Review Summary: No dirty little secret, but a dusty one nonetheless
There are few Beach Boys fans who make it this far in the discography. Most stop at Pet Sounds and call it a day. Many keep going, stopping at Surf’s up, or skip this album completely and go on to Holland and Love You. And then there are the true Beach Boys obsessees who understand what a shame it is to skip this little known (or played) LP “Carl and the Passions – So Tough!” So underrated is this LP, that even the band themselves deferred placing the beach boys name on the cover till much later, so at its release, the listed artist was the name of Carl’s high school rock band, the Passions. It was much later before the words “Beach Boys” were stenciled on the covers of new prints. Even so, the album is understated and lowkey, despite its rather full production. Its relative obscurity is frustrating as it cannot be understood fully without the context in which it was birthed.
In 1972, the Beach Boys were in shambles, falling apart at the seams, striving their hardest to become the pop titans they were 6 years prior once more. Bruce left in anger, and Brian was barely functioning as a songwriter, let alone as a touring musician. To fill the gaps in the lineup, Carl brought a couple of friends from South African band the Flames (the only other band other than the Beach Boys to be signed on their in-house label, Brother records). Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin were both skilled in a variety of instruments, and they proved vital to keeping the band together, both live and in the studio. Their debut on this album shows this, as this album is probably one of the band's most consistent efforts overall.
As for the music itself, it’s surprisingly well sequenced, varied, and cohesive. “So Tough” provides a completely solid listening experience all the way through, even though opener “You Need A Mess of Help To Stand Alone” is a bit of a, well, a mess. Even so, the song itself is solid, it just takes some digging first. The rest of the material here though, is fortunately and surprisingly top notch as well, with “All This is That”, “Here She Comes”, and Hold On Dear Brother” being the best songs on the short tracklist. Lesser songs such as “He Come Down” and “Marcella” suffer mostly because of poor lyrical choices, but those annoyances are easily overlooked because the music itself is great
Dennis’ contributions, the two ballads at the end of the album, must be made note of. They are two of his finest moments in his whole musical career. The heavenly bliss of both “Make it Good” and “Cuddle up” is nearly heartstopping. Both songs have an impeccable use of pure strings and piano paired with the Dennis’ thrashed, gravelly croon, giving what would be saccharine ballads the extra oomph needed to make them truly special. So precious and emotionally baring are these two songs that it feels a crime to share it with others. They are that personal.
The greatest hindrances this album faced were the name that didn’t reflect the material, and the strange choice of packaging “Pet Sounds” as a ‘bonus’ LP to go along with it. As a result, it has squandered for 40 years in obscurity, and probably will continue to do so into the future. This is a shame, because the music on here definitely deserves to see more love and recognition, especially Dennis’ contributions. This obscurity though, makes it all the more special for me, as it now feels like my secret, and that this album feels more fully “mine” that it would have otherwise.