If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two disasters just the same…
Then you’re a Beach Boys fan, since triumph and disaster are so intermingled in this band that it has become impossible to tell them apart.
Take this CD as an example.
Last year’s reunion tour (of a Beach Boys lineup that had never played together before, but we’ll let that pass) eventually managed to become an artistic triumph. After starting out with essentially the same hits show that Mike Love and Bruce Johnston play to county fairs across the USA every year (not that there’s anything wrong with county fairs, or the Beach Boys’ hits…), they steadily added more different, interesting material to the sets, while being backed by what is, bar none, the best band I’ve ever seen. The last of the three shows I saw on the tour, at Wembley, was the second best live musical experience of my life (the best, Brian Wilson’s UK tours of 2002, featured six of the same people).
And that is more-or-less reflected on this double-CD set. While it’s shorter than most of the shows, at forty-one songs, it manages to contain pretty much all of the hits you’d expect, but also songs like Marcella, The Little Girl I Once Knew, Disney Girls, Pet Sounds, Sail On Sailor and All This Is That, all performed exquisitely.
There’s nothing wrong with the performances, the song choice or the album cover at all.
I want to repeat that. The vocal, instrumental and songwriting abilities of the people on that stage shine through here.
No, the problem is the mix.
The problem most people have been noting is the autotune, slathered on by Joe Thomas, the album’s ‘co-producer’. (Brian Wilson is credited as co-producer as well, but this is almost certainly a vanity credit). And that is bad. Mike Love and Brian Wilson both sound utterly robotic at points, like they’ve been replaced by a square wave.
There’s also utterly shameless use of studio-recorded material — the rerecording of Do It Again from last year, the studio versions of That’s Why God Made The Radio and Isn’t It Time, and even Brian Wilson’s 2004 solo recording of Heroes & Villains (autotuned almost out of recognition, but definitely the same recording) all make appearances, lightly dusted with a few dropped-in live bits. But that’s sort of OK — there’s no such thing as an actual live album any more, and at least this doesn’t pretend to be a single show (Bruce says “We must be in Texas!” near the beginning, and sings “in a smaller Texas town” in Disney Girls, Mike says “thank you my people, the car people of Arizona!” after the car medley, and Bruce sings “I wish they all could be Colorado girls” later on. And now those who collect unofficial recordings will know they already have several of the tracks).
The autotune is, frankly, unforgivable — but it wrecks less than a quarter of the album. While it’s present on most of it, there are only a handful of songs where it jumps out as unlistenable. The rest isn’t too badly affected. (The same goes for the reverb that’s all over the thing, and the decisions to double-track some vocals, presumably using performances from multiple shows).
But the other mixing problems are worse. Huge chunks of instrumentation are mixed down or out altogether. Nelson Bragg’s percussion is a particular casualty — when he mentioned the album on Facebook, he said “I don’t know if you’ll hear me on it”, and I didn’t know what he meant, but now I do. Half his parts simply aren’t audible. There are usually no more than two guitars in the mix at any time, and two keyboards (at various points on the tour there were up to six guitars playing, and up to four keyboards). This sounds empty and sterile. Mike Love introduces California Saga by talking about Al playing his banjo, and we hear it being tuned in the background — but then it’s inaudible during the song itself.
And I feel very sorry for John Cowsill, who is bar none the best live drummer I’ve ever seen. But his parts on this tour were worked out to blend with the (now inaudible) percussion parts, and to make matters worse the drum sound on this record is like hearing someone play on biscuit tins.
And then there’s the audience… mixed completely out, for the most part, then mixed up at random intervals for half-second bursts, at maximum volume, like they let a small child control that fader.
Given the horrible production Joe Thomas inflicted on the otherwise very good That’s Why God Made The Radio album last year (not to mention the horrors of Stars & Stripes vol 1, The Wilsons and Imagination in the 90s), why do the Beach Boys keep employing this buffoon?
My final problem with the CD is the credits. The musicians are all given minimal credits, so Probyn Gregory is only credited for guitar/vocals (no mention of his horn, tannerin or bass playing), Mike D’Amico bass/vocals (no mention of his drumming on a couple of songs), Scott Totten guitar/vocals (no mention of ukulele), Darian keyboards/vocals (no mention of the tuned percussion parts) and Jeff Foskett guitar/vocals (no mention of the mandolin).
Worst of all, Nick Walusko, who dropped out of the tour for health reasons half way through but who definitely played on several of the shows used here, isn’t credited at all. Now, of course, it’s entirely possible that they cut him out of the final mix, but if they can credit the accountants and carpenters they can credit him.
But by focusing on the negatives so much, I really am giving a misleading impression of this album. For the most part, it’s a very listenable, pleasant, if over-clean, rendition of some of the finest songs ever written. There are little moments of beauty scattered throughout it, and despite the mix you can hear just how wonderful these musicians are — and they really are. Hearing the five surviving Beach Boys harmonising on Surfer Girl and In My Room, or hearing All This Is That live, is still captivating.
It’s worth buying, or at least listening to on Spotify, if you like the Beach Boys. But just don’t expect anything to show you why those of us who were lucky enough to be there will remember last year’s tour with awe forever.
Tracklist (all leads Mike Love, with falsetto Jeff Foskett, except where noted):
1. Do It Again
2. Little Honda
3. Catch A Wave
5. Don’t Back Down
6. Surfin’ Safari
7. Surfer Girl (group/Brian Wilson)
8. The Little Girl I Once Knew (group/Brian Wilson/Mike Love)
9. Wendy (Bruce Johnston)
10. Getcha Back (David Marks)
11. Then I Kissed Her (Al Jardine)
12. Marcella (Brian Wilson)
13. Isn’t It Time (group)
14. Why Do Fools Fall In Love (Scott Totten and Jeff Foskett)
15. When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)
16. Disney Girls (Bruce Johnston)
17. Be True To Your School
18. Little Deuce Coupe
20. Shut Down
21. I Get Around
1. Pet Sounds (instrumental, lead guitar David Marks)
2. Add Some Music To Your Day (group)
3. Heroes And Villains (Brian Wilson)
4. Sail On, Sailor (Brian Wilson)
5. California Saga: California (Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love)
6. In My Room (group)
7. All This Is That (Mike Love & Al Jardine verses, Brian Wilson & Darian Sahanaja choruses, Jeff Foskett tag)
8. That’s Why God Made The Radio (group)
9. Forever (group backing a pre-recorded Dennis Wilson)
10. God Only Knows (group backing a pre-recorded Carl Wilson)
11. Sloop John B (Brian Wilson)
12. Wouldn’t It Be Nice (Al Jardine and Mike Love)
13. Good Vibrations (Brian Wilson and Jeff Foskett, with Mike Love)
14. California Girls
15. Help Me, Rhonda (Al Jardine)
16. Rock And Roll Music
17. Surfin’ U.S.A.
19. Barbara Ann (group)
20. Fun, Fun, Fun