The Beach Boys on CD: A Postcard From California

After the demise of his Beach Boys Family & Friends project, Al Jardine went back to his position of least-visible Beach Boy. He played the occasional gig with the bulk of the Family & Friends band under various names, and guested with a band called the Surf City All-Stars (who had been Jan & Dean’s backing band until the death of Jan Berry, and who then recruited Jardine’s son Matt, and often featured Jardine, David Marks, and Dean Torrence as guests).

He also toured with Brian Wilson briefly in 2006, performing what were billed as Wilson’s last ever public performances of Pet Sounds (as I write this in February 2017, Brian Wilson has extended his 2016 definitely-the-last-ever Pet Sounds tour into the late summer of this year…), but didn’t turn up for a European tour on which he had been billed to appear, saying he had to work on his solo album.

This was greeted with a certain amount of scepticism among Beach Boys fans, as Jardine had been talking about a solo album for the best part of a decade already, but in 2010 it turned out he had been telling the truth – he finally released his first ever solo studio album.

Or at least, it’s credited as a solo album. In fact, Jardine surprised everyone by putting out what was in effect a new Beach Boys album. While Jardine takes lead on every song, and is sole producer, the album featured Brian Wilson on four tracks, David Marks on guitar, and one track that featured archive recordings of Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston along with a new vocal by Michael Love. This meant the album featured more Beach Boys than some actual Beach Boys albums, and was the first sign that there was enough of a rapprochement among the Beach Boys that a reunion might happen…

The Beach Boys weren’t the only guests, though. Jardine has never been comfortable in the spotlight, and is at his best as a harmony singer, so the album is full of other guests – his sons Matt and Adam, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Burnell of the band America, one-time fill-in Beach Boy Glen Campbell, David Crosby, Steve Stills, Neil Young, Steve Miller, and, rather incongruously, Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who had become friendly with Jardine after using his studio to record and rehearse – according to at least one interview with Jardine, Flea provides not only bass but trumpet) and Alec Baldwin.

The result is, astonishingly, in the top tier of Beach Boys solo records, and shows what Jardine brought to the band. A concept album of sorts, it’s structured to resemble a drive through California, and showcases Jardine’s concern about the environment. The album is lacking in the kind of invention that makes the band’s best work so exciting – half of it is remakes of the band’s old work, and the new tracks are often derivative – but it’s a lovely sounding record.

Jardine was always an underrated singer, but as the other members’ voices started to deteriorate, it’s become more obvious just how great he really was – he has the strongest voice of all of them, and the widest range, and he may well have always been the best singer in the band on a technical level. But there’s a pleasantness, a comfort, in this album. It’s utterly unadventurous, but it’s a work that’s very, very, likeable indeed.

There are several different versions of this album that have been released, all under the same title. There was a promo EP with four songs released early in 2010, then a download-only release of the full album. Soon after that came a print-on-demand CD issue. In 2012, Jardine reissued the album, adding three bonus tracks (one of which, “Waves of Love” was issued in two different mixes, one on the download and one on the CD), and then a Japanese-only version was issued with two new bonus tracks – a third version of “Waves of Love” and a new song, “The Eternal Ballad”.

To be honest, most of the bonus tracks are pretty unnecessary, but the album as originally issued is one that most Beach Boys fans will enjoy. It’s no Pet Sounds or Smile, but it doesn’t pretend to be, and it’s certainly better than anything released under the band’s name between 1979 and its release.

(All songs have lead vocals by Alan Jardine except where noted).

A Postcard from California
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Glen Campbell

The opening track credits Alan Jardine as the writer, but should really credit Larry Weiss, as Weiss wrote “Rhinestone Cowboy”, from which the verse melody of this song is taken without any acknowledgement (the chorus melody is also extremely familiar, but in seven years of discussion I’ve not been able to figure out exactly where I know it from, and have had to conclude that it merely sounds like it should be something else).

As well as being near-identical in melody, the song’s arrangement also replicates the earlier track’s stop-start rhythm, and most damningly the track features Glen Campbell, who had a hit with the earlier song, on joint lead vocals.

(One could, of course, also argue that “Rhinestone Cowboy” itself is suspiciously similar to “Sloop John B”…)

The song actually seems to reference several other of Campbell’s hits, being structured as a goodbye letter to a partner (like the note in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) and having a brief Morse code beep (like the telegraph wires in “Wichita Lineman”). And the song seems to be set in the same late-60s time period as those songs – the protagonist receives a letter typed on an Underwood, and tries to call his partner but has to leave a note as she’s out.

All that said, though, the track is an extremely good opener, with both singers in fine voice – Campbell’s vocal is clearly showing his age, but he was still one of the finest vocalists of his generation, and turns in an exemplary performance, while Jardine still sounds exactly as he did in his early twenties. It’s a derivative track, but a solid performance, and one of the most listenable things here.

California Feelin’
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Stephen Kalinich

This track, on the other hand, is much less good. The song dates to the mid-seventies, and was attempted by the Beach Boys on several occasions then, but not released in a Beach Boys version until 2013’s Made in California box set, although Brian Wilson had released a solo version as the one new track on a compilation of Beach Boys hits a few years earlier.

The original version’s unreleased status had led to it being hugely overrated by Beach Boys fans, with people talking of it as a masterpiece, but anyone who had heard the bootlegged versions could hear that it was a half-thought-out song at best. Wilson’s melody is pleasant enough, but not very well structured, and Kalinich’s lyrics are, like most of his work, bathetic, trying to evoke emotion by merely using words like “loveliness and beauty”.

Of the four versions of the song available legitimately (Wilson’s solo, the two versions on Made in California, and this one), this is by far the best – Jardine’s vocal is absolutely sincere, and the arrangement is stripped down to just vocal and piano, with only a harmonica solo and some faint organ right at the end. Other than the brief block harmonies, this is one of the sparsest things on the album, and its stark simplicity is a much better take on the song than the other versions’ kitchen-sink excess.

The track ends, as many on the album do, with ocean sound-effects cross-fading into the next song.

Looking Down the Coast
Songwriter: Alan Jardine

A song that dates back to 1978, this is almost a prog-rock epic (albeit one that comes in at less than four minutes), with different movements, very much in the same vein as the earlier California Saga.

Here, Jardine plays a conquistador visiting the Californian shore to enslave the “natives”, while also praising the landscape and the animals of the Big Sur area – the eagles, sea otters, and gray whales.

There are two main alternating sections. The first is a verse/chorus section which repeats several times and which is the missing link between “Airplane” from The Beach Boys Love You and Brian Wilson’s much later “Walkin’ the Line” – the second half of the verse/chorus (“and through the eyes of the California condor there/hasn’t got a care”) is almost identical to the “If I don’t get my way this time I’ll die/and that’s no lie” section of the latter, while also resembling “the clouds in the sky…” from the earlier song.

The second section (“this must be Monterey”) is very different – where the verse/chorus is uptempo country-rock with the same “Be My Baby” stop-start rhythm as the album’s title track (a motif that recurs in several places in the album) the contrasting section is much slower and built around some flamenco-style nylon-string guitar, with only an organ pad, some “ooh” backing vocals, and some cymbal crashes (emulating the sound of the sea) to support Jardine’s vocal.

This is definitely Jardine’s most sophisticated and interesting composition, and along with “All This Is That” is the best evidence we have that he had the potential to be a songwriter on a par with his bandmates if he’d written more.

Don’t Fight the Sea
Songwriters: Alan Jardine and Terry Jacks

Lead vocals: Alan Jardine with Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston
This song dates from 1976, and was originally released by Jacks under the title “Y’Don’t Fight The Sea”, and credited to him alone. Jacks had been friendly with the Beach Boys in the 70s (his hit cover version of “Seasons in the Sun” was originally intended as a Beach Boys track, and bootlegs of a Beach Boys version with Carl Wilson singing lead exist), and Jardine had made attempts to record the song during the 15 Big Ones sessions.

This version may contain elements of that track, but the basic backing track appears to have been recorded around 1980, and then left until 1989, when Carl and Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston added vocals to the track, which was then put aside again. For the album, Jardine and his son Matt added new vocals, and Michael Love recorded a vocal part separately (apparently recorded in his hotel room on a laptop, while on tour), creating the first new Beach Boys track of the 2000s.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good – Jacks’ original song was bad cod-reggae disco, and a fairly terrible song, and Jardine’s version is a poor yacht-rock track with additional lyrics about a polar bear in a dream telling him to protect the environment. Carl Wilson’s vocal is one of his lazier ones, while Brian Wilson’s is as harsh as most of his recordings from that era. It’s a curiosity more than a decent record.

The track was later released as a charity vinyl single.

Tidepool Interlude
Songwriter: Stephen Kalinich
Lead vocals: Alec Baldwin

A piano playing a simple, repetitive, melody, with ocean sound effects, over which actor Alec Baldwin recites a poem by Kalinich about the Californian coast, with lines like “beautiful majesty moves through me majestically”. Easily the weakest thing on the album, but it’s over quickly.

Campfire Scene
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Neil Young

This is actually just a short extract of California Saga: California (the “water, water…” section) performed by Jardine and Young with banjo and harmonica accompaniment, as an intro to the next track.

California Saga: California
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Neil Young, with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Brian Wilson

A remake of the Holland track, with what sounds like Brian Wilson’s vocal flown in from that recording, this is very similar to the original (apart from a “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” piano intro, and all instrumentation except the banjo dropping out in the second “water, water”, leaving it almost a capella), but Crosby, Stills, Jardine, and Young make up one of the few vocal groups that could seriously compete with the Beach Boys in singing those harmonies, and the song could almost have been written for Neil Young to sing. It’s quite lovely to hear the harmony parts, even if the recording’s not significantly better than the original – and there’s a rather melancholy touch in the last verse, where Young sings the lines about going to the Big Sur festival and seeing Country Joe in the past tense. The hippie dream is long dead…

Help Me, Rhonda
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Steve Miller

A much more pointless remake – just how many versions of this song could we possibly need? This is a duet with the Steve Miller Band (plus Flea on bass), and has a certain charm to it – they replicate the arrangement of Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae”, the song which originally inspired this one, and go for a sloppy harmonica-led country-blues feel. But this was never one of the band’s better big hits anyway, and this is an unnecessary version – and one which doesn’t fit the narrative and themes of the rest of the album.

San Simeon
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine with Gerry Beckley and Dewey Burnell

Probably the best original on the album, this has a laid-back acoustic feel, and absolutely gorgeous harmonies featuring the two current members of the band America.

There’s a little of “Don’t Worry Baby” in the track, but it doesn’t feel derivative in the way that some of the other songs do.

There’s little substance here, and little to talk about – it’s another song about the California coast and its animals (in this case “making friends with the elephant seals”), but it’s a gentle, pleasant, grower.

Drivin’
Songwriters: Alan Jardine, Stevie Heger and Scott Slaughter
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine,Brian Wilson, Gerry Beckley, and Dewey Burnell

Another one featuring America, along with two of Jardine’s former bandmates (Brian Wilson on vocals and David Marks on guitar), this is a pleasant enough, inoffensive car song, with a slow shuffle beat. Wilson adds some of his better vocals, with a decently humorous reading of some of the later lines, when the song starts talking about how the protagonist can no longer drive because of the price of petrol (and Jardine interjects “BP you’re killin’ me, man” – a last-minute alteration after BP’s terrible handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).

Unfortunately it’s let down by the last bridge, sung by America (who take all the verses), where Jardine for some reason decides just to namedrop several America song titles, crowbarring them in and making a mess of the lyric in the process.

Honkin’ Down the Highway
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine with Brian Wilson

A remake of the song from The Beach Boys Love You – an album which Jardine has taken to enthusing about in recent years – this is fairly similar to the original, albeit with a slightly fuller production. Jardine takes the lead, as he did on the original, and the backing is provided by a stack-o’-Brians.

The only real deviation from the original comes toward the end of the track, where a voice (distorted as if through a speaker and backed with a police siren) tells the driver to slow down (“I clocked you at a hundred and forty”). There’s then a short sax solo, a repeat of the lyric from “takin’ one little inch” onwards, and the track ends on a mass, choral, “way with girls” – a great ending, acknowledging both the ridiculousness and the beauty of that little section of melody, always the song’s highlight.

It doesn’t quite beat the original, but this is always a fun song to hear, and one which unlike some of the other remakes has not been overexposed.

And I Always Will
Songwriter: Alan Jardine

A song that dated back to at least 1985, when it was apparently recorded during the sessions for The Beach Boys, this was based on a piece by Chopin (I’m not familiar enough with Chopin’s work to identify it, and Jardine himself hasn’t been able to remember which piece in interviews). It’s a bit schlocky, the kind of thing that could have been recorded by the Carpenters, and the arrangement is a little overblown (Jardine is backed by a full orchestra here), but the vocals are strong enough that this ballad just – just – sits on the right side of the line separating sincerity from sentimentality, and makes a fitting conclusion to the album.

If A Postcard From California had been released as a Beach Boys album, it would have been their best in thirty-one years. Some of the individual tracks are weaker than others, but throughout there’s a warm, organic feeling to the recording and production (quite astonishing given the patchwork way in which some of the tracks were recorded). It’s not as good an album as some of Brian’s solo records, but it’s the only Beach Boys solo album other than Pacific Ocean Blue that I could see recommending to a non-fan without several caveats. It’s not a great record, but it’s a good, solid, one, and much better than one would have expected from Jardine.

Bonus Tracks

California Dreamin’
Songwriters: John Phillips and Michelle Phillips
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine, Glen Campbell, and David Crosby

A very stripped-down version of The Mamas & The Papas’ classic hit, which had also been recorded by the Beach Boys in the 80s. Here Jardine and Glen Campbell trade off verses as Jardine had with Carl Wilson on the Beach Boys’ version, with Crosby adding backing vocals in the third verse. The instrumental backing consists only of acoustic guitar, organ, hand percussion and bongos (played by John Stamos), leaving a lot of empty space for the vocalists to shine. Of all the bonus tracks, this is the only one that truly deserved to be on the album, and it’s quite lovely.

Waves of Love
Songwriters: Alan Jardine and Larry Dvoskin
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Carl Wilson

This, on the other hand, is a mess. A song Jardine had been working on for decades, it’s a sloppy, unformed, rewrite of “Help Me, Rhonda”, with some chord changes that just don’t work, and with lyrics that veer from the banal to the new age.

But the worst thing is the inclusion of the recording of Carl Wilson singing the choruses. Apparently taken from a recording of a soundcheck in 1989 when the Beach Boys ran through the song (though he sounds double-tracked), it’s a sloppy run-through recording of a harmony part that’s been promoted to a lead vocal section on a finished recording. Wilson, frankly, sounds drunk, though he may just have been saving his voice and energy. I can understand the wish to use every fragment of Carl Wilson vocals that exists, given that he was one of the great singers of the rock era, but he was also a perfectionist who didn’t allow several perfectly releasable vocals to be released because they didn’t meet his standards. I can’t imagine he’d have been happy with this being released.

Even had it been Wilson’s best vocal ever, though, it wouldn’t have salvaged the song. It’s one that’s clearly important to Jardine – he’s released three radically different mixes of the song on the different versions of this album, and he wanted to work on it again in 2012 during the That’s Why God Made the Radio sessions – but it’s one of the worst things he’s done.

Sloop John B (A Pirate’s Tale)
Trad. Arr. Alan Jardine

This is a rerecording with new lyrics, originally released on a CD to accompany a children’s story-book Jardine had written. The song stretches out to almost double the original length, and outstays its welcome by quite a bit, to fit in Jardine’s story of piratical adventure.

The Eternal Ballad
Songwriter: Alan Jardine

Jardine’s first Beach Boys Family & Friends gig had been at a private event for “Supreme Master Ching Hai”, a new age religious guru and owner of a vegan fast-food franchising company, who Jardine admires. This song sets a poem Ching Hai had written in her twenties to a melody reminiscent of “The Night Was So Young”, but not as good.

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4 Responses to The Beach Boys on CD: A Postcard From California

  1. Steven J. Feldman says:

    You mention that Al Jardine’s song “And I Always Will” is based on a Chopin work which neither you or Alan Jardine could identify. The melody is a beautiful one from Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 No. 3 in the key of E Major. The etude is also know as “Tristesse” (Sadness).

  2. Steven J. Feldman says:

    I should have written “neither you nor Alan Jardine”

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