Robert Christgau gets this one: “It feels weird to call this a great record–it’s so slight. But it’s perfect and full of pleasure; it does what it sets out to do almost without a bad second(except for “Let the Wind Blow,” each of the 11 tunes–total time: 23:54–ends before you wish it would). And what does it set out to do? To convey the troubled innocence of the Beach Boys through a time of attractive but perilous psychedelic sturm und drang. Its method is whimsy, candor, and carefully modulated amateurishness, all of which comes through as humor.”
Yup – almost without a bad second, so let’s get those bad seconds out the way first: “Here Comes the Night” has an organ hook that sounds like it came from a baseball game (not a good thing); “A Thing Or Two” features a lot of growled vocals that are not as effective as when Stevie Wonder employs them and are actively annoying and probably what Pitchfork’s Spencer Owen meant when he wrote off the album as “faux-soul” and handed it a 3.5 (out of 10, as you know); and “Mama Says” is a charming throwaway that’s worth hearing once for the charm and throwing away right after (though I will say that it sounds like Laurie Anderson fully absorbed that song and proceeded to manipulate her voice similarly throughout her whole career).
But there’s so much good stuff! Check out the lovely bounce in the staccato piano of “Aren’t You Glad” and the way the muddy production (the first Beach Boys album to be self-produced) makes it sound like you’re in a small chamber with only one other person at an upright piano (as opposed to a grand) before it explodes into a full band experience (wish the handclaps that are employed at the 0:48-0:50 mark are kept or at least appear later, but alas). On the other hand, the production of “Country Air” works against it; I hear bits of feedback at higher volumes that aren’t present (as much, anyway) on the rest of the album and I doubt it was a consciously chosen aesthetic, but the melody is a really sunny one (with whistling too!) that conveys the countryside feeling if you didn’t get it from the rooster calls already, while the cymbal splashes help drive things forward. The horns and fingerpicked acoustic guitar help the indelible vocal melodies of “Darlin’” and “I’d Love Just Once to See You” into even more memorable songs, and “Let the Wind Blow” is the only song that could’ve slotted in with Smiley Smile without sounding weird because of how weird it sounds. Love how loud the handclaps sound on 50s throwback, “How She Boogalooed It,” and I dig how the solo sounds like something Jerry Lee Lewis would have played if he played organs instead of piano (though I wish it was done on a piano) and the only bad thing I have to say about their cover of Stevie Wonder (“I Was Made to Love Her”) is that Stevie Wonder did it better, but not like this one is bad at all, either.
Then there’s the title track, which is easily one of my five favorite Beach Boys songs – ever. Brian Wilson’s a little too out of it to really command the vocal harmonies that the group is known for (though they are here, just coloring in the lines), so he sits down with a theremin, bouncing from one note to another. Yeah, it’s lazy, but it’s catchy (and I swear, once all the instruments have come in, it sounds remarkably like backing vocals. The sunniest use of the instrument, ever? Ever). So attention to other details, like the striking piano chord that sends us into the first shout of “WILD HONEY!” (the 0:42-44 mark) (great vocal performance from Carl Wlison, by the way, who enunciates all the right words at the right times with the right amount), or the bongos that elevate the third occurrence (the 1:13 mark)
When music critics talk about the Beach Boys, they always talk about the complexity of Pet Sounds, Smile/-y Smile/– Sessions and Surf’s Up which means that great albums like Wild Honey, Today! and Love You get the short end of the stick, which instills the wrongful thought that complexity somehow equates goodness. I don’t deny that those three works are great, but maybe there was more to the Beach Boys than just weirdness, you know?