Little Deuce Coupe shouldn’t be as good as it actu­ally is.  For starters it was rushed out by Capitol Records a mere three weeks after Surfer Girl.  That’s a reflec­tion of how record com­pa­nies expected their artists to pump out prod­uct quickly back then but it’s also a reflec­tion of how lit­tle faith Capitol Records had in the longevity of the Beach Boys.  To make things even dicier, the speed of Little Deuce Coupe’s release neces­si­tated the recy­cling of no less than four songs from their prior three albums.  That means the album is only 75% new mate­r­ial, a mere eight songs.

However, the Beach Boys had some­thing work­ing in their favor despite these odds: they had Brian Wilson, who was find­ing his voice as song­writer and pro­ducer, mas­ter­mind­ing the show.  What he came up with is what some rock music fanat­ics con­sider to be the first con­cept album in rock and roll his­tory, a stack of hymns to won­ders of teenage car own­er­ship.  To Wilson’s credit, he man­ages to assem­ble an array of dif­fer­ent styles and moods to keep his sin­gle theme fresh — and he even man­ages to add an unex­pected bit of emo­tion into the mix.

One lis­ten to the album makes it clear that Wilson is still rid­ing high on “kid in a candy store” thrill of being able to pro­duce his own ses­sions.  Every track here is tight, ener­getic and full of play­ful, inven­tive thrills.  For exam­ple, Wilson has the group exper­i­ment with a rol­lick­ing, Dion & The Belmonts doo-wop style for “Car Crazy Cutie” and “Cherry, Cherry Coupe” works in a lot of vocal har­mony exper­i­ments, like pit­ting a stac­cato lead vocal line against lan­guid back­ing vocals dur­ing the verses and trot­ting out a vari­ety of com­pet­ing vocal lines at the cho­rus to cre­ate a sonic tapestry.

It also helps that Wilson’s song­writ­ing abil­i­ties were improv­ing with each album.  His main col­lab­o­ra­tor here is Roger Christian, a disc jockey and car enthu­si­ast who adds the appro­pri­ate gear-head jar­gon into the lex­i­con of these songs.  The lyrics these two come up with are often witty: “No-Go Showboat” dis­cusses the phe­nom­e­non of great-looking car that has noth­ing going on under the hood and the afore­men­tioned “Car Crazy Cutie” has some amus­ing cou­plets about a girl who is more turned on by cars than the guys dri­ving them.  They only stray once from their auto­mo­tive man­date with “Be True To Your School” — and even that finds a way to work a men­tion of cruis­ing into the mix.

However, the big sur­prise here is that Wilson finds a way to work the emo­tion­al­ism that would become a trade­mark of his songs into the mix here: “Ballad Of Old Betsy” is an unex­pect­edly heart-tugging trib­ute to a first car that’s on its last legs and “A Young Man Is Gone” weds new lyrics about James Dean’s untimely pass­ing to the ghostly melody of “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring.”  The lat­ter has a hymn-like beauty to it and Wilson’s choice to do it a-cappella makes it a beau­ti­ful venue for his knack with har­monies (and engi­neer Chuck Britz’s abil­ity to cap­ture them via good mic-ing).  Along sim­i­lar lines, “Spirit Of America” cap­tures a sense of patri­otic pride in its chron­i­cle of real life jet-engine racer Craig Breedlove.  Wilson achieves this via a stun­ningly beau­ti­ful melody with just the right amount of all-American swag­ger and the results are gor­geous and propul­sive all at once.

Finally, the album ends on a up-note with one of the great deep-catalog gems of the Beach Boys’ clas­sic period, “Custom Machine.”  This love song to a top-shelf auto­mo­bile is short but densely-packed with har­monies and inven­tive musi­cal twists in both the song­writ­ing and arrange­ment.  When the Beach Boys break out with a breath­tak­ing bit of word­less vocal har­mony to illus­trate the car’s sound, one real­izes that Wilson could just as well be talk­ing about the Beach Boys when he was writ­ing about his “cus­tom machine.”  He would pro­vide them with even greater tri­umphs in the years ahead but Little Deuce Coupe remains an engag­ing and impres­sive piece of work that shows their skills were highly devel­oped even at this early stage.