Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The West is the Best

Two notable repackages -- from California bands who boasted five-part harmonies -- have crossed my desk in the last week or two, and they're both worth your attention.

The surprise here is that the Beach Boys'
"The Warmth of the Sun" is not just another throwaway comp featuring the same old same old. Instead, it's a very well chosen (apparently by whoever is still in the band) anthology of summer-themed songs, with very few of the usual suspects -- okay, "409" is here -- and seven revelatory new stereo mixes of wonderful songs from The Beach Boys Today and Summer Days and Summer Nights, the albums that are Brian Wilson's Rubber Soul and Revolver respectively. There are also some songs from the band's early 70s albums I hadn't listened to in years, and they're all almost serpahically lovely -- in particular Dennis Wilson's lovelorn ballad "Forever" and Brian's still astonishing "Till I Die."

The new Moby Grape best-of "Listen My Friends" is no less welcome, but problematic. The Grape, of course, belong on anybody's list of the Top Ten American bands of the 60s, a staggeringly talented bunch who leapfrogged genres (blues, psychedelia, pop, country), sang like angels and whose best songs, as Greil Marcus famously observed, sounded more like gang fights. They were also famously unlucky, with a notoriously sleazy manager they've been litigating with since forever; thanks to him, Sony's previous two-disc Grape best-of, 1993's Vintage, had been out of print for several years. In fact, before "Listen," none of the Grape's 60s material had been legally available for quite a while.

The problem with the new album is that in its attempt to be comprehensive it gives a somewhat distorted picture of the group's career, which goes like this: Classic first album (every song a gem), ambitious second album (some sublime moments, some filler), overlooked third album (return to form, almost as good as the first) and a contractual obligation turkey (the sound of a band pretty much in collapse). The good news here: the great album jacket Vintage should have had, the first CD appearance of the wonderfully winsome "If You Can't Learn From My Mistakes" (chiming guitar heaven), plus six songs from the first album including the Beatles-on-Meth killer single "Omaha," plus the epochal "Seeing," the Skip Spence masterpiece that Robert Plant covered brilliantly a few years ago. The bad news: A not terribly good song the Grape did for the soundtrack of a justifiably obscure 60s movie pot-boiler and two (at best) forgettable tunes from the aforementioned forgettable fourth album.

The final verdict? It's a mixed bag, but until the first three albums get proper reissues this is an indispensable purchase for anyone not highly perverse of ears.

Meanwhile, to give you a taste, here's a very good live clip of the band playing two songs from the first album at the height of the Summer of Love.

Incidentally, Peter Lewis, the good looking guy on the right singing the ballad, is the son of Loretta Young, one of the great screen beauties of the 30s and 40s. How a Hollywood brat like Lewis wound up in a San Francisco rock band is, like the rest of the Grape's odyssey, an amazing story deserving of a major film biography some day.


dave™© said...

For some reason, Brian's been reticent about putting "Let Him Run Wild" on any recent compilations. Wonder if he had any input in this collection? Who did the re-mixing?

And yes, "'Til I Die" is astonishing!

dave™© said...

Speaking of the Grape, I saw them in their post-Skip Spence stoner-band-from-Santa-Cruz incarnation at a "Legalize Marijuana" rally in Civic Center in San Francisco in the late 70s... killer "Murder In My Heart for the Judge," dude!

Jerry Miller used to gig around SF... saw him about ten years ago at this Summer Solstice thing SF did for a few years where bands would play out on the streets all day. He was pretty hot!

steve simels said...

The remizing's by Mark Linnett, who's done pretty much the entire Beach Boys catalog since the dawn of the CD era.

He did the Pet Sounds remixes...just about everything, atually.

dave™© said...

Linnett's the man. Don't know what Brian's bugaboo was about "Let Him Run Wild"... one of his greatest!

steve simels said...

You know Brian did a very nice studio remake of it on that solo album he did in the mid 90s.

And there's a song on it called "Your Imagination" that's as good as anytning he's ever done. Quite gorgeous....

Mike said...

As I recall, Brian was always embarrassed over his vocals on the original BB version.

This looks like an excellent track listing. I'm happy to see the lesser known Disney Girls and California Saga get some recognition.

Thanks for the Moby Grape heads-up. I've heard about them for like 25 years but have yet to actually hear the music. I have Skip Spence's Oar album, which is of course stellar, so I'll look for this new comp when I'm out on a CD binge this week.

steve simels said...


You're in for a real treat. I only wish I had a copy of the first album I could burn for you, but somebody stole mine.

As for "Oar," stellar is indeed the word. BTW -- there's a brilliant tribute to it that's really worth hearing. Amazing stuff from Robyn Hitchcock, Robert Plant, and Tom Waits, among others, including a great Brit band called Diesel Park West.

dave™© said...

I wasn't that thrilled with the remake on "Your Imagination" - but only because "Let Him Run Wild" is, probably, my favorite mid-period Beach Boy number.

I remember hearing the thing about Brian being embarassed by his vocal - there's a whole psychological study waiting to be written on the effect on mid-60s Brian Wilson of being called a "faggot" because of his falsetto.

BTW, the title cut of "Getting In Over My Head" is also a sublime, overlooked cut, IMO...

M. Bouffant said...

Hey, a son of Loretta Young rented an apartment that a friend of mine's family owned in Beverly Hills. The dude was busted on child molestation charges sometime in the '70s. Same one? Anyone know?
And, I still have my copy of the first Moby Grape album, 'though no turntable on which to play it, & no way to digitize it if I had a 'table. Can't remember if the infamous finger on the washboard was on the album cover but not on the giant poster that came with it, or vice versa. Great effin' album, though. "Omaha!" Yeah, great tune! And thanks for the YouTube imbed.