Some albums are well regarded when they are released. They sell well, they get critical acclaim, and can define the sound of a generation. Then there are the albums that do one or the other. You can have bad albums that sell well, or you can have good albums that don’t get bought, but are beloved by artists, the press, and the upper echelon of the musical world. This is one of the latter. This is Holland.
The Beach Boys of the 1970’s were not the same band as they were in the 1960’s. The once fresh faced, teeny bopper, prep school image was gone. This band was more mature, having grown a beard (figuratively and literally), and largely escaped that stereotype of surfing and cars and puppy love. We covered part of that change in my Surf’s Up reconstruction. In short, Jack Rieley became the band’s manager, remade the band’s image, and got the other members to be more confident in writing their own material, particularly Carl Wilson. The Beach Boys, between 1970-1973 in particular, is a soft rock, progressive pop group.
The Beach Boys released Holland in 1973, and is something of an oddity in their catalogue. It comes from a time when the band were not connecting with audiences like they had in the 1960’s. And it also comes from a time where Brian Wilson was creatively meandering, and his brother Carl was in charge of things. The second of two studio albums with a band line up that is often forgotten, but probably one of the best from a musical standpoint. You had Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and Al Jardine, of course. Bruce Johnston was out of the band, due to disagreements with management. In his place were South Africans Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, of The Flames.
With this context, you can now see how this album may be different to what you may expect from a band like The Beach Boys. They’re mature, and they’re less reliant on their past glories. Holland is the zenith of that evolution, and unfortunately, its last major fruit.
Holland- An Overview
|Tracks||9 (not including Mt. Vernon and Fairway)|
|Running Time||36 Minutes|
|Best||The Trader, California Saga (California), Leaving This Town, Funky Pretty|
|Must Listen||Mt. Vernon and Fairway, Sail on Sailor, Leaving this Town, California Saga|
Track One- Sail On Sailor
To really epitomise how different this album is to past Beach Boys’ canon, this is one of only two of Brian Wilson’s songs on the album proper. Its co-written by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the SMiLE project with Brian. For a song that was a late addition to the album, due to the need for a single, its surprisingly good. It is a solid rock song, with some excellent singing by Blondie Chaplin. Its almost Stevie Wonder-like, in a way. However, the group’s patented harmonies give it that Beach Boys identity.
It is also an example of how the artist expresses himself. It has been long written about that Brian Wilson was not well at this point. Drinking, drugs, and poor mental health really hurt this guy. A song like ‘Sail on Sailor’ is like a sort of self motivation. You go through bad times, but you get through them. And in a way, I find that to be quite inspiring.
Track Two- Steamboat
What you come to find with Holland is that it is pretty much a band effort. It isn’t dominated by one member, and all the songs do still come together. In Beach Boys canon, this is rare. Steamboat is one of Dennis Wilson’s compositions, with vocals by Carl Wilson. I am not a big fan of Steamboat. I feel it meanders in places, and largely doesn’t go anywhere. It has a great guitar solo in the middle, and it is a good slow piece to follow ‘Sail on Sailor’. Not a lot I can add here, except it isn’t my favourite.
Tracks Three, Four, and Five- California Saga
This one really is the centerpiece of Holland, as an album. Side One of Holland ends with a suite of songs that glamourise, almost fetishise, the natural landscapes of California. Sharing duties on this suite are Al Jardine and Mike Love, who deliver their best here. Say what you want about Mike Love, but the man does have a way with words, and can sing well. Big Sur puts that into full view. It is one of a very few songs that he wrote on his own too, and its good. The country and western style really works. The instrumentation, including guitars and harmonica, give the song a campfire feel, with some beautiful lyrics.
The piece segues into ‘The Beaks of Eagles’. Things get a little heavy here, and somewhat ponderous, with spoken word narrative about an old eagle who has survived…man? It is a bit weird, but Al Jardine’s singing helps here. The middle portion is atmospheric, with some great instrumentation. Just not great lyrics.
Fortunately, it all comes together again with the song ‘California’. Sometimes titled ‘I’m on my way to Sunny Cal-i-for-nia’. This upbeat closer to side one features all of the classic Beach Boys singing harmonies, and a bassline that quotes California Girls. The instrumental tracks with banjo, pedal steel and harmonica following the loping bass figure continue the country theme of this suite.
As a whole, California Saga is a great suite. It is a 10 minute soundscape that has beauty, charm, and class.
Track Six- The Trader
Hi. Side Two’s opener ‘The Trader’ is a Carl Wilson song. And it is, again, Carl Wilson at his best. His softly powerful voice drives this song, and elevates it to being one of the best cuts on the album. With a theme of mercantilism, the appropriation of America by Europeans, and the plight of Native Americans, its not ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’. It really is a good shorthand for what The Beach Boys were, as a band, by 1973. Its a damn good song, which is a great prog piece for people who like that.
Track Seven- Leaving This Town
Oh boy, this song is the standout of this entire album. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar’s best Beach Boys song, and one of my favourite Beach Boys songs. This would be the highlight of any lesser band, probably even a live favourite. Chaplin’s vocals are absolutely outstanding, and the lengthy moog interlude does not overstay its welcome for me. With a rich group harmony, a soaring lead vocal, and the magical synth solo, this song is one of The Beach Boys’ best.
Track Eight- Only With You
The second Dennis Wilson song on Holland, again with Carl Wilson’s singing. And I really like it, I like it more than Steamboat. Dennis Wilson’s Beach Boys compositions tend to be love ballads. His most well known song, ‘Forever’, being the most obvious. I suppose then that him not singing the lead vocal is a way of trying to obfuscate that fact from listeners. Dennis could have sung lead, but Carl’s vulnerable delivery of the vocals make this ballad. It does foreshadow the songs that would eventually be on Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis Wilson’s solo record, and would have fit well on there. I really like this one, its short and its sweet, but largely inessential. Not one I’d listen to repeatedly.
Track Nine- Funky Pretty
The closer of the album proper is really good. An astrologically themed love song about a pieces lady, written by Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley. Members of the band take turns singing this one: namely Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, and Mike Love. Chaplin’s refrain at the end of the song: ‘FUNKY, I STILL REMEMBER FUNKY PRETTY’ is a perfect way to close this song. Though a seemingly simplistically composed song, the harmonies, and delivery of the material makes it one of the most interesting and eccentric entries into the oeuvre of The Beach Boys.
Bonus EP: Mt. Vernon and Fairway
Although now included as tracks on the album proper, Mt. Vernon and Fairway is actually a separate EP. I am not including it in my review of Holland, as it isn’t part of the album. However, it is Brian Wilson’s major contribution to the Holland project, and it was relegated to an EP. And probably for good reason. Mt. Vernon and Fairway is part-audio book for kids, part-experimental music, part-outsider art, part-synthpop. It doesn’t really have songs, but has musical fragments, bridged with narration by Jack Rieley, and the grainy voiced Brian Wilson as ‘The Pied Piper from the faraway land of night’.
The premise is that a young prince finds a transistor radio, that is home to a magical creature. The creature play divine music (The Beach Boys), before the parents take the radio away, never to be heard again. It is baffling. The musical fragments should have been fully realised songs, as they are genuinely good. I really like it, as it goes, but you may be less forgiving. Certainly the other Beach Boys were.
Arguably the most consistent 70’s Beach Boys album, bar Sunflower, it is certainly one of the band’s best. Everyone’s contributions were well made, and made for above average to downright great songs. Holland proper is a fantastic album. The vocals are strong, the music is beautiful, and in spite of its diversity, I think it comes together as a great package. While you cannot separate it from the EP nowadays, if you separate them, you get a great album, and a bizarrely endearing experimental EP. I really like this package, and you may too.
Following this album, however, the band would lose Chaplin and Fataar, and the surprise hit of the Endless Summer compilation basically turned The Beach Boys into a lazy nostalgia act. Brian Wilson would come back, as a full time member of the band, as the group evolved from a soft rock outfit of the early 70’s, to the mixed bag of weird, wonderful, and woeful material they’d pump out in the later 70’s.