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The Beach Boys are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, but in some ways, the designation is misleading. While the initial quintet originally formed in 1961, there have been long periods—decades, actually—when the group’s brain trust Brian Wilson has not been an active member of the group.
In fact, his surprising reuniting with his bandmates for “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” out today (June 5), is the entire reason to buy the set. It’s his first full album with the group in decades. He’s joined by fellow founding members Mike Love and Al Jardine and nearly-founding members David Marks and Bruce Johnston.
For the casual fan, those who know such hits as “Good Vibrations” or “Kokomo” or “I Get Around,” there’s plenty here for you, such as “Shelter,” whose beautiful chorus makes up for the weak verses, or “Beaches In Mind.” Years later, the surf’s still up and the summer is endless.
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The greater reward is for the hardcore fan, for those who worship at the altar of the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, “Pet Sounds” or couldn’t wait to get their mitts on the “The Smile Sessions” box set last year. There’s nothing on here that approaches the glory of those albums, but there are occasional moments of beauty that make the album worth your while, especially the last half. Fans of the group’s otherworldly ability to harmonize get a fix with “Think About The Days,” the opening track, which is all vocalizations. The Beach Boys were always the vehicle for Wilson to realize the complete symphonies and incredibly complex harmonies he heard fully formed in his head. The pay off here is that their ability to recreate those 50 years in and after decades of turmoil remains remarkably undiminished.
Title track and first single, “That’s Why God Made the Radio” is a mid-tempo ballad that is short on substance, but long on sentiment and shows off how influenced the Beach Boys were by doo wop (“Isn’t It Time” and “Daybreak Over the Ocean” also pay homage to doo wop).
Even when the lyrics are a stretch for men in their 60s and 70s to sing (check out “Spring Vacation”), the harmonies and melodies often save the day. And to be extra charitable, one could look at “Spring Vacation’s” lyrics, “Harmony boys is what we believe in/Some said it wouldn’t last/All We Can Say is we’re still having a blast” and “We’re back together/Easy Money/Ain’t Life Funny/hallelujah” as if the joke is definitely on us. However, the same can’t be said for “The Private Lives of Bill and Sue,” a Wilson/Thomas song about a reality show couple who disappear after their once-popular reality show dips in ratings, with the lyrics speculating that they faked their own deaths. It’s certainly plausible in today’s reality star world, but that doesn’t mean it makes for good song fodder.
The album really hit its stride with the last four songs, all co-written by Wilson: “Strange World,” “From There To Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone (co-written with Jon Bon Jovi).” They recall the majesty of the Beach Boys’ best because they also have a lingering notion of wistfulness and melancholy, as the sun sets not only over the oceans, but on their lives. The orchestrations and strings add an elegance that lifts the material. On “Pacific Coast Highway,” which shifts time signatures and moods, when Wilson sings “Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say/My Life, I’m better off alone/ My Life, I’m better on my own,” there’s heartbreak in every note.
It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but given that most fans thought the possibility of Wilson recording and producing an album with the Beach Boys again was not even within the realm of reality, the album feels in some ways like an unexpected gift, surprising and welcome.