With its latest release, Omnivore Recordings might as well as be singing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” The intrepid label has unearthed a true rarity for a new digital EP: four previously unreleased songs produced in 1969 by Murry Wilson for an all-but-unknown harmony-pop outfit named Snow. Freshly unearthed from The Beach Boys’ vault, Murry Wilson & Snow: The Break Away EP features Snow’s lush and fully-produced and orchestrated renditions of two songs from Brian Wilson’s songbook (“Break Away” and “We’re Together Again”) and two presumably original tracks (“Wilderness” and “Bless Me”).
Longtime Beach Boys aficionados might recognize the name of Snow. On page 241 of The Beach Boys, Keith Badman’s day-by-day diary of the group’s activities between 1961 and 1976, there’s a curiosity-piquing entry. Wednesday, March 9, 1969: “Murry Wilson records a session with a group called The Snow.” Not much else was ever documented about this group, but a search of the Internet’s Beach Boys fandom reveals a quote from Rick Henn, founder of Murry’s post-Beach Boys group The Sunrays of “We Live for the Sun” fame: “One other interesting project Murry gave me was a band from Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve forgotten how he found them, but he flew me out to Omaha to cut a bunch of demos with them…There was one guy in the group who wrote really good songs, and since I was going to school, learning how to notate, write charts, and so forth, I was more or less given the job of arranger. So, I went into the studio with them and worked on the arrangements and the production. We cut some demos in Omaha and then we brought them back to Hollywood and cut a bunch of tracks at Sunset Sound…Anyway, we produced the group but I’m not sure if Murry ever made a record deal for them.”
In a 1988 interview, Henn confirmed that the group was originally named The Parade (not the same Parade known for the 1967 hit “Sunshine Girl”) but was renamed Snow at Murry’s behest. Stephen Desper, whom Henn recalled as engineer for the sessions, had no recollection when asked about Snow. Another Beach Boys associate, manager-broadcaster Fred Vail, did remember Snow, however. He posted om the Forgotten Hits website in 2008 that “Murry and I produced [‘Break Away’] on a Durant, Oklahoma group, The Parade, around 1970. Unfortunately, the group never got a deal and split up. However, one of the members, Gail Farrell, ended up a regular on The Lawrence Welk Show for many, many years.” (Note that Murry Wilson’s most successful tune as a songwriter, “Two Step Side Step,” was featured by Welk on his radio program.)
Vail recalled the other group members may have been named Larry Strickland, two brothers named David and Steve, and a second female named Sharon. Others dispute that Gail Farrell was ever involved with Murry Wilson or Snow. (Despite Vail’s memories, it appears that Snow only had four members.) No information is available about the musicians on these tracks, either, although it sure sounds like members of The Wrecking Crew could have been involved.
The main attraction of the Snow EP is, without a doubt, the title track. “Break Away,” written by Brian Wilson and his father (under the pseudonym Reggie Dunbar) in a rare moment of creative harmony, was The Beach Boys’ final single of the 1960s and final original Capitol Records 45. (The label would issue “Cotton Fields” as a single after the group had already left for Reprise Records.) It was also the last single that would bear a solo production credit for Brian Wilson until 1974’s “Child of Winter (Christmas Song)” and arguably his final Beach Boys work to recall his “classic” sound.
By all accounts, including Badman’s, The Beach Boys’ “Break Away” began recording on March 31, 1969; the rhythm track was laid down as well as Carl and Al’s guide and lead vocals, full group backgrounds, and finally, Brian on a solo guide vocal. (He also sang a bit of the lead in the finished version.) The song was completed on April 23 with the addition of brass and additional background vocals. If Keith Badman is to be believed, could Snow’s version of “Break Away” have been recorded on March 9, before The Beach Boys cut their own recording? Nobody’s telling. But regardless of its recording date, it’s a fascinating alternative look at this quintessential Brian Wilson composition. “Break Away” boasts all of Brian Wilson’s hallmarks: a sophisticated melody, almost heartbreakingly personal lyrics, intricate background parts. Snow’s rendition smooths out the edges of The Beach Boys’ recording, replacing the driving urgency with a bossa nova-inspired softness that seems at odds with the lyrics – think The Ray Conniff Singers doing “Break Away.” But the alternately mellow and grandiose brass arrangement (dig that opening blast of horns!) and ethereal harmonies – plus the strength of the song itself – make Snow’s rendition oddly mesmerizing.
“We’re Together Again,” a co-write between Brian and singer Ron Wilson (no relation), dated back to 1968. (Brian briefly entered into a partnership with this Wilson, resulting in a Columbia single of “I’ll Keep on Loving You” b/w “As Tears Go By” with production credited to Ron-Brian Music Production.) With its relatively simple chord progression and only some distinctly “Brian” flourishes such as the frequent key changes, it’s a slight but amiable tune that fits snugly in the Friends era. Their original recording was shelved, and didn’t see the light of day until 1990. Snow’s take on the song adheres to its comparatively modest spirit but has a surprisingly R&B-inflected lead male vocal.
It’s unfortunate that no further information is available about the two other songs. The upbeat, groovy ode to the “Wilderness” is impressively orchestrated (even with some tasty surf guitar licks), beautifully sung (including a prominent female lead), and shimmers like a lost Cowsills, Spanky and Our Gang, or 5th Dimension track. With its shifting time signatures and classical overtones, it’s not too far stylistically removed from the latter group’s The Magic Garden. The buoyant “Bless Me” is more straightforward, with a lavish, brass-heavy sunshine pop chart and strong vocal arrangement.
Omnivore’s download contains a digital booklet with brief, new liner notes from Brad Rosenberger. Much has been written about Murry Wilson’s failings as a businessman and a father, but this release of the Snow EP allows him to be considered solely as a musician and producer. One hopes that a physical release of these tracks is in the cards (as bonus tracks to the inevitable remaster of The Many Moods of Murry Wilson, perhaps?). They add up to eleven minutes or so of bright, enjoyable harmony-pop – what’s not to like? Let it Snow!