Carl Wilson – “Carl Wilson” (1981)

May 5, 2010 at 9:11 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, The Beach Boys)

Carl Wilson, the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, was, unquestionably, the best singer The Beach Boys had in their ranks – he possessed one of the most fragile, heartbreakingly beautiful voices in all of rock ‘n’ roll, especially when he sang falsetto. He could literally sing the phonebook and bring tears to your eyes. Simply put, the man sang, to quote an unreleased song of his, with “an angel’s voice.” Just one listen to songs like “God Only Knows” or “I Can Hear Music” bears this fact out. That he could also sing in a tougher, more masculine-sounding voice, like he does on 1967’s “Wild Honey,” and be just as convincing, showed just what an amazing vocal ability he truly possessed.

He also showed some of the songwriting genius of older brothers Brian, and to a lesser extent, Dennis, but he didn’t have the ambition that either one of them had. He did reveal a more experimental side with “Feel Flows” from the 1971 Surf’s Up album, and, of course, he co-wrote many other excellent songs for The Beach Boys, including “The Trader” and “Long Promised Road,” but his songs seemed to lack the ambitiousness of the songs Brian wrote for Pet Sounds and Smile, or even the type that Dennis wrote for his 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue. Perhaps it was the fact that he didn’t have the demons inside him that seemed to drive Brian to immortal status, and which sparked Dennis, intermittently, throughout his short, troubled life. Carl was always the most grounded of the three. He was also not nearly as prolific a songwriter as Brian. He did show amazing talent, though, especially for production, and he was the main driving force during the late-‘60s-early’70s era of The Beach Boys, as they moved on without the guiding light that Brian had been for them during their best days.

By the late ‘70s, though, the band had started on the long decline toward irrelevance and nostalgia-peddling that continues to this day. They also were not getting along, with the band divided evenly between the non-drug-taking, conservative members of the band (Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston), who wanted to simply please the crowds, and the drugged-out, ambitious Wilson brothers, who were still trying to keep the band relevant and creative. Perhaps due to Dennis’ increasing interest in starting a solo career, at the same time as his life was spinning inexorably out of control, and Brian’s continued mental issues and lack of interest writing for The Beach Boys, Carl was outnumbered. The conservative half of the band won out, and Carl, like his two brothers, lapsed into substance abuse as the decade grew to a close.

Carl eventually straightened himself out, unlike Dennis (Brian would eventually sort himself out as well, but that, of course, is a whole other story), and moved forward into the 1980s with renewed purpose. For a couple of years during the beginning of the decade Carl decided he had had enough of the constant bickering within the band and the unwillingness to expand creatively, and decided to try his hand at a solo career. Surprisingly, he chose to move in a more AOR (album-oriented rock) musical direction, and away from the sound of The Beach Boys. Then again, considering that this was the time when AOR ruled the airwaves, and assuming that he was simply trying to stake out a separate musical identity for himself, perhaps it’s not such a surprise that he would go this route. For the most part, it actually worked.

It would have been nice to have seen this become an opportunity for Carl to show that he was just as much of a songwriting and production genius as Brian was, and to unleash his own personal Pet Sounds or Smile, or to write more songs along the lines of “Feel Flows,” but it wasn’t to be, whether by choice or design. The resulting album, Carl Wilson, was what he chose to release to the public, and even though it might not be what fans were hoping for, and despite the fact that it fails to reveal much about the true nature of the artist, it’s still a commendable effort, and has aged much better than a lot of similar AOR-styled music from that time.

Some of the songs on the album reflect a much harder edged sound than we are used to hearing from Carl, or any member of The Beach Boys, for that matter. Carl stated around this time that he wanted to “rock out” and have some fun, and there is certainly a more guitar-heavy sound throughout, including guitar solos that wouldn’t have been out of place on an Eddie Money album. Still, it would have been better if he hadn’t gone for the somewhat stilted corporate rock sound that afflicted so much music of the time. Be glad, though, that the album wasn’t made later in the decade, or it probably would have had even less of an organic feel to it, and more of the sterile and overly slick production that has dated so much of the music that was released in the latter half of the ‘80s, including The Beach Boys’ 1985 self-titled comeback album. At least here, the production isn’t too much of a hindrance.

“Hold Me” gets the ball rolling in a very commercial vein, with a catchy chorus, and sung as a duet with Myrna Smith, a former Elvis Presley backup singer, who co-wrote all the songs on the album with Carl. It was the first single released off the album, and why it didn’t become a big hit might have to do with Carl’s lack of name recognition at the time. He wasn’t really known to the general public outside of The Beach Boys. People certainly knew his voice when they heard it, but didn’t always realize who the man was that was singing, and probably only knew his face from band photos.

The next song, “Bright Lights,” also could have been a hit, but was never released as a single. After that, there are a few generic songs that are redeemed mostly by Carl’s forceful singing.

The highlight of the album is “Heaven,” which might be one of the most beautiful songs he ever wrote. It’s a pretty, moving song, that in lesser hands, might have come across sappy, but which Carl handles with his usual expertise. It became an adult contemporary hit for him, and later was sung in concert, with The Beach Boys, as a tribute to Dennis, after his untimely passing. Another highlight is “Hurry Love,” the B-side to “Hold Me,” which features another beautiful vocal effort by Carl.

“The Grammy” sounds decent enough during the verses, but is let down by the background vocals and an undistinguished chorus. It ends without making much of an impression. “Seems So Long Ago” ends the album on a more positive note, despite threatening to cross over the line into schmaltz. The song, and the album, finish with a long sax solo, and Carl humming along.

Even though the album was a bit uneven in quality and style, it was still a solid first effort. The album didn’t establish Carl as a hit-making solo artist, though, and by the time he came out with his second effort, 1983’s Youngblood, Carl had returned to The Beach Boys where he remained until his death from cancer in 1998. Sadly, by the late ‘80s, he seemed to have stopped writing new songs, and settled into the nostalgia route that Mike Love steered the band on.

It’s a shame his solo albums didn’t sell more. If they had, he might have never returned to The Beach Boys, and perhaps would have continued growing as an artist. He never reached his full potential as an artist, just like Dennis, only for different reasons. Still, his passing was a definite loss to the music world, but thanks to his brilliant Beach Boys efforts, and the best songs from this unfortunately-out-of-print album, Carl Wilson will never be forgotten.

Jay Mucci

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