The Deep Racks Report: “Carl and the Passions – ‘So Tough'”

By Chris Moore:

I think we’ve all heard the term “deep track,” used to refer to songs that do not receive much (or any) commercial radio airplay.  This series is dedicated to brief but focused reports on ALBUMS that do not receive as much commercial or critical attention as they should.

Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” by the Beach Boys

After a series of unfortunate career moves in the late sixties, not the least of which involved Brian’s last-minute withdrawal from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and the release of Smiley Smile in lieu of SMiLE, the Beach Boys’ reputation — particularly in the rock press — was lackluster at best.  By the early seventies, the band was experimenting with new sounds and recording what are arguably among the best albums of their career.

Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” arrived just as their re-established stardom was fading again.

While some may argue that the album is more a compilation of songs from four different, disconnected sets of writers, the end result must be weighed without placing too much emphasis on the drama that surrounded the sessions.  And there was certainly no shortage of drama.  During the sessions for Carl and the Passions, Brian Wilson drew further away from his brothers and the band, disappointing record executives and fans alike.  Dennis Wilson put his hand through a window and was unable to play drums either in the studio or in concert.  And, to top it off, Bruce Johnston had a falling out with Beach Boys collaborator Jack Rieley and subsequently left — either of his own free will or after being fired.

For any fan of the band, the history surrounding these sessions can only serve to affect one’s expectations of the album itself.

And that simply isn’t fair.

Granted, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” may not be a masterpiece like Pet Sounds and Sunflower were (even though it was packaged with Pet Sounds, further increasing the probability that it would pale in comparison).  Yet, from the first piano notes of “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” to the final fadeout of Wilson’s tremendously moving “Cuddle Up,” Carl and the Passions makes good on all that could ever be hoped for on any Beach Boys album — namely, by delivering superb vocals,  fantastic instrumental arrangements, and a combination of upbeat tracks and more introspective ballads.

There is something intriguing about seeing the band fight to hold its own and truly redefine itself without Brian Wilson at the helm.  In a sense, they went back to the drawing board, inviting new members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar to join the band, naming the album after an early incarnation of the Beach Boys that performed at a Hawthorne High School talent show, and returning if only momentarily to the endearing directness of their early liner notes with the inclusion of “Thanks to Alan’s Mom for renting the Bass Fiddle on the first session.”

“You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” is a great opening track, offering an interesting groove and somehow straddling the line between raw and perfectly honed.  “Here She Comes” boasts catchy bass and piano parts and properly introduces the influences of Fataar and Chaplin.  In their book Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: The Complete Guide to their Music, Andrew G. Doe and John Tobler label this song as well as Fataar and Chaplin’s previous band and self-titled effort The Flame as “boring, overlong, and self-indulgent.”  Why they make this assessment, I cannot justify.

Look for a “Deep Racks Report” on The Flame in the not-so-distant future…

“He Come Down” is gospel rock that borders on the cheesy, but is still fun and convincingly felt.  Still, it is all but forgotten by the time track four kicks off.  “Marcella” is certainly a standout here and continues to prove why the powers-that-be were at least somewhat justified in endlessly seeking after new material from Brian Wilson.

“Hold on Dear Brother” and “Make it Good” are solid, enjoyable tracks, if perhaps overshadowed by the other Fataar/Chaplin and Wilson/Dragon tracks (respectively) also on this album.

“All This is That” is another perfectly rendered performance on the album, taking Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and adding a pleasant transcendental twist in a manner that only the Beach Boys ever could.

“Cuddle Up” is easily one of the great Dennis Wilson tracks of all time.  Its simple, beautiful lyrics are delivered in this heartbreaking vocal performance with haunting yet pretty background vocals, always knowing when to build up and when to back off, fading out the album on a subdued orchestral note.

At the end of the day, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” is an essential Beach Boys album for any fan who acknowledges their presence post-1966.  And if you’re a rock music enthusiast that doesn’t own a seventies Beach Boys album, then by all means go out and get Sunflower.

If you like that one, then you’d be missing out if you didn’t pick up Carl and the Passions, too!