Before I start this, a brief note — my opinions on Beach Boys records often change *drastically* in the year or so after I first hear them. This is not my definitive word on this album, and I’ll revisit this when I write volume three of my Beach Boys book. This is just what I think now.
Next week, the Beach Boys release That’s Why God Made The Radio, their first album in twenty years (other than 1996′s Stars And Stripes Vol 1, a collection of remakes of their old hits with country singers on lead vocals). The signs for the new album have been very mixed — the ‘reunited’ band is a line-up that has never actually played together before, and is a sort of Frankenstein concoction of surviving members from different line-ups, consisting of Brian Wilson (who led the band throughout their most commercially and critically successful period, but has had little involvement with the band since the early 80s and none since 1996), Mike Love (the nasal-voiced lead singer, lyricist on many of the hits and only continuous member for the band’s whole fifty year career), Al Jardine (who was on the band’s first single in 1961, quit, rejoined in 1963 and remained until 1998), Bruce Johnston (who joined in 1965, quit in 1971, and rejoined and remained in the band from 1979), and David Marks (who was in the band from 1961-63, rejoined from 1997-99, and briefly rejoined again in 2008). Jeff Foskett (a falsetto vocalist with the Beach Boys in the 80s and with Brian Wilson’s touring band from 1998 on) is a de facto sixth member, covering the high vocal parts that were covered in the past by either Brian Wilson (who’s lost a lot of his voice) or his brother Carl (who died in 1998).
The problem with this line-up, of course, is that other than Brian Wilson the two most talented members of the band were Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl Wilson, both of whom are now dead. This means that what we have here is the combination of a visionary genius with three collaborators he knows well but who are musically very conservative, along with Marks who is a genuinely great guitar player but has no real track record as a singer or songwriter.
Luckily, then, this album was made the way that the best Beach Boys albums always were — Brian Wilson and his chosen collaborator wrote the songs, with Mike Love adding extra lyrics to three, and produced the tracks without the involvement of any of the band, and the band then sang parts that Brian told them to, with little or no creative input. Thankfully, the reports of new songs by Jardine, Johnston and Marks being added to the album proved false. Jardine and Johnston have both written the occasional decent song, but both are at best occasionally semi-inspired journeymen. Mike Love gets to add a few lyrics, but in general is also kept on the sidelines.
The instrumental tracks were cut first, then Wilson would sing the vocal arrangements to Foskett, who would record every vocal line, and then Wilson, Love, Jardine and Johnston would drop in replacements, line by line, for their parts. Essentially, this is a Brian Wilson solo album by any other name, with the Beach Boys acting as his hired vocalists in a way they haven’t since at least Pet Sounds.
Unfortunately, though, Wilson’s chosen collaborator for the album was Joe Thomas. Joe Thomas had previously produced the last Beach Boys album (the country music collaboration) and had also produced Brian’s 1998 solo album Imagination. While he was chosen largely because everyone involved knew and liked him, he is not the most artistically sympathetic of collaborators. The best way to describe him is to list the other collaborators he brought in to work with Wilson and himself on the songwriting — Jim Peterik, who wrote Eye Of The Tiger for Survivor, Larry Millas, who played in a band with Peterik in the 60s, and Jon Bon Jovi.
The result is a curate’s egg. It’s definitely the best Beach Boys album since at least 1979, but that’s the very definition of ‘damning with faint praise’. The garage band I was in when I was sixteen with a bass player who couldn’t play bass at all sounded better than most of what the Beach Boys have released in my lifetime. Vocally, this is superb — modern recording technology allows Brian Wilson to create vocal arrangements he couldn’t have done in his prime, with many, perhaps most, of the ‘solo’ vocal lines actually being unison vocals by two or three band members but with one more prominent — but which one is more prominent can change on a syllable-by-syllable basis, creating a perfect “Beach Boy” lead vocalist with elements of several of the band. And the instrumental arrangements, by Wilson and his longtime collaborator Paul Von Mertens, are often as good as anything the band have done.
But sonically, this is stuck in mid-90s AOR, but with the occasional intrusion of processing horrors, like autotune-as-effect, that will date this album as badly to precisely this moment as a Phil Collins drum sound would date it to 1983. Lyrically, the songs are inept, ranging from banal at best to unbelievably bad at worst. And the compositions vary in quality, but never rise to the heights of Wilson’s recent best work.
The songs apparently date from two different bursts of composition — one from 1998, during the writing of Wilson’s mediocre solo album Imagination, and one from 2010 and 2011 — and the later material is in general (with one or two exceptions either way) far superior, suggesting they may have been better just scrapping the old material and starting fresh. Capitol apparently signed the band to a three-album deal, so if albums two and three are fresh material, they may be significantly better.
Beach Boys fans will buy this and cherish it for what it is — a half-decent record by a band that haven’t even managed a half-decent record since the Carter administration — but there’s absolutely no need for anyone who doesn’t know and love everything the band’s previously done to buy this.
Track by track:
Think About The Days, the opener, is based on a piano instrumental by Thomas, with Brian adding the wordless vocal melodies. Jardine takes lead (I’m told by Someone Who Should Know that Someone Else Who Should Know says it’s Brian Wilson, but if it is then there’s a new ProTools plugin, the Jardineifier, which makes people’s voices sound exactly like Al Jardine) and Johnston is prominent in the harmonies. Had I listened to this without the songwriting credits I would have *sworn* this was written by Johnston on one of his better days. Nice french horn at the end by Probyn Gregory, but this is a little too Enya for my liking.
That’s Why God Made The Radio This is remixed from the single version — much less compressed, with a better vocal balance and what sounds like an extra keyboard line, though I’ve not A-B’d the two versions. It sounds *much* better, but it’s still fundamentally unoriginal, being pieced together from bits of the old Beach Boys songs Your Summer Dream and Keep An Eye On Summer and the John Barry themes You Only Live Twice and Midnight Cowboy, along with a rather jarring 80s AOR bridge (which I am informed sounds more like Journey than Survivor). This one was written by Wilson, Thomas, Peterik and Millas, and is mostly sung by Wilson and Foskett in unison, with Foskett taking several of the more prominent vocal lines and Johnston and Jardine taking the occasional line. It’s grown on me, and is actually quite pleasant now, but is nowhere near the masterpiece people were claiming prior to its release.
The genesis of the song also seems rather convoluted. It was written in 1998, and Millas has claimed it was written by him, Thomas and Peterik. Wilson, when asked in an interview who wrote it, said “Joe Thomas”, while Thomas, in this very interesting interview, said the title and chord sequence came from Wilson.
Isn’t It Time This is the best thing on the album by miles, and the second single. I could believe that this dated from Wilson’s collaborations with Andy Paley, but in fact it was written last year by Wilson, Thomas, Peterik, Millas and Love. The arrangement is almost like something from the Smiley Smile era — just a ukulele played by Peterik, two basses and some percussion, with everything else done vocally. Lyrically it’s drivel, but it’s a fun pop song, so lyrical drivel is acceptable. Wilson, Love and Jardine take the lead vocals, though as with all the songs on this album it’s hard to claim there’s a specific ‘lead vocalist’ in any traditional sense.
Spring Vacation, on the other hand, is horrible. This dates from 1998, and was originally a ‘gospel’ song called Lay Down Burden, written for Carl Wilson to sing. When Carl Wilson died, Brian Wilson and Thomas reused that title for a song on Imagination, and so this has new lyrics by Mike Love.
Joe Thomas has talked about being amazed at how quickly Love wrote the lyrics, and people have laughed at this because the lyrics are doggerel — “Spring vacation/Good vibrations/Summer weather/We’re back together”, but truthfully the lyrics fit the terrible music just fine. This song sounds like it was written for the title sequence of a bad mid-90s US sitcom, and conjures up images of Greg Evigan and Joey Lawrence hanging out with their wacky neighbour in an unfeasibly large apartment, with a credit at the end saying “Executive producer Linwood Boomer”. Just pitifully poor.
The Private Life Of Bill And Sue is another one from the new writing sessions, and is much better. This is a vaguely tropical song (sounding exactly like a Boney M record, I can’t remember which one, apart from the first few bars which sound just like a song by Carolyn Edwards, a friend of Brian’s band) about a couple of reality TV stars who fake their own disappearance to boost their ratings, starting with the perfectly Brian couplet “The private life of Bill and Sue/Can you dig what I’m telling you?”. Joe Thomas apparently wrote the chorus, a Mike Love style listing of place names (“California to Mexico/Everybody’s just gotta know/Dallas Texas to Monterey/Wasting time on a summer day”) which doesn’t really fit the song lyrically but meshes perfectly musically. This is cheese, but it’s prime-quality cheese, a good strong stilton or gorgonzola.
Wilson and Foskett sing lead.
Shelter is another new Wilson/Thomas song, with Wilson singing lead on the verses and Foskett and a heavily-processed Love on the chorus. This has a very retro-fifties feel, with a lovely chorus, and a verse which is just a straight lift from Save The Last Dance For Me, but the bridge, while pleasant, doesn’t really connect all that well with either verse or chorus — you can see the joins on this one. It’s the most obviously Beach Boys sounding song on the album, and one of the better ones, but it sounds like it needed some more songwriting work.
Daybreak Over The Ocean is the only non-Brian-Wilson song on the album. This is one that Mike Love wrote in the late 70s, and this recording is the one that Love made for his unreleased 2005 solo album Mike Love Not War, with a thin layer of Beach Boys backing vocals added to the pre-recorded track, featuring poor falsetto vocals by Adrian Baker (who was the falsetto singer in Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys band at the time) and some rather nice vocals by Love’s son Christian, who sounds spookily like the late Carl Wilson (his father’s cousin). The song itself is drivel, though, and it has an even worse drum sound than the rest of the album.
Beaches In Mind, by Wilson, Thomas and Love, is shit. “We’ll find a place in the sun, where everyone can have fun fun fun”, apparently. Love sings lead (like you couldn’t have guessed), and this is essentially where he disappears from the album to all intents and purposes, having no particularly prominent vocal lines for the rest of the record.
Strange World, by Wilson and Thomas is one of the more interesting songs, and I’m not yet sure if I like it. It’s a weird combination of different types of bombast — bits of Beethoven in the string arrangement, Phil Spector dynamics and a general 80s AOR feel — with lyrics that sound very like Brian and reference the It’s A Small World song from Disneyland. It’s either awful or a masterpiece, and I’m honestly not sure which. Wilson sings lead, and takes about three separate vocal parts — the other Beach Boys are barely there. This one was started in 1998 and finished last year.
From There To Back Again is another new song by Wilson and Thomas, and is one of the most interesting things on the record. Al Jardine sings a great lead (though sometimes it’s a little robotified by the autotune effects), but the song sounds more like Paul Williams than like Brian Wilson. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Paul Williams is a great songwriter — but it’s odd. This is very much in that early-70s soft-pop feel, with a lovely orchestration by Mertens, but it’ll take a few more listens to decide if the song (which has multiple different sections) is great or all flash and no substance.
Pacific Coast Highway by Wilson and Thomas is essentially just a link track between the two songs either side of it, which make up part of a suite Wilson’s been working on. “My life, I’m better off alone/My life, I’m better on my own”, he sings.
Summer’s Gone by Wilson, Thomas and Bon Jovi, was originally a single verse by Wilson written in 1998, intended as ‘the last song on the last Beach Boys album’, and was apparently expanded by Bon Jovi to its near-five-minute length. To be honest, it probably would have worked much better as a single verse, as its nursery-rhyme simplicity and the plodding backing track pall halfway through. Literally everyone else I’ve seen talking about this song describes it as the best thing Brian’s done since Surf’s Up in 1967, but on the first couple of listens it doesn’t have a thousandth of the imagination and interest of that song, though it’s still in the better half of the songs on this album. Maybe it’ll grow on me — Midnight’s Another Day, the highlight of Wilson’s last album of original material, took a few months before I realised how good it was, even though everyone else was raving about it straight away.
If you like the Beach Boys’ material from the 1980s and early 90s, this is the same sort of thing but done much better, but the pre-release quotes from Jardine and Johnston saying this sounded ‘like Pet Sounds‘ or ‘like Sunflower‘ are sadly off. If it turns out to be the band’s last album — which given that they’re all in their late sixties or early seventies seems sadly likely — it’s a much better way to go out than Summer In Paradise was, but if they release any more albums it’ll quickly be thought of as ‘one of those later, less good, Beach Boys albums’ and only listened to by the hardest of the hard-core fans.