In the six-decade story of The Beach Boys, there is an era that still remains somewhat nebulous; a curiously fragmented five years following the group’s landmark album, Pet Sounds. Prior to its 1966 release, the pop-rock pioneers were churning out hit after hit celebrating the cars, girls, and surf of Southern California. No one would’ve faulted them for continuing to exhaust the formula. Pet Sounds changed all that.
The meticulously crafted song cycle of love and devotion is now regarded as a masterpiece, but when it first arrived, Pet Sounds spooked some fans and some critics. Undeniably, it established Brian Wilson as a generational, if eccentric, musical genius. It also meant stylistically, even as album sales and concert attendance waned in its wake, that there was no going back; at least, not for another decade and a latter-career turn towards nostalgia.
Initially, though, after Pet Sounds the Beach Boys tried lots of things. They got way out on Smiley Smile, and dipped toes into American soul on Wild Honey, then moved to hybridize the two. Out of this collision came the release of two of the band’s most overlooked records; 1970’s Sunflower and 1971’s Surf’s Up.
Brian, still the band’s center, seemed more determined than ever to build each song into a feat of arrangement, layering tricky vocals on track upon track. Too, the times were changing, as psychedelia expanded the simple rock song format and outspoken artists became the norm. Plus, the Boys were settling down a bit, starting families, and wanting more time off the road. All of this added up to Sunflower; an album whose best- “Add Some Music To Your Day” and “Cool, Cool Water”- retained the group’s early ‘60s trademarks more in watercolor wisps than indelible ink.
Surf’s Up was even more a departure, as Brian receded as the creative director of the band and brother Carl, and his Detroit soul predilections, ascended. Not to mention the social comment of “Don’t Go Near The Water” that opened the record and later the oddly-shaped blues of “Student Demonstration Time” that made it clear: The surfing safaris and girls on the beach were in the rear view of the deuce coupe.
Feel Flows is a generous, five-disc collection that unearths more than enough from the sessions, and subsequent live performances, exposing everything that went into constructing these two deceptively multifarious albums. It’s a lot for the average fan to digest, but should be quite enthralling for the fanatical. The previously unreleased a cappella versions are maybe most fascinating and, as meditative forms, work as stand-alone records themselves; more so the Sunflower sessions, given Brian’s engaged participation.
Taken as a whole Feel Flows is somewhat a referendum on a period in Beach Boys history that won’t ever threaten the golden days, but will bring some deserved clarity to two particularly evolutionary years out of the 60 and counting.