New Music: The Beach Boys “That’s Why God Made the Radio”

2012 Capitol Records

Most of the interactions I have had with people concerning That’s Why God Made the Radio (the 30th studio album from The Beach Boys and the first in 20 years to contain original material) have been carbon copies of the one I had with the guy working the record store where I purchased the album. He seemed to be surprised that a new Beach Boys record would be worth buying at all. “I just assumed it would be really bad,” he said. “I mean, that’s usually the case in situations like this, right?” Of course, he meant situations in which a band already older than your parents reunites after a 20 year absence to make new music. He’s right – very rarely does this kind of experiment produce quality material. Usually, it only serves to solidify the geezer status of the people involved, and considering people have thought of The Beach Boys as geezers for quite some time, the end result could potentially be even worse for them.

Or could it? When you think about it, The Beach Boys have been seen as geezers for ages. After being at the bottom of the cool pile for so long, isn’t up the only way left to go? A few years back, head Beach Boy Brian Wilson experienced a career milestone when he finally completed and released SMiLE, which up to that point had become the most anticipated unreleased album in history. It was supposed to be the BB’s follow-up to their 1966 classic (though at the time, underrated) Pet Sounds, but the music of SMiLE caused a legendary rift within the group that eventually led to not only the shelving of the project, but the deterioration of Wilson’s mental health. Without SMiLE to prove the band’s innovative worth, the music of The Beach Boys gradually became less and less cool, and eventually all but irrelevant to many.

When Wilson finally pulled together and released the completed version of SMiLE in 2004, it was to universal acclaim from critics and fans, proving to everyone that Wilson was still an active genius. It probably proved this to Wilson himself, as well, as it seemingly reinvigorated his fire for The Beach Boys. If you really need proof of this, grow a pair and pick up That’s Why God Made the Radio, the best Beach Boys album in nearly 40 years.

If there is one thing the Beach Boys have gained after making music together for so many years, it’s perspective, which seems to be an overall theme of this album. All the members have had decades to feel and witness their influence on popular music, giving them a chance to see firsthand what has really stuck with people out of all the different stylistic shifts they have made. Furthermore, they have finally learned the art of compromise, and have successfully married the best aspects of the old-school surf nostalgia of their early work with the psychedelic suite-style compositions of their SMiLE/post-SMiLE era. The album’s first two singles (the title track and “Isn’t It Time”) feel right at home with the closing 3-song suite (“From There to Back Again”, “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone”), and it’s enough to make one wonder if all that infighting so long ago about the stylistic direction of the Beach Boys was necessary. If the guys could have just grown up a bit initially, who knows what would have happened.

With that said, I’m not sure I would want to change their history that much. Aside from being one of rock’s most interesting, gut-wrenching and inspiring stories, The Beach Boys legacy is one of the most rewarding in rock music, and these guys know it. Much of the new album carries a joyous, celebratory vibe, with many of the songs directly referencing the group’s elation about their reunion. “Spring vacation, good vibrations, summer weather, we’re back together,” the group sings in “Spring Vacation”; while in the title track, they are “Spreading the love and sunshine to a whole new generation”. While these are seemingly simple messages, they also work on several levels. To anyone not familiar with the group’s past, these could just be simple love songs about love of music, or the love of another person, or the love of the world around us.

One unfortunate aspect of the record is its overproduced sound, but no one can blame Wilson for this. He’s a guy who cut his teeth on record-making back in the 60’s, when undergoing painstaking processes to achieve the perfect sound was the norm. After how fast technology has grown even over the last 5 years, using these same processes with today’s available technology produces a sound that is almost too great. If Wilson had chosen to use some outdated recording equipment or to simplify his technique a bit, he could have produced something a bit more organic-sounding. But with how solid the songs on Radio tend to be, this seems like nit-picking. Aside from a couple blah songs on the record (the ones written by Love), it’s difficult to find something to complain about.

Though the definite highlight of Radio is the 3-song suite that closes the album, one of the other standout tracks is “Strange World”, a song that could produce a slightly emotional reaction for any fan aware of Wilson’s past endeavors. “It’s a strange world, I’m gettin’ though it,” Wilson sings with a vigor not heard from him in decades. Though Wilson may be back and in better shape than he has been in recent memory, he’s acutely aware that his battles with his demons are far from over. In fact, that part of his life will probably never end. Surely, we can all relate – we all have some sort of adversity to face every morning when we choose to get out of bed and continue on with our lives. More often than not, we choose to go through with it, because the only other option would be to look our demons square in the face and say, “I give up.” The fact that 70-year-old Wilson and all the other Beach Boys are still not willing to fold after achieving so much in their careers could be seen as stubborn in the light of a lesser work. But in the spotlight of That’s Why God Made the Radio, the steadfastness of The Beach Boys comes off as awe-inspiring. ****

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3 Responses to “New Music: The Beach Boys “That’s Why God Made the Radio””

  1. ianbalentine Says:

    Ok, you convinced me. I’m one of those whose testes haven’t descended enough for me to walk into a record shop and plunk down good money for a new Beach Boys album, even though I consider myself a fan. It’s Mike Love. The guy is just a goof ball in so many ways, and continues to be. Yeah, perhaps he has a right to be a little bitter and jealous of Brian, as his voice was one of the main reasons for the BB’s success back in the day. But why continue on in this way into your 70’s? Let it go. Anyway, I’ll pick it up. Thanks for the push.

    • recordgeekheaven Says:

      Believe me, I understand where you are coming from. Just hearing Love was back in the band was enough for me to become super skeptical of a reunion album. But considering how well SMiLE turned out, I decided to give it a shot, and I am glad I did. There is quite a bit of M.Love on here – you hear his voice all over the place, he co-wrote two songs and wrote one himself – but somehow, they make it work. They disperese the Love just enough to keep it from being overbearing; which is great, because that’s what Love always wanted to do in the first place, and Brian has learned to shut him down a bit but still keep him happy. And it only took him like 40 years to figure it out!

  2. ianbalentine Says:

    Hi there again. My buddie and I are starting another blog on 80’s albums and were hoping you’d post our new link. Is that ok?
    http://the80sdidntsuck.wordpress.com/
    Thanks

    Uncle E

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