10 Underrated Beach Boys LPs: Sunflower
Published on June 17th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Throw the words ‘classic Beach Boys album’ at the world at large and the immediate association would be Pet Sounds, maybe even SMiLE if they’re a little further through the looking glass. By definition, this enables every other LP they made to be considered for ‘underrated’ status, and we here at Rocksucker are in the midst of chronicling ten Beach Boys albums we feel to be criminally overlooked by the world at large – ‘criminally’ on account of the fact that they are each bloody brilliant. Here’s our eighth selection, 1970’s Sunflower…
Click here to read part 1: Surfer Girl – here to read part 2: All Summer Long – here to read part 3: Today! – here to read part 4: Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) – here to read part 5: Smiley Smile – here to read part 6: Wild Honey – here to read part 7: Friends – and here to read our somewhat hallucinatory review of the recently issued version of SMiLE
8. Sunflower (1970)
After the rather more pared-down approach to Wild Honey and Friends, The Beach Boys build on the likes of Dennis Wilson’s “Be With Me” from the intervening 20/20 by reverting to a grand production style, albeit one more lushly orchestral than the exotic psychedelia of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. The first of three early-’70s albums that make up their ‘white soul’ period, the roots of which can be traced back to Wild Honey, Sunflower sees the band blossom yet more as a multi-headed operation, Bruce Johnston chipping in with two sterling numbers and Dennis acquiring more of a rock and roll swagger to his contributions and vocal delivery.
Pounding, euphoric opener “Slip on Through” showcases this stunning new Dennis right from the off, going from falsetto to rasping on “for my liiiiife is growing like a big oak tree” – he might as well be referring to his ability. This is a stunning song drenched in reverby harmonies that sound beamed down from above, and the quality level is not about to dip.
Brian’s exquisite, loved-up “This Whole World” plays host to a beautifully measured Carl vocal, not to mention one of those peerless Brian choruses that encompasses so many brilliant ideas that it’s even more astonishing to contemplate that they can all fit togerther, or have been made to fit together. “This Whole World” is the kind of thing you could sing to yourself on a sunny day or while in a haze of drunken melancholy, or even in a haze of drunken melancholy on a sunny day.
A co-write between Brian, Mike Love and Joe Knott, “Add Some Music” sees all of the Beach Boys regulars bar Dennis featuring on lead vocal at one point or another. The lyrics about the all-pervasiveness of music are so simply spelled out but so beautiful for it: “The doctor knows it keeps you calm / The preacher adds it to his psalms” – “At a movie you can feel it touching your heart / And on every day of the summer time you hear children chasing ice creams carts / They’ll play it on your wedding day / There must be ’bout a million ways / To add some music to your day”. That this song sounds so simple yet upon closer inspection shows up to be startlingly multi-faceted is just part of its ingeniousness, and that delivery of “for your lonely soul, woah oh oh “ – from Carl, is it? – is superb.
“Got to Know the Woman” is a Dennis piano boogie, compelling of strut and bearing its creator’s most confident-sounding lead vocal to date. The way it rises up the keys with female voices singing the title refrain is utterly inspired, and when Dennis breaks out into the berserk chatter of “Come on and do the chicken! I-I-I… / Baby, I’m gonna tell you something right now / You got SO much soul!” you realise that, although he’s practically showboating, you’re exceedingly glad of it because it’s such tremendously good fun. And it all ends in an enraptured frenzy, elevating an ostensibly formulaic song – one rooted in tradition yet unlike anything The Beach Boys had constructed before – into the cosmos.
Bruce Johnston takes lead vocal on his Brian co-write “Deirdre”, and how beautifully he handles it too. Honestly, what should be the odds on having so many top-drawer singers in one band? In Rocksucker’s opinion, “Deirdre” features hands down the best use of flute (by one Kathy Dragon) in a pop song ever – it flourishes, flutters and multiplies when it punctuates this gently trotting weary sigh of a song. “What could I say? (flute flourish) That you ran away? (another flute flourish)” is perhaps the joint most heartbreaking moment of a deceptively cheerful song alongside Ray Davies’s “I went to our cafe one day / They said that Donna walked away / You’d think at least she might have stayed / To drink her afternoon tea” from The Kinks’ “Afternoon Tea”.
There’s an awesome sassy brass turn leading into a pared-down shuffle, there’s a divinely delivered “Deirdre / Doo doo doodle doo doo, dear dear dear Deirdre” – it’s just so achingly beautiful, full of life, love and colour in a way that, as you may by now have gleaned, Rocksucker could rhapsodise about for hours.
Apparently a Dennis/Carl/Al Jardine/Bob Burchman co-write, “It’s About Time” rocks soulfully on a groovy low piano riff and an elated lead vocal from Carl. “I used to be a famous artist, proud as I could be / Struggling to express myself for the whole world to see / I used to blow my mind sky high searching for the lost elation / Little did I know the joy I was to find in knowing I am only me” – the suspicion is that Dennis is the one pulling the strings here, and like “Got to Know the Woman” it arrives with quite a traditional feel but explodes with glee in a way all of its own – in fact, the “it’s about time” chanting breakdown sounds at least twenty years ahead of its time.
That “singing from my heart” chorus fallout with electric guitar twangs and percussive flare-ups is so naturally joyous, while the drums are phenomenal across the whole song – could any of our more enlightened readers let us know who is responsible for them? As a side note, the eruption of ecstatic electric guitar after “that’s when we know we can shape…another woooorrrrrllllld!” is fit to rival the enraptured soloing on The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll”.
Bruce’s swooping, swooning “Tears in the Morning” eschews the facade of cheeriness that made “Deirdre” so affecting, but those Gallic accordion arpeggios and ruefully delivered lines like “So you moved out up to Europe / You packed your warmth and you took your soul / Well I hope you do what you’re damn sure of / A lonely bed here takes on the cold” are nevertheless compelling, while deeply sighing strings after “you know, I lit a candle” are simply stunning. This is a very pretty, ornate song, and the longest track on the album bar “Cool, Cool Water”, stats fans.
Brian/Mike ditty “All I Wanna Do” is cloaked in a mist on that a few years ago sounded like the ’80s but now sounds rather like a modern song aiming for ’80s retro…and this was of course 1971. The song’s melodic highpoint, centred around “My love is burning brightly / The moon and stars shine nightly”, serves as an electrifying realisation that this perhaps not immediately obvious tune has been touched by greatness.
We then have “Forever”, a Dennis lead and co-write with Gregg Jakobson, and a stirring symbiosis of songwriting and a vocal performance that hearkens more back to “Be Still” and “Little Bird” from Friends. Guiding the song from such fragility to such grand elegance, it is abundantly clear that Dennis had by now well and truly arrived as both a songwriter and a singer.
Brian/Carl/Al co-write “Our Sweet Love” is so sweepingly romantic, a mood Carl’s voice adapts to seamlessly with such sweetly serenading lines as “Like a child with his new toy / My heart is filled with joy for our sweet love”. The sheer quality of everything about this song wards off excessive soppiness, and those “oooh our sweet love” vocoder harmonies are such a wonderful touch to this endlessly heart-warming number.
Bruce chips in with another delightful vocal on Brian/Al co-write “At My Window”, which is so light and twinkly it’s barely even there – but oh, what heavenly sweetness! Train-spotter alert: “I ran out of air and I fell to the ground (poof!)” is the second instance of a close-up-to-the-mic “poof!” in a Beach Boys song from this period, the other coming at the end of “Mama Says” (perhaps there are others – if so, let us know!). An accordion, a jangly guitar and a blissed-out, harmony-caked ending later, we approach the end of the river’s course with the similarly light-of-presence “Cool, Cool Water”.
As you may know, “Cool, Cool Water” is basically an extrapolation of “I Love to Say Da-da” from SMiLE, and it’s utterly adorable swimming here unaided, a cool, laid-back trot that disappears into a strange, ominous-sounding wilderness before re-emerging as a plinky, suitably liquidy bounce, pointing the way towards Surf’s Up even insomuch as that album’s first track is of course “Don’t Go Near the Water”. This good-natured ode is rather in contrast to the dire warning cast by its Surf’s Up counterpart, with watery, wispy synth sounds sounding off around “When I get thirsty and I reach for a glass / Cool water tastes like such a gas”. (The silly slipperiness of these synth sounds is arguably an indicator of “Mt. Vernon and Fairway Theme” to come.)
Sunflower is a gob-smackingly beautiful album that’s genuinely worthy of the levels of admiration and historical noteworthiness afforded to Pet Sounds and SMiLE…
…and Surf’s Up quite possibly trumps the lot of them…
That’s Why God Made the Radio is out now on Capitol. For more information, please visit thebeachboys.com