Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Brian Wilson's Return to the Beach Boys: The Big "What If?"

I like and respect The Beach Boys, but without Brian Wilson as the primary creative force behind the group, I am a lukewarm fan at best.  Without his vision, variously fractured lineups have danced precariously on the edge of becoming cruise ship lounge versions of the band, offering up very little more than paint-by-number versions of the songs that once defined them. Under normal circumstances I would not have given a 2012 release by the group much notice.

The new Beach Boys album, however, grabbed my interest. That’s Why God Made the Radio features Wilson returning to an “authentic” Beach Boys lineup with all surviving members. Many fans of Pet Sounds, like me, often love to play “what if..?” games with the Beach Boys’ creative arc if the band had supported Wilson’s vision for SMiLE. The potential of a true follow-up to these artistically adventurous albums, no matter how slim, earned it a spot on my Wish List which, like Etudes earlier this year, got it into my hand on my first Father’s Day.

That’s Why God Made the Radio is the first album of all-original Beach Boys compositions in nearly forty years, and it does capture the band’s classic aesthetic, particularly in the lush vocal arrangements.  However, the band froze their artistic progress decades ago in order to commercialize and cash in on their distinctive sound, so reproducing it is not that great a feat. In reality, the rusty melodic clichés associated with well-worn doo-wop progressions are sometimes too pronounced to ignore.

If the less daring tracks on That’s Why God Made the Radio were released by a younger band (like the Wondermints, who show up as studio contributors) they might leave a different impression. There is, however, a perhaps unfair distinction between purposely manipulating nostalgia and just being old-fashioned.

On the other hand, there are several moments on That’s Why God Made the Radio that acknowledge the potential of this seemingly impossible reunion.  Wilson’s relatively prolific solo output for the past decade often serves the album well.  At 70 years old, his expressive voice and compositional sensitivity preserve an almost childlike idealism, and when he takes center stage it is often sublimely beautiful. When the band focuses their still-intact vocal harmony on Wilson’s bittersweet arrangements, the rust flakes away to reveal the old deuce coupe, still running and cruising after all this time. Tracks like Pacific Coast Highway are easily worth the price of admission.

Pacific Coast Highway by The Beach Boys - www.musicasparabaixar.org on Grooveshark

As it stands, That’s Why God Made the Radio doesn’t exactly pick up where Pet Sounds left off, but it certainly feels more uniformly genuine than anything else they have done since the late 60s. There are not many bands that can boast a credible creative spark in their fiftieth year of existence, but despite being somewhat uneven, the album suggests that The Beach Boys just might.

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