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'Feel Flows' captures the Beach Boys at the peak of their artistry


This is FRESH AIR. By the end of the 1960s, The Beach Boys had come to a crossroads. Their early, lightweight surf music hits were behind them, and Brian Wilson's more ambitious compositions were being met with a lukewarm commercial response. Then, in 1970 and '71, the Beach Boys released the albums "Sunflower" and "Surf's Up" back to back, two albums that rock critic Ken Tucker says represent the Beach Boys at the peak of their artistry. A new five-disc collection called "Feel Flows" includes reissues of those two albums as well as 108 previously unreleased tracks. Here's Ken's review.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) This Sunday morning gospel goes good with a song. There's blues, folk and country and rock like a rolling stone. The world could come together as one if everybody under the sun add some music to your day. You'll hear it...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: This new release covers my favorite period of the Beach Boys, a time when the group had moved beyond its surf music pop hits, when Brian Wilson, an undeniable genius, the center of Beach Boy gravity, but also its most unstable force, was still active enough to be trying for mainstream success. But 1970's "Sunflower" was also a time when The Beach Boys truly became a band. Each member - brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston - was called upon to contribute more than he ever had, not just the gorgeous harmonies, but also lyrics, riffs and concepts that could further their goal of being both popular and respected.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I'm thinking about this whole world. Lat at night, I think about the love of this whole world. Lots of different people everywhere. And when I go anywhere, I see love. I see love. I see love.

TUCKER: Every member produced at least one track on "Sunflower," making it unique in the group's history. The result was the best music ever made, for example, by drummer Dennis Wilson, whose "It's About Time" is a remarkable comment on creative frustration and breakthrough taken at a harder pace than The Beach Boys had ever attempted.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I used to be a famous artist, proud as I could be, struggling to express myself for the whole world to see. I used to blow my mind sky high searching for the lost elation. Little did I know the joy I was to find in knowing I am only me. I'm singing in my heart. I'm singing in my heart. I'm singing, love to sing. I love to sing it from my heart. Of the creation, yeah.

TUCKER: That track was written by Dennis, but its lead vocal was from brother Carl. And by all accounts, it was Carl who was the glue holding things together during this period. Carl, who died in 1998, played lead guitar and led the band on stage and was often the group's most impassioned voice.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) So hard to answer future's riddle when ahead if seeming so far behind. So hard to laugh a child-like giggle when the tears start to torture my mind. So hard to shed the life of before, to let my soul automatically soar. But I hit hard at the battle that's confronting me, yeah. Knock down all the roadblocks stumbling me. Throw of all the shackles that are binding me down.

TUCKER: The Beach Boys next album, "Surf's Up," was built around its title track, a four-minutes-plus opus whose stately pace announced a new self-seriousness. Its cryptic lyrics, written by Van Dyke Parks, made sure you would not mistake it for just another "Surfin' Safari." The pretensions of the "Surf's Up" album matched the mood of the record-buying public in 1971. "Surf's Up" sold much better than "Sunflower" and was more widely praised - over-praised. You can hear Mike Love introduce "Surf's Up" in this 1973 concert version, telling the crowd that the then-famous classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein had praised the song. It's a naked plea for admiration at a time when pop art still looked to high art for cultural validation.


MIKE LOVE: In case anybody's interested, this song was written by Brian Wilson and his friend Van Dyke Parks. And Brian played it once on a TV show on a Leonard Bernstein special. And Leonard Bernstein said that it was one of the best songs ever to come out of rock music. So cousin Carl here is going to sing the song that Brian and Van Dyke wrote called "Surf's Up."

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) A diamond necklace played the pawn. Hand in hand, some drummed along to a handsome mannered baton. A blind class aristocracy. Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn. Columnated ruins domino. Canvas the town and brush the backdrop. Are you sleeping?

TUCKER: Where "Sunflower" was still reaching out to its audience, the "Surf's Up" album documented a process of withdrawal from the center of pop music. Brian Wilson in particular, struggling with his mental and physical health, would remove himself not just from the fans, but from his brothers and bandmates as well. After these two albums, the narrative of The Beach Boys twists and distorts and shatters. Mike Love becomes the leader of what is essentially an oldies act, and the studio recordings vary wildly in quality. Looking back now, this was the last time The Beach Boys were men united in a common goal of capturing the sound of pure pleasure.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new Beach Boys collection called "Feel Flows." Tomorrow, on FRESH AIR, we'll hear a dramatic account of the 1971 prison uprising in Attica, N.Y., which ended with a bloody assault. Law enforcement gunfire killed 39 prisoners and hostages. We'll speak with Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica during the uprising, and Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary "Attica." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.