The Beach Boys – ‘Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The Beach Boys underwent what is arguably the most radical transformation of any band in the contemporary rock of the Sixties and Seventies. The group’s sound metamorphosed from its forays into Chuck Berry-derived odes to cars, girls, and surfing circa 1963 to Brian Wilson’s lush pop orchestrations on Pet Sounds just three years later. Yet even as their titular leader and chief creative mind’s ambitious ventures into intricate instrumentation meshed with vocal harmonies progressed with hits in the form of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” the debacle of Smile found The Beach Boys continuing to perform concerts of early material even as they continued assiduous work in the studio far removed from such comparatively simplistic realms. Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 documents this transformational phase of the iconic California band’s career on five compact discs, each CD sequenced to emphasize the evolution of the music as well as the group itself: everyone in the expanded lineup contributed to the creative process. In doing so,  the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson only solidified their daunting legacy as one of the few contemporaneous Sixties groups to influence the Beatles.

CD 1: The first two compact discs are identically configured to include a remastered version of each of the pivotal albums of the period, Surf’s Up and Sunflower, followed by live versions of the material, in combination with mostly unreleased outtakes from the recording sessions that (mostly) took place in titular leader Brian Wilson’s home studio. The close proximity of the group’s chief creative force not only inspired him–to the point he could participate comfortably to any extent he chose–but the rest of the group was also moved to contribute to the writing arranging and performing. The increasingly dense vocals harmonies almost transcend any similarity to the singing on the early hits, but the subject matter remained close to home in the form of their passion for their work (“Add Some Music to Your Day”) to mature expressions of emotion (“Our Sweet Love”). Carefully-crafted and meticulous attention to detail is proof positive The Beach Boys always took themselves seriously during this period, even if the public did not.

CD 2:  It’s little wonder that one of the earliest manifestations of a deeper and broader worldview would appear in the form of this original single mix of “Break Away.” The intricacy of the singing on such tracks as this 1969 work presage what’s to come, including the occasionally unappreciated material such as this set’s Carl Wilson co-authored title song. The voices in fact appeared in lieu of many instrumental solos, except to some extent on stage where the core group was being augmented with additional musicians (including a horn section on the rare cover of “Riot In Cell Block #9” fronted by Mike Love). The complexity of the compositions and the arrangements such as that of the co-write of Al Jardine’s “Take A Load Off Your Feet” suggests why the caricatured cartoon cover art of Feel Flows is as ideal in its own way as the title of the set: the Beach Boys image isn’t to be captured in pictures, only in sound.

CD 3: As indicated by the granular nuance revealed in previously-unreleased components of a number like the late Dennis Wilson’s “Forever,” the symphonic nature of Beach Boys productions continued as Brian retired from touring to fully dedicate himself to the recording processes of the studio. The sophisticated impression the elder Wilson made on his bandmates is unmistakable, however, according to co-curator Howie Edelson’s in his lengthy, erudite essay: tellingly positioned first inside the approximately twelve-by ten-inch hardcover package, the writing conveys a definite sense this period of the Beach Boys’ career needs some explanation. With hindsight, that’s certainly true, since this iconic group’s first work for the Warner-Reprise label (on their own Brother Records imprint after a prolonged stint at Capitol) initially met with a relatively disappointing commercial response (at least compared to their string of early hits), But the dismissive reaction toward the artistic virtues of this period has become moot and rightly so: hear how the juxtaposition of  “Til I Die” with “Surf’s Up” speaks volumes.

CD 4: For the novice listener, Feel Flows may leave the impression this Beach Boys music is more imaginative in its sounds than its songs. But even a dilettante’s careful perusal will reveal how collaborations of writing, arranging, and recording during this period strengthened a bond within the band. Not surprisingly, while that unity is most clearly manifest in their singing, a shared growth in the sophistication of composing and recording carries on Brian’s legacy in the most practical sense. Even with a scant few tracks running longer than four minutes–the 6:24 alternate take of “Cool Cool Water” is a marked exception in duration–but such maturity becomes equally discernible in the expression  of concerns about the environment (“Don’t Go Near The Water”) and other socio-topical issues (“Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song).” If the group sounds slightly guarded as latter-day recruit Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls” gives way to “Student Demonstration Time,” the earnest optimism that always permeated the Beach Boys’ music remains in full force.

CD 5: It only stands to reason significant portions of this set would be consist of tracks with little more than the dulcet tones of the Beach Boys sing. Vocals are the most distinctive feature of the music throughout the five discs close to five hours’ approximate duration. The engineering thereof, with mixing and mastering by Mark Linett (who compiled the set with Alan Boyd, both of whom contribute enlightening essays), renders meaningless the extent of overdubbing on, say, “Susie Cincinnati,. Much more importantly, these ‘basic session highlights’ recall the truism about the human voice as the greatest musical instrument: while “A Day in the Life of a Tree” conjures a funereal air, its utter majesty ultimately transcends the somber atmosphere. The seemingly effortless and fluid nature of such ethereal tones, also heard on the previously-unreleased  “Behold The Night” and “Old Movie (Cuddle Up),” belies the turbulent history of the Beach Boys, an accurate perspective documented by the whole of Feel Flows.

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