By the late '60s, the once chart-topping Beach Boys' popularity had waned to the point that one of the working titles for Sunflower, their 16th studio album, was The Fading Rock Group Revival. Though still evolving musically and trying to fit in with the quickly changing youth culture, the band seemed tame and outdated when compared to the wild and forceful sounds emerging from increasingly popular acts like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Though the late '60s and early '70s brought the Beach Boys disappointing record sales, undersold tours, and a steep decline in commercial success, this era also saw the group producing some of their most intriguing and creatively free material, and working more as a collective than primarily as a vehicle for Brian Wilson's songwriting. Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf's Up Sessions 1969-1971 continues the impressive archival digging of releases like Wake the World: The Friends Sessions and I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions, offering up fresh remasters of the original albums Sunflower (1970) and Surf's Up (1971) as well as excavating the vaults for dozens of previously unreleased outtakes, alternate mixes, and other ephemeral tracks from the time the records were being made.
It's hard to turn up true rarities for a band as well-documented (and bootlegged) as the Beach Boys, but there are several striking standouts on Feel Flows that complement the important place the original albums held in the group's legacy. Surf's Up outtakes like the gentle "Big Sur" and the moody acoustic guitars and organ stabs of "Sweet and Bitter" are emblematic of the tender but melancholy atmospheres the album captured. The extended alternate mix of Sunflower highlight "This Whole World" is an interesting counterpoint to the original mix, and the amazing chillwave/dream pop-predicting "All I Wanna Do" is fully deconstructed with instrumental backing tracks from the original sessions as well as a vocals-only mix. Both albums get the full behind-the-scenes treatment with recording session footage and a cappella mixes, and there are even a few short radio spots made for the records at the time of their release. Far less essential are live renditions of songs from both LPs (some of which were recorded in the '80s and '90s), but overlooking these potentially distracting inclusions, Feel Flows offers a widened perspective of where the Beach Boys were while making these albums. Most casual listeners will be daunted by the depths to which the massive set travels, but it's must-hear material for the committed and the fascinated. Feel Flows moves the microscope over to one of the group's more interesting and quietly transformative phases, a curious time when their hopes to remain culturally relevant lived alongside some of their most inspired songwriting moments, and an earnest desire to grow artistically.