To the people who think that there’s no difference between “favorite” and “best” – because their opinion is worth more or because there’s no such thing as objectivity – have at this: Brian Wilson has apparently called this one his favorite Beach Boys record on at least one occasion, the one he “can listen to anytime without having to get into a mood.” And, y’know, there’s no secret what consensus has rightfully determined to be the best Beach Boys record.
It’s not hard to see where Brian Wilson is coming from. Most reviews bring up the words “calm” and “spiritual,” and Brian Wilson desperately needed the former in his life at the time and has always sought out the latter. Whereas their two records from the previous year, Smiley Smile with its psychedelia and Wild Honey with its blue-eyed soul, succumbed to the trends around them,Friends is its own little bubble. George Starostin compares it to the Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society from that same year, and it’s easy to see why. Both wanted to get away from urban society, though this one seems more intent of bringing you to the cottage or beach than it does the forest); both rarely rock (this one even less so), though society wanted more of that, and louder too; both were flops, had a cult status and have seen critical praise after the fact.
Of course, the people who are only in it for Pet Sounds-like experimentation within the confines of pop music will likely hear Friends, watch it pass right through them like air, and run back to Smile and its several different incarnations. Listen harder. There is experimentation to be found on Friends, but the production is lightweight so you might not notice: certainly not lush likeSmiley Smile or opaque like Wild Honey that made the songs on either album pop out more. Broadly speaking, hidden in most of these songs is great drumming (ie. the splashes in “Passing By” and the drum fills in “Anna Lee, the Healer”), great bass lines (ie. the music hall “Wake the World” and “When A Man Needs A Woman”) and great guitar figures (ie. “Passing By” again). Don’t believe me? Skip right to “Busy Doin’ Nothin,'” one of the two solo Brian Wilson songs here, for its bossa nova rhythms, an anamoly in both the album and their discography at large. Stuff to note: the conversational bridge (“I think I’ll make a call…”), like Brian just lept out of his chair and decided he’s sick of thinking about her and going to do something about it; very in-the-moment; the lovely guitar figure (at the start, the 1:15 mark and at the 2:27 mark); the lovely drumming in the outro. And, if you ever wanted to visit Brian Wilson at his house, he gives you the directions in the song, so I don’t see how this one wouldn’t be a keeper to any Beach Boys’ fan.
Still don’t believe me? Skip to instrumental “Diamond Head.” At first, it begins like something the Orb might cook up nearly three decades later – ambient music with prominent beats – though this one is a little more Hawaiian flavored than anything they would write. At the 1:42 mark, the song shifts, focussing on sound effects (including birds calling out, which the Orb have used as well), before shifting again at the 2:23 mark to combine the two previous sections. Waves lap at the shore, while a lovely drum pattern and slide guitar carry the song out. Better than any of the instrumental tracks off Pet Sounds, if you’d ask me. Elsewhere, though Brian Wilson has nothing but great things to say about Dennis Wilson’s “Little Bird” in the liner notes (“Dennis gave us “Little Bird” which blew my mind because it was so full of spiritualness. He was a late bloomer as a music maker. He lived hard and rough but his music was as sensitive as anyone’s.”), it’s not the lyrics or the singing that matter, but the instruments (again, the bass, the triangle and the guitar in the outro) and especially the bridge, from the then-unreleased “Child is Father of the Man” from Smile; easily the most interesting moment on the entire album.
The album’s straight-forward songs are great too, with more melodies than either of the preceding albums, including “Meant For You” (though I wish it was longer), the title track (my favorite cut; love the staccato backing vocals, which imitate plucked violins), “When A Man Needs A Woman,” the wordless vocal theme in “Passing By” (the other Brian Wilson solo number) and the vocals and piano line of “Anna Lee, The Healer” (about a masseuse, but whatever). Sure, it’s not perfect but then again, no Beach Boys album is. The singing on “Be Here In The Morning” grates, “Be Still” is filler on a 25-minute album, and the loudest song on the album, “Transcendental Meditation,” is neither transcendental or meditative.
You know what? The highs don’t touch the highs of Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, but I’m pretty sure this one is better overall.