The Beach Boys:
That's Why God Made The Radio
Despite being a life-long Beach Boys devotee, I initially resisted whatever curiosity welled up within me over the group's fiftieth anniversary studio album That's Why God Made the Radio. The off-putting title aside, what mostly fueled my aversion for the project was the idea of a Beach Boys recording sans Dennis and especially Carl Wilson. What finally made me decide to investigate it was learning that Brian Wilson was the main creative force behind the project, with the group's resident genius having produced the album and co-written (many with Joe Thomas) all but one of its twelve songs. In terms of personnel, Wilson is joined by Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston (who joined in 1965 when Brian retired from touring to focus on writing), and David Marks (an original member who left in 1963), and the release is the first studio album of new, original songs to feature all of the band's surviving original members since 1989's Still Cruisin'. While the album's performances, vocal and instrumental, and arrangements are undeniably polished, a number of songs are unremarkable, something that becomes clear when they're considered one by one.
The gorgeous harmonizing that opens the album in “Think About The Days” brings hope that maybe, just maybe, the album might recapture the group's glory days. The piece showcases the group's harmonies, as if to reaffirm the fact that vocals are still the group's number one weapon, and admittedly they are wonderful, even if no small battalion of studio trickery might have played a part in making them sound so ravishing. As a whole, the vocal performances on the album are strong: Jardine's voice shows little sign of wear and tear, and Johnston sounds good, too. Love sounds, for better or worse, like Love, while Brian's voice occasionally reveals the ravages of time, though here too production sleight-of-hand does a fairly decent job of concealing it.
Up next is the title song, which Richard Dawkins' followers won't find terribly endearing, even though it's not the first God reference in a Beach Boys song, the difference being that “God Only Knows” is a figure of speech, not a direct invocation of God's being. Simply put, while the song's vocals and execution are faultless, “That's Why God Made The Radio” is the first in a series of banal crowd-pleasers that weaken the album, the others being “Spring Vacation,” a feel-good track that would fit snugly into the Grease soundtrack (not a compliment), and the tropical-styled “Private Life Of Bill And Sue,” whose opening calls to mind Jimmy Buffett's “Margaritaville.” The album's further weakened by fare like “Daybreak Over The Ocean” (solely penned by Love) and “Beaches in Mind” that waste the group's talents on fluff (the croak of a talk-box in the latter doesn't help either). Such material feels like little more than pandering to stadium crowds hungry for summer fun. More successful by comparison are “Shelter,” a nostalgia-laden song whose arrangement (complete with harpsichord) and Spector-esque production harks back to the earlier “Please Let Me Wonder” and “Hushabye,” and “Isn't It Time,” an ear-catching marvel that wouldn't sound out of place on, at the very most, Sunflower or, at the very least, 15 Big Ones and that features the members trading brief vocal turns against a lilting, percussion-heavy backdrop.
But just as one is getting ready to rate the album sub-par, a closing suite rights the ship. “Strange World” begins the recovery with a credible tune featuring some nice instrumental touches (castanets, accordion), but everything comes together in “From There To Back Again.” It's distinguished by a gorgeous arrangement of chiming piano chords, flutes, and vocal harmonies but most of all by the songwriting, which sees Brian recapturing the magic and splendour of his best days. In fact, “From There To Back Again” includes moments so transcendent they take one's breath away. When the harmonies kick in, the music is so beautiful it's almost possible to believe we're hearing an unreleased Sunflower song, not one created decades later. The brief “Pacific Coast Highway” forms a bridge into the beautiful and even more melancholy “Summer's Gone,” with both songs presenting a sober perspective on time's passage in lyrics like “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.” This extraordinary closing suite is also better for focusing on subject matter more befitting men of an advanced age. These wistful closing songs are the album's saving grace and remind us, once again, of Brian's singular gifts. Had the album doubled its six best songs, we'd have a captivating twelve-song set of a higher quality than anyone would have thought possible at this stage in the group's career.