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"Don’t be sad
There was a time and place
For what we had..."
Despite the fact that The Beach Boys have always been the premier purveyors of sunny, feel-good music, dark clouds have often hung over their heads due to their internal relations (personality clashes, lawsuits). Since the mid-1960s (circa Pet Sounds), there’s been significant friction within the band -– in particular between ambitious and experimental songwriter/genius arranger Brian Wilson and conservative lyricist/singer Mike Love, whose relationship appears to be as complicated as Wilson’s most intricate musical and vocal arrangements. Which is why it was all the more surprising, when The Beach Boys managed to set aside their differences and released their first new album in 27 years, 2012’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. Excited about the success of the album, both critically and commercially, Brian Wilson continued to write songs with Beach Boys harmonies in mind, but, predictably, Mike Love suddenly “pulled the plug” and went back to touring with his (and Bruce Johnston’s) incarnation of “The Beach Boys”. As a result of this, Brian Wilson went on to record all of these Beach Boys-style songs for his 11th solo album, No Pier Pressure, with the remaining band members, Al Jardine and David Marks, plus one-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin (1972’s Carl & The Passions – So Tough; 1973’s Holland) –- and as could be expected, it’s these songs that truly captivate.
Considering that Mike Love and Bruce Johnston were missing in action, it’s too bad that Brian Wilson didn’t opt to record a “Beach Boys” album of his own, an unofficial follow-up to That’s Why God Made The Radio, even if he couldn’t credit it to the band (Mike Love owns the rights to the name); in addition to utilizing Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin, Wilson could’ve/should’ve employed fanboys The Explorers Club, who released a formidable Beach Boys-influenced album titled Freedom Wind in 2008. But much of Brian Wilson’s frustrating solo career has been hampered by questionable decisions and ill-conceived concepts (with the exceptions of 1988’s Brian Wilson; 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents Smile), so you’d be forgiven for thinking that No Pier Pressure is no exception. Five of the songs on the album hand over vocal duties to much younger guest artists, and as a longtime fan, you can’t help but imagine what these tracks would’ve sounded like, if Al Jardine & co. had sung lead vocals and harmonies. With that being said, if you keep an open mind and keep listening, you may very well appreciate the smooth MOR collaborations, too, which should appeal to anyone with a soft spot for mid-late-1970s/early-1980s Soft Rock. And even if you don’t warm up to the guest artists, there are eleven wonderful Brian Wilson/Beach Boys-esque compositions for the purists on the deluxe edition (the version to own).
At least four songs on No Pier Pressure seem to address the disappointingly short-lived Beach Boys reunion, with a sense of loss and missed opportunities. In the 1:30 minute-long intro track, This Beautiful Day –- featuring piano, viola, muted trumpet, and surging harmonies –- Brian Wilson laments the band’s dissolution, singing: “If we could find a way / If you would only stay / If we could hold on to this feelin' / And this beautiful day”. The lyrics read like a hopeful plea to his band mates, as if he were putting words to That’s Why God Made The Radio’s wordless, harmony-drenched opening number, Think About The Days, or writing a sequel of sorts to the same album’s closing track, Summer’s Gone: “Old friends have gone / They’ve gone their separate ways / Our dreams hold on / For those who still have more to say”.
Wallowing in nostalgic, sepia-tinted reverie, the very same references to days and summers of yesteryear reappear in Whatever Happened (“…When I know the day is through”, and “…Summer was my favorite time”), a song that ranks right up there with Brian Wilson’s most heartbreakingly beautiful ballads; its lush orchestration and swooning vocal arrangement is emotional and enthralling, and the sweeping chorus is touchingly bittersweet: “Whatever happened to my favorite places? / Nothing’s where it used to be / Whatever Happened? / What’s gonna happen to me?” Much in the same vein, the wistful weeper Tell Me Why, another gorgeous standout track, mesmerizes with verses full of melancholy regret (“I think about that ocean view / And all the dreams I shared with you / I guess they won’t be coming true”), and a heartfelt, breathtaking chorus sung by Al Jardine, one of No Pier Pressure’s absolute highlights. An air of pensiveness also pervades The Last Song, which closes out the album on a sad note that lingers on after it has come to an end. To the sound of subtle piano, elegiac strings, and haunting harmony vocals, Brian Wilson sings: “Don’t be sad / There was a time and place for what we had”.
But it’s not all melancholic wistfulness. As befits any Brian Wilson/Beach Boys album, there’s no shortage of uplifting compositions –- the melodic sing-along Pop song The Right Time, the R&B-inflected Our Special Love, the hopelessly romantic ballad One Kind Of Love, and the Sloop John B-inspired Sail Away -– even I’m Feeling Sad floats on a spirited, carefree melody. The breezy Tropicalia/Bossa Nova-lite of On The Island (with Indie duo She & Him) has been pigeonholed as “featherlight, quaint” by some reviewers, but that’s sort of the point; it’s meant to evoke the feelings of a pleasant summer breeze and a long-gone time period. Others have stated that it doesn’t even sound anything like a Brian Wilson song, but, stylistically, it certainly has quite a bit in common with Wilson’s Busy Doin’ Nothin’ off The Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends. And the good vibrations don’t stop here. A sprightly banjo adds to the happy-go-lucky nature of Guess You Had To Be There, a charming and irresistibly catchy duet with Country songstress Kacey Musgraves, while Saturday Night features Nate Ruess (of Indie Pop band Fun.) as lead vocalist; interestingly, his voice sounds very much like a cross between much older singers Jon Anderson (of Prog Rock group Yes) and Pop/Soft Rock singer-songwriter Christopher Cross. Initially, the concept of No Pier Pressure was perceived as somewhat dubious, even “calculated”, and, subsequently, it generally garnered average reviews, but this is one album that seems destined to become much more appreciated in hindsight. No Pier Pressure is Brian Wilson's late-career highlight.