Of all the Beach Boys, few have received as much attention over the years as Brian Wilson, which is somewhat understandable, considering his role in writing what many consider to be one of the greatest albums of all time—Pet Sounds. Next to Brian, however, the Beach Boy to whom the most attention has been directed, albeit negatively, is Mike Love, who grew increasingly hostile toward Wilson, and to whom some hold responsible for Smile being shelved. Yet the three remaining Beach Boys—Al Jardine and Carl and Dennis Wilson—have been denied some much-deserved kudos over the years. Jardine’s vocal harmonies were exquisite, and his lead roles on “Help Me Rhonda” and “I Know There’s An Answer” (co-lead vocals) are essential listening, while Carl’s vocals are front and center in “God Only Knows,” which some consider to be the group’s best song, not to mention “Good Vibrations,” and the vast array of production work he contributed to the (underrated) Beach Boys ’70s output.
Dennis Wilson, however, was The Beach Boys’ drummer and the one member of the band who actually surfed, though his role within the band was never as prominent, vocally. Curiously enough, Dennis was the first Beach Boy to release a solo album, that being 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue. And, less curiously given the relative scarcity of solo Beach Boy albums overall, it is also widely considered to the best of the batch.
On its 31st anniversary, Pacific Ocean Blue is given an expansive reissue from Legacy, expanding its original 12 tracks to an impressive 33. Among the extra material is an entire album—the until now unreleased Bambu—four non-album tracks and “Holy Man,” with vocals from Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins. Pretty spectacular stuff here, and even more so, given the deluxe artwork, liner notes and photography.
Revisiting the classic 12-track album, it’s more than fitting to deem Pacific Ocean Blue a classic. Wilson’s style is certainly informed by his time with The Beach Boys, and the album celebrates oceanic imagery throughout. Yet Wilson’s voice is more weathered and rugged than his brothers, and his songs are big and indulgent, most definitely a product of the ’70s Laurel Canyon sound, while remaining timeless in its beauty. “River Song” is triumphant in its gospel tones, while “What’s Wrong” recalls Harry Nilsson’s warm, lagered-up pop. “Friday Night” struts with a deep, piano-clanging funk, making it a standout for its heavy groove. “Dreamer,” likewise, has a soulful, funky swagger, and “You And I” has a rich ethereality to it. Absolutely gorgeous.
The unreleased Caribou Sessions, or Bambu, are likewise a treat, and all the more exciting for their obscurity (what is it with lost Wilson albums?). “Under The Moonlight” again recalls Nilsson, for its rolling good times, and “It’s Not Too Late” is soft and soulful with warm organ tones. “School Girl” rocks and sways with effects-laden cool, while “Common” rolls with a heavily ringing piano and steady snares. While this set of recordings comprises what could have eventually become a proper album, these are far from demos. In fact, the studio recordings are as impeccable as those on Pacific. And while I was expecting Taylor Hawkins’ version of “Holy Man” to be abysmal, it’s not half bad. Not the least bit essential, mind you, but not bad.
While Dennis Wilson left the world too soon, having drowned at the age of 39 in 1983, he leaves a hell of a legacy with Pacific Ocean Blue, and for that matter, Bambu as well. Pacific Ocean Blue is a breathtaking and awe-inspiring album, not just the best of the solo Beach Boy discs, but competitive with the best of the Beach Boys’ albums as well.
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.