Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"The Warmth of the Sun" / The Beach Boys

It's frickin' cold outside right now, nasty scarf-hat-and-gloves weather, and all I can think about is getting warm. So tell me: Why does this ancient Beach Boys classic drive away the chill? Is it just the power of suggestion, the image of Southern California summers long gone by? Or is there something in those lush Wilson brother harmonies that actually radiates heat?

Every spring at college, on the first truly warm day, somebody would throw open her dorm windows and blast out vintage Beach Boys hits -- in the mid-70s, mind you, when those 60s songs about surfboards and hotrods seemed prehistoric. "Everybody's gone surfin' / Surfing USA" -- "Round round get around / I get around, yeah / Get around, oooh-oooh-oooh -- " suddenly you'd feel compelled to slip into shorts and pop open a beer and sprawl on the grass. It was officially SUMMER -- the Beach Boys had decreed it so.

I adore their racheted-up car songs, their chord modulations miraculously sounding just like a standard transmission shifting gears -- SoCal car culture was second nature to Brian Wilson, no matter if he had to fake it when it came to surfer culture (the adorable Dennis Wilson was apparently the only Beach Boy who actually surfed). But give me a choice and I'll always go with the Beach Boy ballads, particularly "Surfer Girl," the great agoraphobic anthem "In My Room," and "The Warmth of the Sun."

You can just hear Brian Wilson soothe his aching heart by diving deep into the textures of vocal harmonies. Even in 1964, this sounded retro, a throwback to the Four Freshmen or The Lettermen -- but Brian Wilson knew what he was doing. He was only a few steps away, in fact, from the bold new sound of "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."

This is the kind of slow song you only wanted to dance with the "right" person at your school dance -- the languid shifting rhythms, the plaintive melodic line, and those drawn-out vocal chords were just made for resting your head on a special somebody's shoulder. (I can smell the English Leather cologne even now.) Never mind that this is the story of a guy who's been abandoned -- "The love of my life, she left me one day / I cried when she said, 'I don't feel the same way'' -- he's still warmed within by the feeling of his love, and so long as he can dream of her he'll be all right.

It's a totally adolescent view of love, where the romantic ideal is more important than the actual relationship, but since when did we look to Brian Wilson to be our relationship guru? What matter is those slightly nasal yearning "aaahhs" and "ooohs" melting in and out, and Brian's echo-chambered falsetto soaring over the muted guitar strum, brushes on the drums, and the occasional metallic zither pling. It's all texture, melody, and modulation, and even this early in Brian Wilson's songwriting career he instinctively knew how to pull it off.

So what if it's a "sad" song? Adolescents like sad songs. And just as the dream of his love keeps the singer warm, so the beauty of this song makes the storyline irrelevant. The key is major, the chords all get resolved, and the notes keep climbing upward. This is the song of a fantasist -- but a survivor. Carl and Dennis Wilson are dead now, and Mike Love looks faintly ridiculous as he still tries to tach it up with a new incarnation of the Beach Boys. But Brian, crazy old Brian, somehow has survived and is hailed as a genius everywhere he goes. And rightly so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You sum up this tune well. This tune warms my soul too - and Brian's tapping into that place that eventually brought "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" into the picture. I hadn't heard any of the aforementioned releases till about 5 years ago. Including "Warmth", it IS the romantic idea that gets him through. Just look a warm song on a cold day I guess?

I have no idea where Brian comes up with these melodies like "Warmth"? It takes a few listens to get it, like the "Pet Sounds" record. But after a few listens, it's obvious Brian IS a genius writer, singer arranger that will live on as long as pop music does!