Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Made in California - The Epic Review!

Okay, maybe not so much epic as just another of the many, many reviews you'll find all over the place. Can I offer any new insight? Who knows, but let's try anyway.....

This long-in-gestation project was originally vaguely announced to accompany the band's 50th anniversary celebrations. It may have taken an extra year to materialize, but is it worth the wait?

The answer is a resounding yes. There are plenty of gripes to offer (and I will!), but as I mentioned a few posts back, this is the most substantial amount of unreleased material to be released all in one shot since the 90's (apart from the "Smile Sessions" box of course).

"Made in California" definitely serves as sort of a "Version 2.0" of the 1993 "Good Vibrations" boxed set. It mixes in a cross section of the band's hits and key tracks with previously unreleased studio and live stuff. Concerning the unreleased material, the compilers have clearly gone out of their way to not include much of anything that has been put out on previous compilations of outtakes. So if this set indeed was allotted X number of unreleased tracks, they wisely mostly gave us stuff we didn't already have.

That goes in stark contrast to the rest of this set, in which Capitol and the group have forced their dedicated fans to buy yet ANOTHER copy of numerous discs worth of material they own already, often several times over. You can read my previous posts back around the time the set was announced for more thoughts on this topic. The bottom line is that it is extremely lamentable that fans have to shell out $140 or so for essentially around two full discs worth of stuff they didn't already have. As I mentioned before, I'm not sure who this set is targeted at, other than generic consumers buying nice coffee table-style holiday gifts. The set is too much for the more casual fans, even fans that want more than a hits set, yet every single "hardcore" fan who wants the "new" stuff already has the rest. The bottom line, though, is that there is no way Capitol/Universal or the band are going to put out multi-disc collections of all outtakes, certainly not a mainstream set like this one. Perhaps they will at some point give us more unreleased material in the future in some sort of "music club" set up where fans can buy multiple live shows and other releases as downloads or short-run collectible editions.

In short, this set was the only way we were ever going to get the "good" stuff, the "new" stuff, so gripes about buying the hits again eventually do wear thin. Also, I can't say the "old" stuff we already had is bad. It's amazing music. That's why we like this freaking band, right?

My disc-by-disc review will focus largely on the "new" stuff, but I'll try to touch on the overall compilation as well:

Disc One

This focuses on material from 1961 to 1965. There isn't much leeway in the track selection on this disc, as it includes so many well known hits and key tracks. There isn't much I can gripe about in terms of the track selection on that stuff. A few things aren't what I would have picked. "Our Car Club" isn't quite that much of a key track in my mind. "All Dressed Up for School" is a cool outtake, but again not a key track from that period in my mind. Mostly stereo mixes are used where possible on this set by the way, including latter-day stereo remixes that range from awesome ("Pet Sounds") to rather ear-bleedingly over-saturated with reverb ("Please Let Me Wonder").

The main "new" material on this disc consists of alternate edits on the home recordings and "Surfin'", a couple of tracks with session chatter intros ("Surfers Rule" and "I Get Around"), and the 1963 version of "Back Home" making its debut here. This has circulated for a while in rather iffy sound quality, so it's nice to have a clean version of this early track that is rather slight, but interesting mainly because we're used to the 1976 version.

Disc Two

This focuses on 1965 to 1967. It's mostly devoted to "Pet Sounds" and "Smile", although we do get a new "Early Version" of "Amusement Parks USA." This has never been a huge favorite of mine, so I can't say this alternate version blows my mind. But it's cool to hear. We also get fresh remixes of the studio version of "Graduation Day" and an "Unplugged" version of "There's No Other." These are cool tracks, and the more clean-sounding takes of "Party" material are immensely more enjoyable. The "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" material is unquestionably marvelous, but nothing new here with the exception of stereo mixes of some of the "Smile Sessions" "album version" tracks that were previously exclusive to the vinyl edition of the "Smile Sessions." This is a nice little bonus to have. We also get a new stereo mix of "Country Air" near the end of the disc that is wonderful. They evidently were missing a few bits of the multitracks to make a full album stereo remix of "Wild Honey" last year, but hopefully they can approximate something. Kudos as well for not utterly drenching this in reverb as most of these remixes often are.

Disc Three

Rounding out Disc Two and starting Disc Three are stereo remixes of "Wild Honey" and "Darlin'" previously only available on the questionable "50 Big Ones" compilation from last year. Nice to have those here for those that didn't want to blow money on that set last year. This disc covers 1967 to 1971. This disc features several alternate mixes of "outtakes" that have been released on previous compilations. The new alternate mix of "Sail Plane Song" is interesting, but a bit of a head scratcher in the context of this disc. "We're Together Again" gets a fresh remix that is enjoyable. I'm still confused as to why they keep giving us the "alternate" version of "Break Away" on numerous compilations. It's nice to hear, but there's no reason at this stage to essentially attempt to assert it as the new "standard" version of the song. The original is just fine.

We get a good dose of Dennis on this disc, including both sides of his 1971 solo single. "Sound of Free" is a better song that I remember, so that's cool to finally have a clean version of it. It is featured in its original mono mix. Not sure why they couldn't also just give us the original mix of "Lady" (aka "Fallin' in Love"), but oh well. "Celebrate the News" is fine, but not a key track to me. Small quibbles, though. So what else is new? A really nice alternate version of "Meant For You" may have some rather slight additional lyrics (ponies?), but it's an amazing piece of music and vocal work and hearing more of it is awesome. I like especially how it comes back around to the "and these feelings in my heart" bit at the end. For some reason, they also remixed "Susie Cincinnati" for this set. Is it a better mix? Not sure. It's not insanely different, but is a bit more punchy. It also has some more vocal riffing from Al during in-between bits, and assuming it is indeed Al doing these bits, it's about the most R&B-ish I've ever heard Al sing.

Disc Four

This covers 1971 to 1979. So, we finally get Dennis' epic "(Wouldn't It Be Nice To) Live Again." Does it live up the hype? Nothing really could, as fans have for some reason built this up to Smile-esque status in recent years. I'm not sure why. Even the mythology of knowledge of the song has been overhyped. I've read stories mentioning this track as having been "discussed by fans for decades", but my recollection is only in the last 8-10 years or so has this track been particularly known of by fans. So is the song any good? I'd say folks like author Jon Stebbins have done a great job of describing it in the past. It's not Dennis' best composition, but it is indeed probably the best lead vocal he ever cut. His voice soars and sustains amazingly well. The song itself is cut from a similar cloth as other stuff of his, like "A Time to Live in Dreams" and "Barbara." A bit like "Forever", its lyrical message is simple but effective. This is not "Smile" caliber material, or even "'Til I Die" caliber material, but it's *really* good and I say the obvious when I point out that it's dumbfounding that this track took OVER 40 YEARS to be released.

Alternate mixes of "Rock and Roll Music" and "It's OK" at least make those rather boring songs more interesting. They both sound somehow simultaneously more punchy and more cluttered. The former includes the extra "mambo" verse. A new mix of "It's Over Now" does sound a bit more crisp and defined, and most noticeably runs significantly faster. I thought they might try some digital pitch altering stuff on this, but it sounds like they just ran the tape faster. It's still a nice track, and Carl still sounds kind of drunk even at a faster speed. Marilyn still sounds like Marilyn.

A few more head-scratchers (to me) are on this disc. With a backing track following on Disc  6, did we really need two versions of "Had to Phone Ya?" Also, I actually like the "Love You" album, but "Solar System" does not need to be here folks. It's quirky and Brian freaks like me dig it, but it's not their A-list material.

The "LA (Light Album)" version of "California Feelin" finally sees release here. Some futzing has been done here, as it sounds like they flew Brian's vocal from the beginning in from some other take of the song. The mix itself has been reformatted somewhat, dropping the drums in and out throughout the song, and some editing has been done on the ending to loop stuff in a different order a bit. But it's probably more listenable now. The group vocals are powerful and amazing.

A new mix of "It's a Beautiful Day" has similar results to other remixes. It's a bit more crisp, but not terribly different. This remix also for some reason replicated the edited single version of song. Rounding out the disc is "Goin' to the Beach" from the "Keepin' the Summer Alive" sessions. The song is what it is. It's like a lot of the material from this era. Generally well done, and rather superfluous lyrically. Nice group vocals on this one at least. Mike apparently had some guitar added to the song recently, otherwise it all sounds vintage, which is good.

Disc Five

As with the "Good Vibrations" set from '93, this set also whizzes through the 80's and 90's very quickly. The first six tracks take us from 1980 to 1988, and two of them are outtakes. "Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love" previously circulated in horrible sound quality. It sounds pristine here. But why is it on this set? It sounds like a wonky "15 Big Ones" outtake with slightly better production values. Brian and Mike sing nicely enough together. It's just a total head scratcher. But "new" stuff is still good. We also get the "KTSA" era outtake of "Da Doo Ron Ron." It already circulated among fans in nice quality. Here, the mix has been drenched in more reverb and the cold ending that breaks down has been faded early. In any event, it's a competently-performed oldie, with nice group vocals as always. Otherwise, 1980 to 1988 is represented by "Goin' On", "Getcha Back", "California Dreamin'", and "Kokomo." That's a bit light for a "career spanning" compilation.

Rounding out the studio material on this disc are two of the group's unreleased "reunion" tracks from 1995, written by Brian with Andy Paley with those two as well as Don Was producing. Simply put, they are stellar tracks, easily better than most of their post-1973 recorded work. In a band history filled with missed opportunities, this was one of the biggies. "Soul Searchin'" features Carl's lead and the group's excellent backing. Unlike Brian's fudged 2004 "duet" version, this version retains Carl throughout on lead vocal as well as Beach Boys backing vocals, with Al and Matt Jardine in particular sounding stellar. More group backing vocals are heard here compared to version we've heard in the past. The bridge vocal does have somebody doubling Carl. I can't tell if it's Carl, or Brian, or Andy Paley, or someone else. Not sure why they needed to mix it this way. Still, amazing stuff. "You're Still a Mystery" is a good example of the direction the band could have taken with Brian in this era. It sounds a bit eccentric and weird, but not too  much so. Again, awesome group backing vocals. The one odd bit is that Brian's vocal has been re-recorded. Nobody is sure when it was done, but it sounds much more recent, perhaps during the 2004 "Gettin' in Over My Head" sessions, or perhaps even more recently. Brian's 1995 vocal was gruffer and whiney, but it had a spark that is lacking in the new, slightly bored-sounding lead. Still, the song is excellent and a welcome addition to the band's official catalog.

The rest of the disc compiles various live recordings from 1965 to 1995. Early takes of Al singing "Runaway" and "You're So Good to Me" are great fun. Al had a great voice back then too. Another variation on "The Letter" is included, and is sparse as always. The band provides a surprisingly robust live 1968 take on "Friends", as well as Dennis' "Little Bird." We get a non-truncated live take on "All I Want to Do" that rocks convincingly, for the Beach Boys anyway. A quartet of live tracks from 1972/73 are revelatory, proving a release of much more material from this era of the live band is a must. Dennis' lead on "Help Me Rhonda" is fun, and the live take on "Only With You", while not terribly dissimilar from the studio recording, is still lovely. Two of the best tracks on this set are Blondie Chaplin and the band's sizzling take on "Wild Honey" from 1972, and a rocking 1973 take on "It's About Time" that easily betters the bloated studio recording.

A live 1975 take on "I Can Hear Music" sounds impressive; we need more stuff from the 1975 tour! Two tracks from the 1993 "boxed set/rarities" tour are included in the form of "Vegetables" and "Wonderful." Slightly odd selections; but nice. Let's hope we get the full show, which already circulates in pristine sound quality among fans. A 1993 live take on "Summer in Paradise" is, well, a nice live performance of a "meh" song. A 1995 live take on "Sail on Sailor" with Carl on lead is wonderful to hear; it sounds like a "live soundboard" mix, so it's not perfectly balanced mix-wise. But no matter, Carl's lead is impressive; soulful and gruff where it needs to be.

Disc Six

Here's the "good" stuff; a full disc of largely "new" material, covering all sorts of eras. Let's dig in:

Vocals-only mixes of three "Sunflower" tracks make me believe we need vocals-only mixes of pretty much every Beach Boys album! "Slip on Through" had all sorts of stuff going on vocally that we hadn't heard before. So does "This Whole World"; we even get some alternate lead vocal lines with Brian singing instead of Carl. "Our Sweet Love" features vocals with some strings added in. Great stuff.

Circling back, we get an alternate lead on "Don't Worry Baby" that isn't terrible different. I kind of get the feeling they were so jazzed (as they should be!) about recently getting some "lost' "Shut Down Vol. 2" session reels, that they wanted to prove how awesome an event it was by giving us this track. The surfacing of the tape might be more interesting than the take itself. But it's all good stuff.

A vocal session for "Pom Pom Playgirl" is a bit puzzling, but again I can't complain. "Guess I'm Dumb" is really an important track to include. We evidently will never get a vintage Brian lead (that probably never existed!), but here we get the pristine backing track with backing vocals. We also get the infamous "Sherry She Needs Me", where 1976 Brian added all the vocals to the 1965 backing track. For this mix, they've also mixed in some of the vintage 1965 backing vocals near the end. Bravo to Brian for letting them put this on the set, to make up for the bland remake version on his 1998 solo album.

Dennis' "Mona Kana" backing track is interesting, kind of a "Smile" ripoff vibe. But an interesting and important work for Dennis' burgeoning production and writing. Brian's "Where Is She?" is a tough one to review. It's so mind-blowing to hear pretty much any post-"Smile" work from Brian that we haven't heard before. The song is not super substantial, and is vaguely similar in some bits to "She's Leaving Home." It does sound more like a nice, full rough sketch/demo sort of thing. It's a bit simple musically, but still intensely interesting.

The afore-mentioned "Had to Phone Ya" backing track is fun, and certainly one of the more interesting "15 Big Ones" era tracks production-wise.

The "Smile Vocal Montage" and "Good Vibrations" sessions excerpt are simply un-needed here. I hate to say it. "Smile" and "GV" are deservedly the crown jewels of the BB catalog. But all the fans that are into the "vault" stuff already have all of this. I'm sorry, I love "GV" as much as anybody, but I simply don't need any more session noodling from it on another compilation. We’ve had GV session highlights on the “Good Vibrations” boxed set, the “Smiley Smile” two-fer CD, the “Good Vibrations” anniversary CD single, the “Pet Sounds Sessions” set, and a full disc’s worth on the “Smile Sessions” set. I can see at least a tenuous argument being made that the “main” discs on the set should give a sampling of the band’s entire catalog. But if anything on this set actually is aimed at the “hardcore” fans, it would be this “From the Vaults” disc. Rant over. 

Dennis’ “Be With Me” demo will be a boon to Dennis fans. The song bores me a bit, but it’s enjoyable to hear unreleased stuff like this. “I Believe in Miracles” is a very brief backing vocal bit. Only Brian and the Beach Boys could put together such intriguing vocal arrangements that an unearthed 20-second bit could be this interesting! Many fans have been raving about “Why”, which is presumably a generic title for an instrumental Brian cut during the “MIU” sessions. I will say it sounds very Brian. There are a lot of chord changes, but they seem a bit more meandering and not as awe-inspiring as, say, the chord changes in “This Whole World.” The song has a 6/8 sort of time signature, and sounds a bit old-fashioned. It would have been interesting to hear what Brian could have done with a melody and vocal arrangement on this one. The recording is a bit odd in that production-wise, sonically, it doesn’t sound much like other “MIU” material. It has more treble than the rather flat, muddy productions on much of “MIU.” Curious. 

Dennis’ “Barnyard Blues” is a fun track from the circa 1974 era, sounding much like his “Pacific Ocean Blue” work. It’s bit simplistic, but I like it. Some alternative Dennis sounds are always good to hear, and apparently Ricky Fataar gets his only (partial) lead vocal on this track, singing along with Dennis.

Some fans initially derided the inclusion of a backing track for “Don’t Go Near the Water”, but I think it’s a good one. It shows the other guys could put together some good instrumental arrangements. This supports the clear fact that we should be getting vocals-only mixes *and* instrumental mixes of the band’s catalog!

Brian’s now legendary virtually solo take on “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” from 1976 is great to have in an officially released format. Some fans have been griping about this mix here. I have to say I hear what they’re talking about. Brian’s productions from this time were rather muddy, murky, and cluttered. In the past, we only had what was presumably a rough mix of this track of rather middling fidelity. The sound quality here is much better, but it sounds like they’ve added extra Spector-esque echo onto the track, which means any improvement in sonic quality is outweighed by the muddiness that the echo adds. It’s understandable that the track shouldn’t necessarily be a bone-dry mix. It is a Spector homage. But this mix is a big disappointment, because the performance is so wonderful. It’s easily the best “15 Big Ones” era cover version the band recorded. 

The backing track to “Transcendental Meditation” is quirky and interesting. It must be someone’s personal favorite or something, as I can’t see any other reason it warrants inclusion on this set. It’s wonderful to have, but this is another one that would have made more sense as a bonus track on a “Friends” deluxe edition, not in a prime location on a boxed set like this.

Yet another stab at “Back Home” is served up, this time from 1970. It’s been circulating for a while, but it’s cool to have here in official form. It’s probably more interesting than the ’63 take. Al does a nice lead vocal. It’s still not super substantial musically, but it’s cool. 

Brian’s uber-legendary 1974 studio demo for “California Feelin’” is up next, and it really is a demo in every sense of the word. This is not a serious take on the song. Brian appears to be literally demonstrating how the song goes, and perhaps offering some exaggerated ideas on various crooner-type voices they could use for the song. His lead vocal is not taken very seriously, and he trips up and stops and starts several times. The two main reasons this recording is even interesting are that it does indeed display that his 1974 voice was a weird cross between his 1970 and 1976 voice. Secondly, it seems to indicate that this recording was what Al Jardine modeled his 2010 solo version after, in terms of the format of the song. 

A couple of “Lei’d In Hawaii” studio takes follow. Am I the only one kind of bored by this material? A lot of it has been circulating among collectors for years, and I don’t see much novelty in a variation titled “Help You Rhonda” where the main point of interest is one changed pronoun. 

A new mix of the late 1967 “Wild Honey” era piano demo for “Surf’s Up” follows. I don’t hear a ton of differences. Also, while this was one of the mind-blowing tracks on the “Smile Sessions” set, every fan that “From the Archives” is targeted at already have the track. 

The rare studio material finishes off with appropriate tone with a mind-blower: A completely unknown (to most anyway) Dennis track from 1974 titled “My Love Lives On.” It’s another Dennis piano ballad. I’m not quite as enamored with Dennis’ material as some fans, and this track is also cut from the same cloth as many of his other piano ballads. He’s in full gruff “Pacific Ocean Blue” voice here. But it’s undeniably a wonderful song and performance; easily better than much of what the band was releasing in the later 70’s. This is the great stuff that archival releases allow for. 

A quick radio spot precedes three recently discovered 1964 BBC Radio recordings: “Wendy”, “When I Grow Up”, and “Hushabye.” This seems to be another case where the discovery of the tape might be more interesting than the performances themselves. It’s great to hear early era live Beach Boys, with Brian to boot, and there certainly aren’t a ton of Brian-era live radio performances floating around. As with other groups’ BBC recordings of the era, the tracks sound like they have been recorded live, but in a studio setting with potentially some sweetening/overdubbing. But they are still raw and live-sounding. How interesting? If your fetish is circa 1964 live Beach Boys, you’ll love this. Otherwise, it’s an interesting curio.

To end things, we get a new edit of Carl’s ending coda from the “Hawthorne, CA” compilation. It’s a nice way to cap things off. 

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