Review: The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio
Published on June 18th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Okay, here we go: it’s The Beach Boys’ 29th studio album, recorded to mark the band’s 50th anniversary, the first to feature original material since 1992’s Summer in Paradise in 1992, the first to feature guitarist and backing vocalist David Marks since 1963’s Little Deuce Coupe…and the first since Carl Wilson’s death in 1998. It almost seems churlish to ask if it’s any good or not, but that’s what these review thingies are all about so best get cracking, then.
Opener “Think About the Days” gets things underway in a manner that must surely be a reference to its SMiLE counterpart “Our Prayer”, and by the end of the first chorus of the ensuing title track you might find yourself thinking, “Well exchange pleasantries with my old boots – they’ve only gone and done it!” This is because “That’s Why God Made the Radio” is absolutely wonderful, and could very conceivably have been one of their revered classics of yore.
Lines such as “Capturing memories from afar / In my car” could have been laughably naff but their voices are holding up pretty well, the harmonies are distinctly them (bar the sad absences of Carl and Dennis) and it reminds of the first half of their Today! LP in how a fairly straightforward verse is guided as mere, unsuspecting foil into a convoluted, constantly folding in on itself, wonderfully triumphant and loved-up chorus that will stay with you for the rest of your life. They sing it themselves: “rock and roll, the soundtrack to falling in love”.
Oh, and extra brownie points for rhyming “when I” with “antennae”.
“Isn’t it Time” – no, not “It’s About Time”, “Isn’t It Time” – keeps the roll going with a joyous “dum dee dooby dooby dum” barbershop-baritone and an unexpectedly jagged, ukulele-and-syncopated-handclap-propelled rhythm. The falsetto titular refrain in the chorus is such a treat, the kind of thing you could snack on all day, the kind of ingenious hook that elevates a good song into the realms of greatness. So far this album really is better than we might have had any right to expect, the scene so perfectly set by lines like “and as the sun goes down, we raise a glass…to all the good times we shared”.
Unfortunately, the momentum is pricked by “Spring Vacation”, which incidentally rhymes its title with “good vibration” in its chorus. With tin hat donned, this feels more like the kind of AM radio thing we’d feared might emerge from all of this. It’s still pretty good – you’ve got to love the descending arpeggio vocal line in the build-up to each chorus, for example – but it’s altogether more disposable than the three preceding tracks. (“Summer weather, we’re back together”: a crafty self-reference?)
“The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is a fantastic title for a song, albeit there might actually be a Bill and Sue – perhaps a couple of well-known television presenters in America (“we see them on the TV screen”) – that we don’t know about. Can any of our stateside readers elucidate as to whether or not this this another “Johnny Carson”? Anyway, this is light-hearted and fun, but nothing special. It would be fairly amusing if Bill and Sue were just two names plucked out of the ether, though.
“Shelter” sounds a bit like it could have featured on 20/20 with its straight-lacedness and ornate harpsichord decoration, but the lack of any real adventurousness since “Isn’t it Time” has by now brought this album to a bit of a standstill. There’s some interestingly sticky-sounding percussion on Mike Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean” but it wouldn’t have made the cut for any of The Beach Boys’ great albums of yore – yes it is grossly unfair to hold up their former glories as a yardstick, but the pervading ‘adult contemporary’-ness just feels like a shame after such a strong start to the record.
After the pleasant-enough singalong “Beaches in Mind”, “Strange World” attempts to redress the balance with wistful piano and crashing timpani interjections, but it still doesn’t really bear those old Beach Boys hallmarks in the way that the final three tracks do.
“From There to Back Again” keeps things entrenched in fond nostalgia, and why not? Its grand canyonesqueness (hello, OED?) comes close to capturing that old magic, even reminding of some of Surf’s Up’s gentler numbers with its soul-soothing “aaaaahhhhh”s and string-soaked little melodic flourishes. Stepping up into a ba-ba-ba-and-Al-Jardine-whistle-topped jaunt, “From There to Back Again” sparks a late comeback that almost threatens to result in a glorious pitch invasion.
“Pacific Coast Highway” begins with a capella ooooohs, turns into a sophisticated piano thing and plays host to such lyrical introspection as “sometimes I realise my days are getting on”, “sunlight’s fading” and “I’m better off alone”. As all truly great Beach Boys songs should, “Pacific Coast Highway” throws an unexpected chord change at you like Super Mario firing a red shell backwards out of his kart, and it all clocks in at under two minutes. Splendid stuff.
Finally the lush, weary “Summer’s Gone” – quite “Surf’s Up”-like in its titular sentiment, wouldn’t you say? – offers up ruminations like “Old friends have gone” and “Our dreams hold on for those who still have more to say”, lets a gorgeous oboe fly solo, and all in all provides an apt and moving cap on an album that sporadically lives up to the legacy of a true musical phenomenon.
Or more precisely: the first three tracks and last three tracks are ace.
Rocksucker says: Three and a Half Quails out of Five!
That’s Why God Made the Radio is out now on Capitol. For more information, please visit thebeachboys.com