The vaults have been emptied for Capitol’s oft-rumored Feel Flows box set: the Sunflower and Surf’s Up sessions. While the previous archival project’s sets were impressive, this is the mother lode. A sprawling collection including 100+ previously unreleased cuts, the scattered formula rounds up unreleased tracks, alternative endings, studio highlights (instrumental and a capella vocal takes), live recordings, and fresh outtakes.
A transformative era, 1969-1971 found the band amidst an identity crisis. Along with Brian Wilson beginning to retreat creatively, the group was juggling a lack of chart success along with an outdated public image, with 1971’s Surf’s Up serving as the culmination of an intentional rebranding strategy. Ushered in by new manager Jack Rieley, the band cultivated a hip new image in line with the topical counterculture of the zeitgeist. Ditching striped shirts and formulaic sets, they were soon reinventing their live prowess with appearances at gigs like the Big Sur Folk Festival, and even co-headlining a Fillmore East gig with the Grateful Dead. Catch a glimpse of this era’s revamped energy on the box’s inclusion of the live Carl Wilson standout “Long Promised Road”.
Included among the set’s unreleased material are tracks from the previously surfaced “Landlocked” bootleg (the title a deliberate shift away from the early years). Essentially a prototype demo album, memorable songs include many that appeared on later compilations. Here we get the earliest versions of Dennis Wilson gem “Lady” (and accompanying b-side) and the catchy earworm “Loop De Loop”. Another is Mike Love’s original, 4/4 composition of “Big Sur,” several years prior to the finalized version later surfacing as part of the three-part California suite on Holland.
After being dropped by Capitol, the refreshed sounding Sunflower painted a broad artistic statement. A stark contrast from its follow up in theme, it’s a gorgeous record brimming with lush production and optimistic, cheerful ballads such as the hazy “All I Wanna Do” (and a few of its major highlights showcased the emergent songwriting of Dennis). “This Whole World”, meanwhile, was perhaps the last and most understated pocket symphony written by Brian Wilson, staggeringly pieced into a track under two minutes. Perhaps the most evident precursor to Surf’s Up is the rolling closer “Cool, Cool Water”, a reworked track dating back to the SMiLE sessions.
The Surf’s Up session material is noteworthy for the isolated vocal tracks of “‘Til I Die”, and the classic title track. Brimming with lavish artistic heights, the record was triumphant in changing the band’s fading public perception. With Rieley himself a primary lyrical collaborator, the content took a sharp left turn: overriding, mature themes of ecology, water pollution and environmental awareness. If Sunflower was triumphant in heralding Dennis’s emergence as a contributor, Surf’s Up was Carl’s. As the de facto bandleader throughout the next several years, Carl produced stunning, spiritually sophisticated tracks such as “Long Promised Road” and the evocative, Moog-laced “Feel Flows”, the box set’s namesake. Whether taken in as a fresh introduction to the band’s peak seventies output, or experienced as the sum of its parts for loyalists, this set will not disappoint. | m neeley