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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made The Radio


THE BEACH BOYS: THAT'S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (2012)

1) Think About The Days; 2) That's Why God Made The Radio; 3) Isn't It Time; 4) Spring Vacation; 5) The Private Life Of Bill And Sue; 6) Shelter; 7) Daybreak Over The Ocean; 8) Beaches In Mind; 9) Strange World; 10) From There To Back Again; 11) Pacific Coast Highway; 12) Summer's Gone.

I do not know why this album was made. I do know that the word «money» explicitly showed up in some of Brian's interviews, and, although I am not sure that Brian was exactly starving in the early 2010s, he is one of the few people in the world who actually deserves all the money he can get, so that would be one reasonable reason. Another reasonable reason would be the fact that the «band» was still in need of a bona fide swan song, after all: with Mike trampling the Beach Boys brand in the dust throughout the 1990s, the biographic curve had a maddeningly pathetic form.

Thus, once Brian and Mike temporarily settled their problems and got all the remaining Beach Boys they could lay their hands on together (Al, Bruce, and somebody even dug up «oldboy» David Marks to strum the guitar; 1962 all over again!), they wisely agreed on the following work pattern: the album would be mostly sunny, happy, and nostalgic, just the way Mike would like it to be, but Brian would otherwise be given complete freedom in the writing, throwing in teenage-symphonic compositions à la ʽSurf's Upʼ if he will. Considering that Brian's solo activity in the 2000s showed him as almost completely «cured», busier with his musical projects than anytime since the 1960s, this pattern simply could not fail. Or could it?

The critical world invented a brilliantly polite tag for the final product: «their best since 1977's Love You». Given that very few people would even remember Love You itself, much less any­thing that came later, the tag sounds impressive — wow, thirty-five years past their last artistic success and still going strong! But take the time to relisten to all these albums: honestly, beating all of them put together in one punch is no feat of heroism. The question should be put differently: have The Beach Grandpappies actually managed, this time, to put out an album that would make sense to people outside the small circle of hardcore fanatics?

As one select representative of these people, I'd very much like to say yes, but the more I listen to it, the more I'm forced to say no. That's Why God Made The Radio is by no means an «awful» album in the spirit of the Brianless garbage of the 1990s, and it manages — most of the time — to avoid being «cheesy» in the spirit of the band's late 1970s / early 1980s products. But it is an empty shell of an album, Beach Boys-ish to the core in form only, never in spirit. In fact, I'd say that it doesn't even have any spirit, Beach Boys or otherwise.

In comparison, I try to remember how amazed I was at hearing Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation several years ago. There it was, a record by an aged, out-of-time dinosaur that made crystal clear sense: slow, pensive, atmospheric, still carrying traces of melodic genius but also re­flecting a shift of values, moods, attitudes so totally in line with both the modern world and the artist's own age. Not a proverbial «masterpiece», not anything to be remembered by on an order of first importance, just an album that quietly stated, «yes, my creator is old and gray, and that gives him a special edge that he is willing to take advantage of». Similar impressions can also be received from some (far from all) of Brian's solo work — even the re-recording of SMiLE, one could say, carried some whiffs of this «wisened old man» attitude.

That's Why God Made The Radio has none of that. It sounds as if the only question the band put to itself was, «can we just make one more ʽDo It Againʼ type of album?» (As a promo move, they did re-record ʽDo It Againʼ, but it is not included on the final LP). To be more precise, «can we still work out those harmonies? can we avoid synthesizers and electronic dance beats? can we still come up with credible lyrics on Californian topics?» etc. And — yes, for dessert: "can we still make a proverbially beautiful multi-part epic suite like we did in the old days, when Mike didn't like epic suites and we still didn't give a damn?»

The title track, released as a taster several months prior to the complete thing, epitomizes its es­sence quite faithfully. After a few listens... maybe even after a single listen, you can memorize the chorus and forgetfully toe-tap along with its lazy, shuffly rhythms. But from the first to the last note, it feels utterly fake. Or, perhaps, «fake» is not the right word — what is truly awful is that it might feel like a sincere outburst of emotion to Brian himself. Can you imagine the Beatles, had they all remained alive, finally reuniting... with every single Paul song written in the spirit of ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ and every John song written in the spirit of ʽLittle Childʼ?

At least if there had been new tricks, new solutions, new discoveries. No dice. Every single chord, every single harmony seems to have a direct ancestor in one Beach Boys classic or another. So­me­times in several at once: ʽShelterʼ is the most glaring example, where the chorus ("I'll give you shelter from the storm...") is the offspring of ʽDon't Worry Babyʼ while the backing harmonies are mostly variations on ʽBreak Awayʼ. I do not doubt for a second that Brian is still capable of inventing new textures, but for this album — it's like he didn't even try. Instead, he reprogram­med his brain computer-wise, activated all the old melodies, shuffled them around, and gave out a credible «Beach Boys™» record. Give musicologists, biologists, and programmers another fifty years, and you might not even need a Brian Wilson to receive another album of this caliber.

We cannot even blame Mike Love this time. For the most part, he wisely stays away from the writing process, although you can always be sure that if you encounter a particularly cringewor­thy lyric, you know who to blame. "Singing our songs is enough reason / Harmony boys is what we believe in" from ʽSpring Vacationʼ (the most overtly awful song on the entire album — few things in life are more disgusting than forcefully faking happiness) is bad enough, but "we got beaches in mind, man it's been too much time" is a close contender (unless you start singing "we got bitches in mind", which immediately gives the whole thing a fresh new angle). He is also re­sponsible for ʽDaybreak Over The Oceanʼ, which seems to be a crude vivisection of ʽBluebirds Over The Mountainʼ with a transplant from ʽMy Bonnieʼ or something else like that.

Most of the rest is honestly credited to Brian and producer Joe Thomas, who had been a close asso­ciate of Brian's since the recording of Imagination more than a decade earlier. And from all of this «rest», critical attention, for obvious reasons, has preferred to focus on the last three songs, which finally dispense with all the phoney summer happiness and give us pianos, flutes, strings, kind melancholia, and solemn vibrations. Does this make me happy? No. I don't like the idea of Brian sitting down at the piano and telling himself, «okay, concentrate, focus, God, make me capa­ble of writing another ʽSurf's Upʼ here and now» — and for all of these nine minutes, I can­not get rid of the idea. And again, all I hear is faint echoes and shadows of past greatness.

To sum up, if this is really why God made the radio, it's totally awesome how God made me stay away from the radio for most of my life. If this album really replenished Brian's, or even Mike's, pockets in a time of need, I am fine with that. If it was made just so that the official Beach Boys discography did not end with Stars And Stripes, I am so totally fine with that, too. But in the general context of the Beach Boys history, this is not a good record, I'm afraid to say. In fact, it is a bad record, I'm afraid to say — a nostalgic trip that feels forced and stuffy, as if you've just successfully taken a time machine back to 1967, but cannot open the doors. In fact, I'm not even sure I really agree that «this is their best since Love You»: even L.A., in those parts of it that weren't totally wretched, sounded more natural.

The only reason I'm chickening out on giving it a thumbs down is that such a decision would look like some sort of «gesture» — as if I wanted to «punish» the band for committing some sort of sacrilege, or was intentionally going «against the grain» (since most of the official reviews were uniformly positive). After all, they are all just big (and, as of now, senile) children, and at least by now they have learned their lesson: don't pay too much attention to big wicked grown-ups co­ming at you with «modern musical values». Better some sheer, unadulterated nostalgia, than ʽSummer Of Loveʼ. And any nine-minute epic written and recorded by Brian Wilson will always respect the Beach Boys' textbook definition of beauty. The album sounds great — like an imma­culately produced facsimile. It feels phoney. But sounds, as we know, are waves that penetrate us all in the same way, and feelings — who knows, yours might be better than mine.

P.S. And I'd like also to explicitly mention that I do not buy the «well, what more would you ex­pect from these guys in 2012?» argument at all. One of the «real» Beach Boys' biggest advanta­ges in the past was the ability to surprise — after the failure of Smiley Smile, they could come up with a winner like Wild Honey, and after the glitzy cheese of 15 Big Ones they could rebound with the raw bizarredom of Love You. Like I said, I could totally see Brian taking charge and leading the band in yet another direction. Instead, they gave us this fucking paper house. Nosiree, we had the rightful right to expect more, and got much less.

Check "That's Why God Made The Radio" (CD) on Amazon
Check "That's Why God Made The Radio" (MP3) on Amazon

15 comments:

  1. I always thought Shelter's chorus sounded more like the verse melody of "Darlin'".

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  2. I agree to an extent, however the opening track, and the 3 song suite which close the album contain depth and charm, and haunting vocals and lyrics, this review seems just a tad harsh. I agree with the cheesiness of Spring Vacation, I'll acede that Beaches in Mind is slight garbage(I always shuffle ahead when listening to those absurd monstrosites), but Summers Gone?Pacific Highway?Those are strong tracks. I prefer to look at this way after the absurd crumbling of the Beach Boys brand, Brian has come back and reclaimed the Beach Boys. A fitting coda, and I mean really what is one expecting from these seventy year old men? Sure beats Kokomo, Summer in paradise, Getcha Back. In todays shallow pop music world that is a small Unlike 15 Big Ones Brian is truly back and how can one find anything to complain about with that being true in 2012?Time marches on and no one had any right or reason to expect this release to be as strong as it was, some victories, like some music can be experienced on strictly symbolic levels, and for me that is the best way to approach this release.

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  3. I hope you're not this harsh on all 16 year comeback albums; I'm getting nervous of how you'll review Anglagard's new album.

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    1. He isn't. Read on his old site his review of Deep Purple's Banana's. You'll see that GS applies exactly the same standards, resulting in one his all time favourite albums of the band. With a keyboardist he otherwise despises.
      Now I haven't listen to this BB album, nor do I intend to, but given his standards a Thumbs Down would have seemed logical. So you can argue that he is not harsh enough (but he has explained why).

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  4. Yeah this is kind of a hard one. When I first got the album, I was pretty stoked: BRIAN'S BACK! (Of course, I never knew he was gone) Rather, he's been back since...honestly, I love most of his solo albums. The weirdness of the debut and Sweet Insanity...the immaculate sheen (though dull it can be) of Imagination...That One I Can't Think of That He Released the Same Year as Smile was probably the least interesting but hardly awful.

    All his solo albums have those weird Brian quirks, odd melodic approaches and harmonic textures that capture the mind. Brian's mind still works well, musically.

    The first time I listened to this album, I was really happy with how authentic it sounded. Very little if any synthetic stuff. Trademark harmonies. A mini-suite. The lyrics...well, ignorable. What's not to love?

    However, the more I listened to it, the more I realized the songs weren't sticking. They were "catchy" and sometimes even "memorable" but...no buttons were pushed. Even as on his worst albums (Getting In Over My Head) had moments that touched emotions: the duet with Carl was emotional. And I even enjoyed "head banging" (metaphorically) to the faster paced "Desert Drive."

    This album kind of mushes together after awhile. Kind of like "MIA" or "LA" but even those have songs that jump out at me after awhile. I can sing most of hte songs on "LA" as they're playing. Not sure I can do that here...cept the title track.

    I also think the "What do you expect?" line is bull because with Brian you never know what to expect. I mean that in terms of his peak as a Beach Boy (as well as their weird 70's period where they were one of the weirdest, if not the weirdest, mainstream band on the planet) but also now.

    Who would have expected Brian would release "Smile" after all those years? And that it would be brilliant? In the same year he released his most boring solo album?

    Or that he would record an album of Gerswhin covers? And that it would be one of his best albums? The Disney one meh, that's a prety blah album because honestly those songs are kinda stinky. It has some "Brian" moments but not enough.

    This album really has no "Brian" moments. I wasn't sure why the album wasn't really "getting to me" as much I expected it to, given that I was initially so pleased. You hit the nail on the head. Brian forced it out, stayed in line with what people wanted (and what the band wanted) and made an album that was totally Beach Boys by numbers.

    Perhaps the only album he did (after he became a mature composer) that falls into this trap! I mean, are you going to tell me (I know you won't, George) that "MIA" is a "Beach Boys by number" album? That sounds NOTHING like the Beach Boys I love: it's typical "Brian" of the period and I love that.

    "TWGMTR" on the other hand is transparently product. Oh well. Sure Beats "Summer in Paradise."

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  5. I just wanted to thank you for doing this review. I kept rechecking the blog worried that you might bypass it on the way to bands beginning with the letter "C" and never get back to it.

    Having said that, I did shell out almost twenty bucks for this CD so the negative review, even if merited, left me a bit embarrassed by my latest purchasing decision. However, it did pique my interest to look for a copy of "Love You" sometime in the future.

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  6. Andy: 20 bucks? Really? Shame. It's not the worst album in the world: sonically it's pretty solid. But a lot of repeat ideas here make it pretty bland as does the soullessness of the damn thing. But it's not a bad listen, as background music and definitely "non embarrassing."

    I own two copies of "Love You." Had to get the vinyl when I saw it for a dollar!

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  7. It looks like the honeymoon is over already. Mike Love has fired Al Jardine, David Marks, and Brian Wilson from the group. Apparently, it's a lot easier for Mike and Bruce to tour with unknowns...also, a lot cheaper. The good news is, it looks like John Stamos may be back to sing "Forever".

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    1. Total media hyperbole. Mike Love didn't fire anybody. When this reunion started they said they would do one album and one tour, and that's exactly what happened. The tour is coming to an end now so all the members will return to what they were doing before. The Mike & Bruce BBs shows have been booked for months. The Beach Boys have done nothing wrong except stick to their word.

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    2. Looks like you're more or less correct. That being said, it probably also means this is the very last original BB's release, unless Mike decides to unveil another solo effort under that name. Somehow, I don't think he'll bother. This album, while selling respectably, hasn't produced a hit the size of "Kokomo" or "Getcha Back". So, it's probably the Traveling Mike Love Nostalgia Caravan from here to the end of their days.

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  8. I was quite surprised that this one was ever released. But I had my doubts, to say the least -- no Carl, no Dennis. And in a sense, no Brian. His 21st century vocals have been pretty solid, but so unlike 1966 Brian that he sounds totally different. Plus, everybody's 70 years old!

    Well, as far as the vocals are concerned, I was quite pleasantly surprised, although the harmonies sound significantly changed (your point on "L.A." is well taken, but at least they're not shrill like on "KTSA" or muffled and processed like on "SiP"). Mike's voice is now quite limited, but Brian and Bruce sound good, Al is terrific (I wish he had gotten more of Brian's leads), and the wonderful Jeff Foskett fills in with Carl and "old Brian" approximations (his turn on "Shelter" is a highlight). The opening piece proves that the guys can still pull it off (if they're using AutoTune, I don't want to know).

    However, I'm forced to agree that most of the album is a disappointment. What I was hoping for was an extension of Brian's "That Lucky Old Sun". That album was blatantly nostalgic, but it was an honest nostalgia of a guy pushing 70 looking back fondly on his SoCal past.

    Here, though, that honesty is only achieved with the closing suite and the title track. Unlike you, I find the last three tracks quite moving. They look back, again, with fondness, but tinged with sadness, and perhaps, with a bit of mortality. "Summer's Gone", indeed. And the title song, again, looks back on the radio days of their youth with a doo-wopping tune, but they don't try to pretend this stuff is on the radio today.

    But Mike Love can't resist trying to "Do it Again" with "Spring Vacation" and "Beaches in Mind", the worst offenders here. Mike, you're not fooling ANYBODY. The sadness of "Daybreak Over the Ocean" (a solo album outtake with BB vocal overdubs) is much more effective than pretending you really can still surf! And what's with "The Private Life of Bill and Sue"? Social commentary? You need Jack Rieley back for that, guys!

    I was hoping Brian would push the guys into something more ambitious for what looks like their swan song (I don't believe Brian for a minute when he says he's going to make a "rock" album with the band), but they went, I agree for something easier on the ears and brain. Still, at least the sound is still a wonder to hear, and it's better to have their finale be a fond self-tribute than a phony, almost morbid self-parody like "SiP."

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  9. yes, trfesok, they use autotune VERY heavily on this album.

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  10. I don't know what it is about some Beach Boys 'fans' that makes them believe that all talent is hinged on the beloved, late Carl and Dennis Wilson. Or that there has to be a particular mix of personnel in order for it to be a GOOD project delivery. Had Brian been involved in SIP, people would've raved. If Dennis/Carl had been involved in TWGMTR, it would've caused a tsunami of critical praise. Get over yourselves. These guys didn't have to give us anything. If you don't enjoy it because you're BB elitest snobs, then you really deserve to miss what you aren't grasping in the first place. None of us own the world of musical opinion, nor do any of them owe us anything at all. We're fortunate to be graced and blessed with ALL of their talents for all of these years.

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  11. It went top ten on billboard and has sold more copies than 'Pet Sounds', Briam wanted to record a follow-up, but Mike has scrubbed that idea. Most of the songs were written in 1997, and why no mention of the final three songs? Considering everything with the history of this group, giving us their best album since 1977 isn't just a triumph, it's a bloody marvel!

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  12. Hmmm, I seem to be the only one who sees a Brian moment or two on this album, none more obvious than "The Private Life of Bill and Sue". The lyrics and subject matter alone bring this close to 'Love You' territory (Brian disovers reality tv 20 years or so after the fact!), and the track seems more engaged than some others.

    The obvious "Do It Again"-type songs courtesy of Mike Love ("Spring Vacation", "Beaches in Mind") are indeed terrible and a seventy-five-year old shouldn't sing about "going steady again", period.

    That said, I think the album is a more than reasonable facsimile of a Beach Boys album - we just wish it would've been from, say the early 70s creative period rather than middle-to-late seventies oldies-band Beach Boys (I'm not even going to try and explain that someone, anyone was hoping for a Pet Sounds/Smile period type album.)

    And a word on this feeling fake: Well, duh. It comes with the band. We all know Brian don't surf, that doesn't stop us from appreciating his surf songs. The Boys never were particularly genuine or authentic in terms of their image and topics as how they related to themselves.

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