t work but at one cannot fault him for trying to keep the band going.
It even sounds more like a contractual obligation than those weird albums Brian did in the mid 60’s (like “Party!”) that were made to please Capitol and get product on the shelves. At least those were funny and inspired, more like a silly gag than anything else.
Final verdict? The album isn’t bad: it’s sure sonic poetry in the arrangements (as under arranged as I instinctively feel most of these songs are) with solid, catchy melodies and bad lyrics (just like we always expect from the band) set to a firm sense of nostalgia. If you go into it with that relaxed state of mind, it’s a great album. Just don’t expect to fall in love with the album or to find it on your play list too often.