Review Summary: A sweet album, focusing more on blissful relaxation than the excited melodrama of the past
If an album cover has ever perfectly represented the music it held inside, it is the cover for 'Friends' by the Beach Boys. The cloudy, sparse background and the brightly coloured palette reflects the album's work well. Of course by 1968, the Beach Boys main creative force Brian Wilson was anything but tranquil, but the band soldiered on, working more as a group to write their material.
Many of the songs here use stark minimalist production, this is most notable on the opener 'Meant For You' and Dennis Wilson's 'Be Still'. Although the latter is too undeveloped, sounding more like a meditation chant than a written piece of music. Indeed, a few songs here sound unfinished, most unfortunately the lovely 'Wake The World', which cries out for embellishment but clocks in at only 1.28. Brian's instrumental 'Passing By' could arguably use some lyrics to flesh out the lovely melody, but the relaxed ahh's add to its ethereal quality. However it is worth noting the harmonies don't feel as tightly practiced as in earlier Beach Boys work. It is fairly common to hear them being sung slightly out of time, and they don't sound quite as angelic as when Brian lead the band. However, if anything this only helps to emphasize the carefree sound the band were clearly going for.
Whilst the album may be intentionally subdued, there are interesting uses of instruments throughout. Both 'Wake The World' and the highlight 'Little Bird' make deceivingly clever and pleasant usage of strings that help emphasize the fragile tone of the album. Mike Love's horn section lead 'Transcendental Meditation' (a track despised by a good percentage of Beach Boys fans) has an interesting drone quality, though it at first sounds out of place and ugly. And the penultimate track 'Diamond Head' is a sweet divergence into Hawaiian tinged psychedelia, reminding you of the era the album came from.
Some of the cheesier lyrics can show their age at times, especially in songs like the title track and the uncomfortably cutesy 'When a Man Needs a Woman' ('And someday I'll put my son on my knee/And his little eyes will be looking at me'). Its often easy to see why many people regard the Beach Boys as 'un-hip'. Despite this, a few of the song's have a spiritual quality thanks to Mike Love's appreciation for transcendental meditation, and the album generally does a good job of matching the music's laid back tone well, for instance 'Little Bird' ('Little bird up in a tree/Looked down a sang a song to me').
'Friends' is a further sonic distancing from lushly orchestrated Beach Boy classics of the past (do I really need to say which album I'm referencing here?). Its minimalist but pleasant atmosphere contains no crashing dynamics or heartbreak-inspired melodrama, but instead focuses on pursuing a sonic sate of pure bliss and relaxation. Its an easy album to listen to and is a pleasant, if not stellar, entry in the Beach Boys back catalogue.