In ‘Pet Sounds’ they made what is often considered the greatest album of all time. They definitely made some of the greatest songs of all time.
And in chief songwriter Brian Wilson, they have a bona fide living genius; a genius that for some time was too heavy for Brian’s delicate shoulders and psyche to bear.
The ins and outs have been covered in depth many times before: father/manager Murry’s tyrannical reign over the brothers Wilson and mishandling of The Beach Boys‘ affairs; Mike Love‘s bullying; Wilson’s heavy drug use, retreat from live performances and reality; the band’s relocation to the Netherlands during the underrated 70s period; legal and financial wranglings and emerging in the 80s as an all-American nostalgia-act.
Brian’s attempts to rebuild and return to music hit many a false start, notably whilst he was under the controversial care of Dr Landy. As the years turned into decades, Brian finally emerged, blinking at the California sun, somewhat paler, somewhat greyer, his shell-like demeanour betrayed the personal struggles he’d overcome; and the Wondermints-assisted and fabled ‘Smile‘ reworking welcomed his return to relative stability.
Meanwhile, The Beach Boys continued their modus operandi, playing live and making guest appearances, giving the oldies and the goldies a regular airing until we reached 2012 – the band’s 50th anniversary.
Reason for a celebration, no? Something special maybe? What about another tour/money-spinner/nostaligia trip? Damn straight. Well, what’s the gimmick? Brian’s back. Again. Not for the first time, the (creative) head Beach Boy returns to the fold. And in support of the tour, they’re bringing ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio‘ – an album of (mainly Brian-penned) fresh, new material.
As to be expected, all the key elements of the Beach Boys’ identity can be found littered right through the album. Surfing, summer, the Pacific Ocean, girls and cars. In fact, as we’ll see, it’s downright overly self-referential at times, but when they tone it down with more subtle nods to their past – such as the recycling of bicycle bell sound effects and the windchimes that draw the record to a close – it’s a whole more satisfying experience for the listener.
Album opener ‘Think About The Days‘ is a glorious, wordless tune in the style of ‘Smile’s ‘Our Prayer‘. When the Beach Boys’ complex harmony layers ascend skywards over lonesome piano arpeggios, hopes for the album are instantly raised. Here, they hark back to their late-60s best, cinematic grandeur juxtaposed with delicate beauty. Wilson’s still got it.
Continuing to mine their past on the lead single and title track, Brian transports us to the early 60s via a 3/4 time waltz around car radios, the divinity of music and the innocence of youth. There is an all-pervading glossy sheen that smothers the track, and indeed continues over the course of the album, though transporting the rawness of the 60s and 70s may not be possible due to both the ravages of time and the modernity of current studio equipment. The oppressive 80s drum sound favoured throughout indicates that, much like the standard of Mike Love’s shirts, some tastes haven’t improved for decades. However, all this aside, there is a well-written, decent song beneath the blemishes – but the chorus doesn’t half sound like the harmonica part from ‘Midnight Cowboy‘.
It’s on ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio‘ where we see the first of the album’s blatant lyrical self-references; when the boys bring their music “to a whole new generation”. The same happens on ‘Spring Vacation‘, when a hat-trick of “we used to get around”, “good vibrations” and “we’re back together” are chorused joyously. The saccharine-schmaltz is oozing biliously from the speakers a little too heavily here. Mike Love’s all over the track, and its 90s flavoured verses are semi-rescued by Wilson’s ‘Tiny Dancer‘-esque hook. There are moments of quality in the melodies, but it’s just too cheesy.
In fact, ‘Spring Vacation’ signifies a lull in the middle section of the album. Whilst ‘The Private Life Of Bill And Sue‘ has Sunflower’s idiosyncratic “ombaddy-addy-oh” harmonies, there’s little else to it other than a Sam Cooke rhythm and roll. ‘Shelter‘ is up next and is throwaway, while the Mike Love-penned ‘Daybreak Over The Ocean‘ (the only track on the album not to feature Brian on the songwriting credits) begins promisingly with its 100% Californian “bring back my baby” motif, but the potential is lost beneath its slickness and pedestrian verses.
‘Beaches In Mind‘, although rather dated, is a sprightly number; like lifting one of their 70s tracks and plonking it in the middle of the next decade. It’s kind of naff, but it’s also kind of fun. Better still is ‘Strange World‘, one of the strongest tracks in the collection. A bombastic, modernised run through ‘Feel Flows‘ chord progressions, Wilson allows himself more free range to experiment slightly. The changes are less formulaic, the harmonies are great and the percussion and strings complement an inventive change of mood in the middle section. Bicycle bells and all, it’s ‘Pet Sounds’ in arrangement, if not in songwriting quality.
On a roll, the confusingly-titled ‘From There To Back Again‘ is the finest piece of music here and is worth the entrance fee alone. Al Jardine‘s sole lead vocal, Wilson’s enjoying his “free role”, creating another mini teenage pocket-symphony albeit a mellow, hazy sunkist soundtrack to Californ-I-A. Flutes, pianos and soaring harmonies collide with about-turn chord breaks, snare hits, a late “bah-de-bah” burst and even whistling solo. This is the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson at their inventive best. And it’s quite, quite brilliant.
Closers ‘Pacific Coast Highway‘ and ‘Summer’s Gone‘ add a melancholic and reflective tone to their surroundings. The latter’s ‘Caroline, No‘-isms particularly setting the mood with lonesome violin and vibraphone. A lovely end to the album, highlighting the strongest moments are found in the less poppy, less schmaltzy and less nostalgic tracks.
On the final song, Brian admits that “summer’s gone, it’s finally sinking in…” perhaps an allegory for Brian’s Beach Boys in 2012 in itself. After all the nostalgia on offer here, it’s an acceptance that musically, their best times have passed.
Approach the album for what it is. Accept its limitations and be rewarded by its moments of brilliance. They say form is temporary but class is permanent and to an extent, this is the case on ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ – just don’t expect another ‘Pet Sounds’.
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