Some lifetimes back, Noel Murray wrote an article describing the typical arc of the Beach Boys fan: beginning with the popular image of them via their early surf-n-party hits, maturing into the melancholy of Pet Sounds, being shocked by the psychedelic experiments of the failed Smile sessions, and wandering into their strange post-breakdown career as one of the most eclectic (not always for the better) bands around. I’ve spent most of my time happily at the Smile stage, not quite at the level of mania of pre-internet fans who collected bootlegs of the famously chaotic sessions to construct their own ideal versions of the album-that-never-was, but enough of a nerd to have an opinion about, e.g., which of the many versions of “Wonderful” is superior (spoiler: it’s this one).
The Beach Boys’ post-breakdown albums all waver, to some degree, between the heights of technical mastery and imagination and the lows of plain ol’ bad taste. Granted, to be a Beach Boys fan means to accept some level of corniness or kitsch as part of the overall package, often rationalized as a kind of adolescent authenticity (even when from the pens of songwriters too old to be doing that sort of thing anymore), but when it comes to the reaches of their later career, I’m just not the kind of person who’ll ever find a song like “Johnny Carson” anything but than a three-minute-long cringe.
In that sense, Holland is a typical late-Beach Boys album: its highs are undeniable, its lows hard to listen to. Recorded under less-than-ideal circumstances in a garage in the Netherlands and with minimal participation from the group’s capital-G Genius, its production is often much slicker than its circumstances would seem to warrant. The group also gets a huge help from two short-term members who’d also lent a hand to their previous album (Carl and the Passions), South African musicians Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar.
And like all late-Beach Boys albums, Holland seems to elicit very disparate reactions from its critics and fans, from “best post-Smile album” to “indulgent mess,” so take everything below with a grain of salt. These opinions are mine alone. Here is Holland in my rough order of appreciation:
“Steamboat” is, for me, the album’s one untouchable masterpiece. Dennis Wilson crafted a gentle lullaby of a song out of Jack Rieley’s abstract lyrics, rocking smoothly between its tonic and dominant keys until the outro, where it slides to bVI over the lyrical intrusions of the background singers (“Don’t you worry, Mister Fulton, we’ll get your steamboat rolling” is the kind of lyric that summoned Sufjan Stevens into existence.) The biggest star here, though, is the woozy production, from the electric slide guitar flying upwards into a steam whistle to the engine-like chug of its drums. The effect is magical. Sure, I could gripe about some of the lyrics (like the description of the river as “a dream in a waltz time.” The song is in 4/4!), but the song lulls me into a riverine reverie where the nitpicky stuff no longer matters.
“Funky Pretty” is an easy track to hate (and many do!), but I find it successfully rides that razor-thin line between quirky and insufferable that’s key to so much of the later Beach Boys’ appeal (no surprise: it’s one of Brian Wilson’s few contributions to the album). It’s also the most joyous expression of ensemble-ness on the album — listen as different vocalists toss the melody to one another, hot-potato style! — and the outro is likely the album’s most interesting and productive merger of Chaplin’s own vocal style with the group’s best barbershop chops. It’s an undeniably fun, goofy song that maybe doesn’t quite stick the landing (a more aggressive drum-n-bass may have helped), but what a way to end the album: catchy, joyful, and something no one else could have put together.
“Sail On, Sailor” was the album’s biggest hit, and for the most part it represents a stylish and well-constructed bit of country-inflected R&B, though the polish also works against it to some extent: it’s a good and groovy little song that occasionally edges up to soft-rock kitsch. Still, the chorus outright soars, and it’s hard to think of a more memorable hook in their post-breakdown career than this one: Scorsese even used it in The Departed. And Chaplin’s vocals are on point.
“Leaving This Town,” another Chaplin-led piece, feels like a soulful version of a Pet Sounds track, a song from the perspective of a lost teenager looking into an uncertain future in a dead-end town. It’s structurally/harmonically much simpler than, say, a Brian Wilson take on this kind of material, but it has its own charm, with those classic Beach Boys’ harmonies weaving their way through the chorus. I’ll even defend Fataar’s extended Moog solo against an ostinato bass figure marking time (like the narrator) until the piece opens back up in its last third. Chaplin’s vocals are much more understated here, but it works with the material.
“Only With You” starts off unpromisingly, a mid-tempo 70s ballad that threatens to disappear in quiet anonymity. Neither the lyrics nor production in the first half do much to dispel that feeling, but when the rest of the band comes in at the halfway mark, it’s subtle but sublime, showcasing the best of what makes the Beach Boys such a memorable group and the late-blooming Dennis its most vulnerable songwriter. Unfortunately, that mildly deepened texture is about as far as the song goes before hazing out into a respectable shrug of a finish. (Sidebar: I much prefer this version of the song to the one included as a bonus track on Pacific Ocean Blue. Even though Dennis’ gruffer voice gives his version a more affecting edge, he makes some unfortunate choices in production, especially its call-and-response vocal lines.)
“Trader.” Here’s where I expect to get the hate mail. Possibly the only near-universal response to Holland is that “Trader” represents one of the finest moments for the band’s finest vocalist, Carl Wilson. I’ve listened to this on loop for days, read every appreciation of it I could find online, and yet… the pieces just refuse to click for me. A rollicking song about violent imperialism that gives way to a melancholy response (from the conquered?), the first half is ambitious but corny in the worst way, the second mellow to the point of food-court music, an odd choice given the subject matter. (You could argue, e.g., that “Funky Pretty”’s lyrics are just as corny, but 1. they’re not about genocide, and 2. the “Funky Pretty” is musically interesting where “Trader”’s transparency gives it no room to hide.) As for Carl’s vocals…he has an odd way of starting certain notes softly and slightly flat and straining to nail the pitch, something never more evident than in the second half of “Trader”. It sets my teeth on edge, but feel free to disregard me: this is a widely-lauded vocal performance cited as a favorite by quite a few of the group’s fans.
Finally, “The California Saga” is a three-part mini-epic whose serviceable first and final acts are sunk by an utterly dire middle section. The first act, Mike Love’s “Big Sur,” is a pretty solid piece of nostalgia in the form of a jangly country waltz, harmonicas and all, and is capped by a lovely chorus (“Big Sur, I’ve got plans for you” swells nicely into the song’s only minor chord). Unfortunately I find Love’s aw-shucks delivery a bit grating here, though it’s far preferable to what he does in the second installment, “Beaks of Eagles,” where his spoken-word rendition of a bleak Robinson Jeffers poem evokes nothing as much as Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis doing a self-serious bit, an impression not at all helped by Jardine’s comically cheery chorus about death (tho I’d buy tickets on opening night to Anchorman: Beaks of Eagles). The final act, the pointed throwback “California,” draws heavily from the surf music of their early career, now boasting banjos and synthesizers and a loping country-western rhythm. The less charitable version is that it’s a bald attempt to recapture the glory of “California Girls,” with focus shifted from the state’s female beauties to its natural ones. Either way, like the first act of the saga, it’s just fine, but do you really want to sit through “Beaks of Eagles” again?
Oh, then there’s this…
Yes, Mount Vernon and Fairway, included in the original release as an accompanying LP. I’m not sure what I can possibly say about Brian Wilson’s extended musical fairy tale about a possessed transistor radio that acts as a quasi-malevolent Pied Piper, and no, it’s not nearly as cool as that sounds. Let’s say the one thing we can all agree on: this is a thing that exists.
- Thoughts? Which are your picks for strongest/weakest tracks on the album?
- For a different take on the tracklist and its various strengths/weaknesses, I found this to be a solid read.
- I can’t emphasize enough how much Noel Murray’s writing helped ease me into Beach Boys fandom. While you’re here check out this epic guide he wrote for the AVC back in 2014.