Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mini-Review: The Beach Boys "Ultimate Christmas" CD

It may be the least original idea ever, but a timely look at the Beach Boys' Christmas Album isn't a bad thing. I tend to enjoy holiday season music; I'm certainly not annoyed by it as some seem to be. One of the few things I actually pull out of my collection each season is the Beach Boys' Christmas Album, and the most thorough stab at putting out a Beach Boys Christmas compilation came in 1998 with the "Ultimate Christmas" CD.

The centerpiece of the CD of course is the band's 1964 "Christmas Album" itself, which is great fun. One of the relative few "big" artists to actually pack nearly half of a Christmas album with original songs, the Beach Boys' take on the holiday season is definitely one filled with some novelty material. But it's fun, and they sound great vocally as always.

While I miss the original "Christmas Album" artwork (the cover for "Ultimate Chrismtas" is a cool pic, but the title and overall look do make it look kind of like a cheap compilation), the copious amount of bonus tracks more than makes up for it. The bonus tracks begin with the "single" version of "Little Saint Nick", presented in a new stereo remix courtesy of Andrew Sandoval. Its main differences from the "album" version consist of sleighbell and a few other overdubs. Nothing hugely different. We also get a version of "Auld Lang Syne" minus voiceover, as well as the always odd "remake" of "Little Saint Nick" in which the song's lyrics are adapted (to varying degrees of success) to the old backing track to "Drive In." Fleshing out the previously-released material is the rare 1974 single "Child of Winter", seeing its first ever CD release here. It's not terribly engaging, and its main riff was later recyled in the unreleased 1977/78 track "Mike Come Back to LA" and eventually the 1980 track "Some of Your Love" off the "Keepin' the Summer Alive" album.

The most interesting "new" material on the disc comes in the form of seven tracks from sessions for the band's rejected 1977 Christmas album. When the band convened in Iowa in 1977 at the "MIU", their original goal was to finish off their Warner Bros. contract by quickly rattling off another Christmas album. They dusted off a few old tracks and re-did the lyrics and vocals, and cobbled together new recordings of songs with varying degrees of Christmas themes. Warner, not surpringly, rejected the album. For reasons that have never been explained outside of the obvious explantion of laziness, the band then "un-Christmas-ized" some of the songs, added some other stuff, and cobbled together what eventually became the "MIU Album."

For "Ultimate Christmas", we get only select tracks from the sessions. The band is notoriously difficult and oddly sensitive about releasing outtakes from the 70's and 80's apparently. So some previously "booted" tracks such as "Go and Get that Girl" and "Alone on Christmas Day" from these sesssions did not make the release. We get alternate seasonal versions of "Loop de Loop" ("Santa's Got an Airplane"), "Belles of Paris" ("Bells of Christmas"), "Kona Coast" ("Melikalikamaka" aka "Kona Christmas"), "Peggy Sue" ("Chrismastime is Here Again"), along with Dennis' "Morning Christmas", Brian's "Winter Symphony", and a novelty bit with "I Saw Santa Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Brian and Dennis' tracks are most interesting. The aforementioned outtakes not included on this set may be slightly stronger tracks. Nevertheless, the '77 tracks are great to have here.

Rounding out the collection are some spoken-word bits and radio advertisements. Brian's brief 1964 interview shows how lucid the guy was back then at 22.

This is certainly the definitive collection of Christmas tracks from the band. The CD version is apparently out of print (though still available to purchase via download), though among the mess of numerous truncated budget releases of the band's Christmas album, you can find "Merry Christmas from the Beach Boys" which deletes only one track from "Ultimate Christmas" ("Christmastime is Here Again").

The only drawback to "Ultimate..." is the lack of inclusion of any version of "The Lord's Prayer", which was the b-side to "Little Saint Nick." This was not an oversight. The lack of inclusion is allegedly a remnant of the canceled/rejected plan the then-in-place reissue team had for the group's catalog. Presumably, "The Lord's Prayer" was going to be included on one of the planned expanded reissues of the group's other 60's albums. While that never happened, you can find the track on several releases, including the original US CD release of the "Christmas Album", and in the form of a stereo remix on the 2001 "Hawthorne, CA" collection.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Full Review: "Beach Boys 50 - Live in Concert" Blu-ray

The Film:

The first document of the 50th Anniversary tour dedicated solely to concert footage is here, and what we have is a "better than I expected" but far from perfect article.

Culling 21 songs from the band's stop in Phoenix during their 2012 "50th Anniversary" tour, the unimaginatively titled "Live In Concert" delivers excellent video quality with solid peformances.

The main bone of contention among fans here was the fact that the release contains only 21 songs, despite the band putting together a setlist that started out around 44 songs, then quickly built by the end of the tour to shows showcasing up to 50 songs or more per show. It even culminated in their gig at the Royal Albert Hall where they performed 61 songs, touching on every single song they had peformed over the course of the tour.

A few fans were so angry that they posted negative reviews of the release on Amazon prior to having even seen it. Unfortunately, we can't do anything about the edited nature of this release. Whether budgetary concerns or time constraints or any other factors played a role, what we have here is a 21-song setlist.

On the plus side, they surprisingly managed to include at least some non-obvious selections. When fans heard we were only getting 21 songs, most of us imagined the 21 most obvious hits would be selected. But mixed among many obvious hits, we also get more interesting fare such as "Heroes and Villains", "Sail on Sailor", "All This Is That", "Marcella", and two songs off the new album. How they came up with the track selection is a mystery, as we get some major hits, but also somehow "Rock and Roll Music" instead of something like "Surfin' Safari" or "Surfin' USA."

As for the performances themselves, they are pretty solid overall. This was done after the band had been on the road for a couple of months, so they sound pretty tight. The backing band is top notch as always, and the lead vocalists (meaning mostly Mike, with some Brian, and a bit of Al, and then no leads from Marks or Johnston) sound about as good as they're going to get. There is a bit of audio fudging on the two songs off the new album. The fudging (in the form of elements of the studio versions playing alongside the live performance) is less prevalent than on some of the other things we've heard/seen, but it's still there.

The audio seems to be largely live and from the actual show we're seeing, but there seem to be some vocal bits either overdubbed or flown in from other live recordings, as on occasion the visuals don't match the audio. Thankfully, this was not too prevalent.

"Help Me Rhonda" also reaffirms yet again that Al has the most intact voice of any of these guys; it's a shame they couldn't get another Al lead vocal or two on this thing.

As for the camera work and editing, it's surprisingly tame. Most noticeably, there are *not* excessive crowd shots, and the overall editing pace from shot to shot is not too bad. The camera angles are largely fine. The use of a slight fisheye lense look from one of the cameras (perched at the floor of the stage) is a bit distracting, as is the almost exclusive use of extreme close-ups of Brian. Some wider shots of Brian and his piano would have been nice. The actual angle choices used in this edit aren't always the best pick. We probably get a bit too much in the way of extreme wide shots taken from the other side of the arena, and a few shots from the band's behind that don't seem to serve a great purpose. The editing usually focuses in on the correct vocalist or person of note, but occasionally goes a bit off. This is all rather nitpicky stuff, though. Compared to what I anticipated (see, for instance, Paul McCartney's horribly-edited "Back in the US" DVD from 2002), this was a nicely put together presentation.

The main drawback by far is the paucity of songs. More songs would have made this thing a killer release instead of just a really nice souvenir of the tour.

Video Quality:

The show was shot with multiple HD cameras, and the footage looks pristine here. With only 68 minutes of video content and no extras, there shouldn't be any compression or loss in video quality, and that is definitely the case here. The varied lighting throughout the show is rendered faithfully here. Occasional crowd shots sometimes look a bit murky due to low lighting, but this has to be hands-down (and sort of by default for lack of much else out there) the best *looking* Beach Boys concert we have on home video presently.

Audio Quality:

The disc comes equipped with both 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks. Both sound quite solid. Surprisingly, considering recent trends with live audio and video releases, there is not excessive reverb/echo or crowd noise here. In some cases, the mix is so dry and upfront that it's surprising that what we're hearing was peformed live. You can hear acoustic guitars during "Marcella" for instance. The balance is adequate overall. Foskett's falsetto is occasionally mixed a bit low. As previously mentioned, a bit of sweetening is present on a few songs, but this soundtrack at least does a better than usual job of making it all sound relativey cohesive.


Once again, none! If the presence of only 21 songs and no extras isn't enough indication of the apparent low-budget nature of this release, also witness that this Blu-ray disc is not even authored with a pop-up menu to navigate between songs while the film is playing as most Blu-ray discs are. Further, it literally does not even have a static "home menu" to navigate songs/chapters. The menu screen offers a "Play" option, and an "Audio" option. You literally don't even see song titles anywhere on the screen or menu. If you didn't have the actual case the disc came in, you wouldn't be able to get song titles. Again, as I mentioned with "Doin' It Again", this is allegedly/hopefully only a "sampler" ahead of further, more substantial live video releases coming in the future.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Some Thoughts on the new ESQ.......



In the new issue of ESQ, they take the interesting step of printing both Mike and Brian's letter to the LA Times from a month or two back, during the media hoopla surrounding the non-firing "firing" and the at least temporary disintegration of the reunion band.

Following that, the issue gives us a thoughtful editorial on the matter. Pick up the issue to read it of course. The editorial does walk the fence in putting the blame on the media firestorm on everybody involved. I have to agree in that sense. These guys should have had it all planned out and ready to go so something like this didn't happen. I don't know if they made all the calls or they need to fire some of their PR folks.

The editorial also does take the first even remotely critical stance towards Mike touring with only Bruce under the "Beach Boys" name that I've seen in any of the issues I've ever read. This was a bit surprising. Usually, issues that integrate news and/or interviews with multiple members tend to feature a paucity of actual critical comments about any of the band members or their bands.

Occasionally, interviews with the members in past years have gotten into the acrimony, but not to any great extent. Certainly, I've never seen an editorial that even begins to call into question whether Mike should be using the "Beach Boys" name. Until now.

One of the editorial's sort of summations or takeaways from the situation is that Mike needs to realize that touring with his stripped-down version of the band is going to be frowned upon, while Brian (and presumably Al) needs to realize that the way Mike does things is just how he is; he tours the way he does because that's how he likes it.

While this point is absolutely true in a pragmatic sense, I don't think this is how it actually should be. This is false equivalancy to me. Brian and Al on the one hand wanting to keep the entire reunion together and then Mike wanting to strip it back down a cheaper 2/5 lineup again are not things that should be afforded equal understanding between these sides, and certainly not equal understanding from fans. One side wants the real deal to stay together, the other wants the cheap, stripped down version for a mixture of selfish reasons (money, control, ease) and perplexing and arguably illogical reasons (e.g. the "essential" need to tour numerous small markets that can't "afford" the full reunion band for fear that the "fan base" won't be "maintained").

After a few weeks of intense and ultimately circular and pointless debate among fans, the whole post-tour debacle has died down a bit as of late. Hopefully the result will not be these guys all sticking to their individual camps, but perhaps coming back together for more recording and touring.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

New "Endless Summer Quarterly" Fall 2012 Issue Is Out!

The new Fall 2012 issue of "Endless Summer Quarterly" is out; just got mine in my mailbox. Plenty of stuff to digest in the new issue, which I hope to comment on in the coming days.

Grab a subscription if you don't already have one. We're still so lucky such a magazine exists.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Coming Soon: Review of "The Beach Boys 50 - Live in Concert" Blu-ray

Despite this release potentially having nauseating editing and only containing 21 of the 44 to 61 songs they performed each night on this tour, I'm still excited to see this thing and I'm going to review it as soon as I get my hands on it!

It appears that UK and other European territories may be getting this as a double feature set also featuring the "Doin' it Again" documentary, but I don't know all the details nor do I know if the US release will have any bonus features.

Let's hope this thing doesn't suck! Let's also hope we get a longer, hopefully complete show released before too long.........

Review: Al Jardine "A Postcard from California" (Japan "SHM" CD Pressing)

I don't quite know how it  happened, but I have ended up with no less than FOUR copies of Al Jardine's "A Postcard from California." How did this happen?

Well, some may recall that back in 2010 Jardine literally snuck the album out as a download-only release. After years of waiting and Jardine yakking about how he was still working on it, it just randomly appeared for sale. So I downloaded that version. Soon after, Amazon offered a "CD on Demand" burned version of the album. No different than the download version, the main draw of this configuration was simply to own a physical copy, and to have the album in full CD quality as opposed to lossy download format.

Flash forward to 2012, where Jardine has "re-released" the album, this time on an actual record label, complete with several bonus tracks (and apparently a few other bits of tinkering/mixing to the album).

Just in case three wasn't enough, we now have the latest permutation of this album, the Japanese pressing made on the dubious "SHM" CD format (short for "Super High Material", whatever that means). I've read a bit about "SHM" CDs in the past, and I came away thinking that there's really nothing here beyond a marketing gimmick. They don't even coat them in 24k Gold like other audiophile labels. Supposedly, the construction of the disc is of higher quality, which nobody has been able to objectively prove actually makes the CD sound better. On this count, I don't know if it's any different from the old "green marker" urban legend about making CDs sound better. Maybe SHM CDs will survive the apocalypse or something, but they apparently don't sound any better.

The lure here for this Jardine release is additional alternate/bonus tracks. The "Waves of Love" confusion debacle of 2012 is not helped with this release. For the uninitiated, Jardine added "Waves of Love" as one of the bonus tracks on his 2012 reissue of the album. Intentionally or not, the "download" and "CD" versions of the 2012 reissue contained entirely different versions of the song. The CD included a more laid-back, live soundcheck-sounding version with Carl's lead buried among other voices, while the "download" version contained a much more "produced" and punchy version in a different key and with Carl's lead brought to the fore.

So what does this Japanese pressing bring us? Not one, but two versions of "Waves of Love." Confusingly, we first get the "download" version, making its debut on the CD format. Then, we get a ever-so-slightly alternate mix of that same "download" version. The mix of instruments sounds just different enough to be noticeably different, and we also for some reason get Al's lead mixed out of the middle of the song, leaving it as an instrumental for several measures. Weird.

Finally, we also get the only truly "new" song, titled "The Eternal Ballad." This song actually popped up several years ago when Al and his sons peformed it in a bizarre concert setting. Here we have a studio rendition. Al's voice sounds lovely, and the whole thing is not surprisingly pleasant but kind of bland. It sounds like something Al could have put together to try to stick on "MIU" or "Keepin' the Summer Alive."

So is this worth purchasing again? Depends on whether you want to hunt it down on Amazon or eBay and probably, at least within the US as an import, pay in the $35-$40 range, maybe more.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: "The Beach Boys - Doin' It Again" Blu-ray

The Film:

"Doin' It Again" is the home video release of this year's hour-long PBS TV special (aired as part of the "Front Row Center" series). The program focuses on the group's 50th anniversary tour and new album "That's Why God Made the Radio", while also mixing in a truncated history of the band as well.

Because the film simultaneously attempts to serve as a brief band history, a "making of the album" documentary, and a partial concert film, all in the span of less than an hour, it never really completely hits the mark on any of these counts. This is the sort of project that would have made a good second disc for a "deluxe" version of the band's new album, or something along those lines. As a stand-alone release, it's a bit more tough to justify. It does carry a pretty low list price, however.

The two big draws for fans of the band here are: The first official release of footage from their 50th Anniversay tour (footage was shot at one of the very early shows on the tour, early May in St. Augustine, Florida), and some substantial bits of the recently-discovered 1966 "Good Vibrations" recording sessions footage.

The "Good Vibrations" footage is something I would call a long-sought-after "holy grail" for fans, but we didn't even know this stuff existed until the past year or so. The footage is stunning, regardless of the fact that it comes across as quick snippets shot as "b-roll" type footage, and even if the quality is speckly black and white 16mm footage (transferred in HD and still looking pretty good overall). The footage is succesfully set to the actual song, giving us a good mixture of footage that is enthralling even if it probably doesn't actually match the stuff we hear in the finished song.

The new concert footage is exciting to see, but it's chopped up too much. There just isn't enough to really get into enjoying the live performances. The camera work is a bit distracting, with a lot of weird slanted crane shots. The audio generally sounds okay, with the exception of a really wonky-sounding "live" peformance of "That's Why God Made the Radio." Let's delve into this in a very simple way: The title track from the new album is a very good, maybe not quite *great* Beach Boys song, a surprisingly strong track for the band to be able to put together in 2012. However, for whatever reason, they never once strung together a solid live performance of this song during their reunion. The fully live peformances on TV varied from slightly wonky to near-trainwreck status, and live in-concert peformances were similar. What they've done on this Blu-ray footage is sync elements of the studio recording to the live performance to flesh the wonky peformance out, resulting in an even more bizarre sound. Just give the audio to us unaltered, or cut it out and put a different song in instead!

Video Quality:

The modern-day interviews and studio session footage look fantastic, as does the quality of the HD footage shot at the St. Augustine show. The entire documentary may not quite hit it out of the park, but the HD footage on display on this disc can't be faulted.

Audio Quality:

The audio is more than serviceable for what is simply a documentary. The mix on the concert footage is sometimes wonky, but the actual resolution of the audio is just dandy as would be expected with Blu-ray.


None! Obviously, this was just a quick little appetizer put out to quickly capitalize on the success of the tour. We allegedly/presumably have more substantial documentaries and/or concert films to follow. Nevertheless, some sort of additional footage, even interviews, would have been nice.

Review: Brian Wilson Songwriter 1969-1982 DVD

The Film:

New to DVD is the second in a series of "Brian Wilson Songwriter" DVDs from the awkwardly-named "Sexy Intellectual" label.

As with the previous volume (covering 1962 to 1969), the first impression that it's one of those cheapie European documentaries using "critical review" as an excuse to use the most possible archival audio and video without paying any licensing fees is actually largely incorrect.

What we have is a series of interviews from numerous collaborators and other interested parties discussing Brian's songwriting and, to a lesser degree, the history of the Beach Boys during this period of time.

A healthy mixture of biographers (Peter Ames Carlin, Dominic Priore), collaborators (David Sandler, Steven Kalinich), studio associates (Stephen Desper, Earle Mankey), and assorted others give some interesting insights into this period in Brian's life. To the production's credit, they forego too much awkward sound-alike music or stock/public domain footage and focus mostly on interviews and discussion.

For fans of the group's deep catalog, this volume is probably more interesting than the first, as it delves into the 70's, including Brian's work with American Spring. The discussion pretty much stops at 1978, however, and rushes through 1979 through 1982 in the last ten minutes or so. So we get a healthy amount of discussion of albums up through "Love You", but then we simply get a quick mention of how awful "MIU" is, followed by a quick wrap-up.

The most interesting stories and anecdotes come from of course those who actually worked with Brian writing and recording. These folks are relatively frank about Brian's condition and the conditions within the group. But biographers Carlin and Priore also are used to good effect here, giving us the broad implications of what was going on with Brian and the group at this time, and summing up the general consensus of fans and critics to the degree that such a thing can be summed up.

Video Quality:

This program is presented in an anamorphically-enhanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The quality is as would be expected. The modern-day interviews look just fine for the most part, while various archival footage varies widely (a lot of re-used footage from "An American Band" and "Endless Harmony" can be seen).

Audio Quality:

Again, as would be expected, the audio is just fine in terms of the modern-day interviews. Nothing much else to report here. A solid stereo mix.


We get a three "featurettes" which are basically just excised scenes that could have easily made their way into the actual main program. Fred Vail discusses his odd unreleased Brian-helmed country album, and we also get a bit of additonal "musicology."

Beach Boys Opinion Page

A quick welcome to my blog/page, etc. I won't bore you with a huge list of things to come that may or may not actually come. This is a place to discuss the Beach Boys in all various forms and formats. Several years ago I kept a "Beach Boys Resource Page" on the interwebs (eventually renamed "Beach Boys Opinion Page") filled with news and reviews and whatnot. Hopefully I can rebuild something along those lines here, in a more daily/news type of format. Let me know what you think........