They’re trying. We’ll give them that much. This was not a band that was prepared for the seventies. Their leader had succumbed to drug-addled insanity, their sound was dated, and one of their members was Mike Love. The Beach Boys were like a cheesebox – square. After several awkward attempts at recapturing the sixties chart topping magic (“Do It Again” which might as well be subtitled “Please Start Buying Our Records Again, For Crissake We’ve Got Mortgages And Gurus And Stuff”), the stalwart Carl Wilson assumed some control of the band’s sound to steer the band in a slightly more modern soft rock/white funk direction. They even took the brave step of adding Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar of The Flame to the core group for the previous album, Carl and The Passions – “So Tough.” That one was a desultory, mediocre affair, with an occasionally interesting overall sound let down by poor songwriting. Holland is more successful. It’s just mediocre.
This is a hazy, spacey sort of record, as it should be. Look at the cover, consider where it was recorded. While it may not be King Crimson, it is the most progressive they’ve ever sounded on record: there’s even a moog solo on “Leaving This Town.” There’s a cohesive overall sound to the album that is quite forgiving to some of the lesser material, with strong bass playing from Chaplin and a relaxed, loose sort of chemistry to the mix. But this is definitely lesser material: “Steamboat” wafts along over a two chord vamp that still manages to conjure an appropriately laconic vibe that fits the song and album as a whole. Similarly “Sail On Sailor,” a community re-write of Brian’s tune, rides along the nautical theme and manages the closest this album came to a hit song. Was Mike Love’s “California Saga” (in three parts) a hit? No, most certainly not. That little monstrosity actually seems like it would be worse than it is – yes, there are spoken word poetry sections and freeform jazz flute in Part Two. But it sort of works, along with Part One’s inoffensive bouncy waltz melody. Of course, Part Three has to drag the sound back to that faux “California Girls” style that the boys have been imitating ever since. In fact, the song uses the exact same bassline. It’s the only moment on the album that sounds like retreading of the same old waters.
I like “The Trader” a lot, a funky little Carl track that subtly indicts the colonial “discoveries” of the Americas. This is just the sort of sound the boys were probably reaching for in this period, a slightly adventurous corner of the seventies soft rock market. Unfortunately, the varying talents and visions of the group were too much at odds. They tried to pull it off on Holland but were ultimately unsuccessful; the album did not sell well, and their next was an abhorrent return to oldies retreads and simplistic “original” material (15 Big Ones).
Brian’s contribution to this period is actually a bit sad. “Mt Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale)” was issued as a bonus EP. It’s a multi-part little suite narrated with icky sincerity by Jack Rieley. It’s essentially a children’s tale about a magic transistor radio and it’s full of sound effects and half-formed song ideas. It’s the kind of thing the Flaming Lips would release in some limited edition, gummy box or something. The snatches of actual music in between the interminable sections of narration and bizarre voices are sort of interesting but this is a truly unlistenable mess of wacky self-indulgence.
I would actually be interested in some sort of re-release of this Holland material – throw in some outtakes and the full “Mt Vernon” tracks without the narration, and perhaps this era would be worthy of a reevaluation. It’s a good record, unique in the Beach Boys canon for its sound and modest artistic success without Brian’s input.