The Beach Boys changed direction in 1969 with the release of Friends. The pop brilliance of Pet Sounds, the psychedelic flavor of Smiley Smile and the soul inflections of Wild Honey were all discarded by the Beach Boys in favor of the mellow and laid back sounds of Friends. While Friends does not contain the brilliant highs of the three aforementioned albums, it does have a pleasant quality and just passes by like a gently flowing stream.
In many ways Friends was out of place upon its release in 1968. The Vietnam War was raging, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King have been assassinated, the hippie movement was alive and well, and Jimi Hendrix was changing the musical landscape. It was against this background that the tranquil Friends was released and as could be expected it encountered little commercial success.
I wrote in another review that Wild Honey was more interesting than listenable. Friends, on the other hand, is more listenable than interesting. The Beach Boys take few chances which is fine given their releases of the past few years. Friends provided a nice counterpoint to the world swirling around the group.
Friends marks the album where Dennis Wilson stepped out from behind his drum set. He co-authored and sang lead on “Be Still” and “Little Bird.” “Be Still” is a simple song but Dennis Wilson delivers a great vocal. “Little Bird” has the feel of a classic Beach Boys song. Dennis Wilson’s voice moves against traditional Beach Boys harmonies. These songs show how important Dennis Wilson’s clear and plaintive voice were to the vocal unity of the group. I have always thought that when the Beach Boys were having problems in the late 1970’s they should have re-grouped around Dennis Wilson’s voice. While that did not happen, his occasional vocal and creative contributions were always welcome.
The title song, “Friends,” is a full blown Brian Wilson production and regrettably a single that did not reach the Top 40. The words we’ve been friends for so many years, through the good times and bad, may not have been aimed at their fans but would have fit. “Friends” contain an odd beat for Carl Wilson’s lead vocal. Brian’s voice joins Carl’s about half way into the song. The uses of intermittent harmonies fill the spaces in the songs structure.
“When A Man Loves A Woman” contains a bubbly organ at its foundation. The vocal by Brian is excellent but the song peters out near the end and has an unfinished feeling. Brian Wilson’s “Passing By” contains harmonies without words. The wonderful textures of the group’s voices just float about simple instrumentation. Brian Wilson also wrote and sang lead on the sparse “Busy Doing Nothing.” The title of this song describes its basic theme. Brian Wilson, without backing, basically sings about a day in his life at the time.
“Anna Lee, The Healer,” co-written by Brian and Mike, with lead vocals by Mike, is a song about a masseuse (I hope) who reduces a persons stress. Musically this song has a creative musical structure as it substituted harmony in place of many instruments.
The instrumental “Diamond Head” may be the most sophisticated song on Friends. Reminiscent of the sounds and textures of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson creates a virtual symphony through the use of various instruments. A very creative guitar bridge at the center of the song connects two separate thoughts that are molded into a whole.
All in all, Friends, is ultimately satisfying in its own way. It is an album that should be listened to with your feet up and a glass of wine in hand.