|Photo by: Amazon.com|
Key tracks: "That's Why God Made the Radio," "The Private Life of Bill and Sue," "Daybreak Over the Ocean"
Well, it's about time. Was there ever any doubt that Mike Love would become unsatisfied with the hired scabs he toured with under The Beach Boys name for 15 years? Pulling Brian Wilson from the clutches of Gershwin and Disney cover albums and the rest of the group out of happy retirement, surf rock's first and best are building their vocal wall-of-sound once again.
Unashamedly nostalgic, That's Why God Made the Radio consciously rejects the band's turbulent and strange past for a settled fun-in-the-sun throwback. The tracks flow together more seamlessly than the multi-colored waves on the album cover. And for very late-period Beach Boys, this means that the songs morph together into one extended Royal Caribbean commercial soundtrack.
But if this isn't the best gosh darn cruise ship advertisement music ever written! These songs all feel like American Dream post-war pop of the early '60s mixed with adult contemporary values. The old-timey organs of "Spring Vacation," the life-affirming lyrics of "Shelter," and the cheery vocal harmonies of just about every song on here confirm the feeling that this is indeed for Baby Boomers, by Baby Boomers.
The only hint at anything approaching artistic license comes with the first track. "Think About the Days" is a minute-and-a-half, nearly a cappella showcase that displays the band's vocal arranging prowess. Almost reminiscent of the baroque stylings of "Our Prayer," the opening track of the unreleased Smile album, its slightly dark tone clashes nicely with the fixed merriment of everything else.
But other than that--this is music for mowing the lawn, grilling out and taking the kids to the pool.
As for highlights, the '50s doo-wop of "That's Why God Made the Radio" is the most distinctive, brimming with the sing-along charm of their classic songs, as does "The Private Life of Bill and Sue." If one can overlook the Shakespearesque brilliance of lines such as "The private life of Bill and Sue / Can you dig what I'm telling you," and its passing resemblance to the bland corniness of their 1988 hit "Kokomo," it could have fit alongside the tunes on their innocent early '60s LPs.
In Beach Boys folklore, Brian Wilson is supposed to be the lonely, tormented genius who single-handedly wrote the group's masterworks, with his ultra-commercial cousin Mike Love stifling Wilson's creativity in favor of nostalgia and surfing.
That impression doesn't quite come through by listening to this collection of songs though. Although Wilson co-writes most of this material with producer Joe Thomas, these tracks don't go much beyond passable adult contemporary, while the one track credited solely to Love bears the Pet Sounds Stamp of Angelic Beauty.
"Daybreak Over the Ocean" is an outtake from 1978 that genuinely reaches beyond the form-driven pleasantry of everything else to hit the longing heights of the band's best work. The vocal harmonies feel essential, the acoustic strums serve the simple melody and Love's vocals are thankfully less nasally than usual. No classic, of course, but its presence gives a hint, however slight, that the group hasn't forgotten its non-oldies past.
Perhaps where That's Why God Made the Radio--and by extension the rest of the Beach Boys' output since the '80s--disappoints the most is in its attitude. Like the striped Pendleton shirts worn by the group in the days of "Surfin' USA," each member has completely mobilized behind this singular sunshiny DayGlo image that was never really representative of the group in the first place.
Because, while Brian Wilson may be the only one to rightfully hold the title of "songwriting virtuoso," the rest of the members still used to make a point of trying to step out of his shadow. Even after the freaky eclecticism of Smile had passed, everyone weaved their non-surf ambitions into the brightly-colored patchwork of albums like 20/20 and Sunflower. That desire to stretch out has long since disappeared, and with it any creative interest they had left.
It's true that septuagenarians are not known for providing rock's greatest innovations. But with an artistic relevance of approximately zero, who exactly will dig this? Is there some sort of hardcore surf-pop audience expected to gobble this one up?
Despite its ultimate reason to exist being an excuse to tour, That's Why God Made the Radio best justifies its existence by showing that The Beach Boys can still put out a release that's enjoyable, if hardly essential.
After 30 years of wobbling between the bland and embarrassing, this is a comeback in the truest sense of the word--an exercise in what they do best, rather than fruitless bandwagon-jumping. Which might be the best we can ask for at this point in their career.
And Mike Love? Keep those ballads coming and you just might be forgiven for that "Summer of Love" travesty. Maybe.
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