The Beach Boys Deliver a Great Twenty Ninth Album
They'd assemble a live show featuring recent reincarnations of 30s and 40s era big bands and intersperse it with archival black and white footage of the real thing and maybe some WWII footage, and then cut to the audience of gray hairs really digging that Kay Keyser or Benny Goodman sound and then to the interminable fund raising pitch: "Pledge $100 and we'll throw in this fabulous 3 CD big band set!"
A few years later, same basic scene, only this time it's Doo Wop and 1950's oldies. Now those I remember. I was a little kid but I grew up on those songs the teens drove around to and made out to. Cut to kinescopes of the greasers on "American Bandstand" with Ryan Seacrest, I mean Dick Clark, then to that precious footage of Buddy Holly on The Ed Sullivan Show, then back to the stage show of the current version of The Drifters, Johnny Maestro and the Crests, and the others, cut to the audience of aging greasers looking just like the WWII big band audience. Cut to Cousin Brucie with the fund raising pitch.
A few years later, same basic scene, only this time its the late fifties/early sixties folk music revival. I remember that too: The Kingston Trio, PP&M, The New Christy Minstrels. Cut to some footage of the early Newport Folk Festival, or The Weavers or whatever, cut to the audience of aging left wing folkies, again looking just like the WW II audience! How does that happen?
A few weeks ago the wheel turned again in, as Joni Mitchell called it, "The Circle Game" and there was the PBS fundraiser featuring a live show of some '60s rock stars, cut to the Woodstock footage, cut to the fund raising pitch where you could get a sixties oldies package of CDs for your $100 pledge and then cut to the audience of 60's aging hippies and goddamn it, they'd turned into the WWII big band crowd, right down to the corny clothes and everything! How did hell did that happen???
So here's this new Beach Boys album—the groups first in more than decade and a half— and it could have been either just awful—a bunch of old guys creaking—or it could have been a pathetic set of bad nostalgia looking for a slot on the next PBS fundraiser, but instead it's a remarkable set that melds a fine brand of nostalgia for a youthful time gone by that celebrates the past but doesn't sugar coat it, to a golden sunset look forward that gets daringly dark and dead serious.
Always present are the those that have passed: Carl and Dennis Wilson. But Brian and cousin Mike Love, Al Jardine Bruce Johnstone and even neighbor David Marks who played on just the first few albums are here along with Beach Boy "vice principal" Jeffrey Foskett.
No one vocalizes like this anymore (though you can hear echoes in younger groups that harmonize in different, more edgy ways) and thankfully these guys sound remarkably youthful and supple and not at all creaky and there's no studio gimmickry involved because the live show is supposedly equally good.
Unlike some reunion albums that are in-and-out of the studio shadows of a group's finest works, this one gets deep though it doesn't start that way. Side one begins with the wordless "Think About the Days" that says more without words than if it had some. The title says what the arching harmonies make obvious.
The title track follows and that one is pure nostalgia with "American Graffiti" images of driving around in the car listening to the AM radio. "Isn't it Time" really "turns back the pages" and traffics in pure nostalgia while prodding to "let the good times happen again." Part Cialis commercial ("isn't it time we go steady again"), part perfect PBS fundraiser, it's a gentle reminder of how long ago "it" all was, leavened by a pleasingly familiar Beach Boys confection punctuated by handclaps.
"Spring Vacation" even has a rhyme with "good vibration" as it narrates the unlikely Beach Boys reunion and celebrates the new togetherness and even the joys of performing live together. Imagine that! Love and Wilson having fun again on stage! "We're back together, Easy money, Ain't life funny," "Hey, what's it to ya?,Hallelujah." The side ends with "Daybreak over the Ocean," another easy roller filled with fluid harmonies.
Here's an album where the LP format really works: after a chipper side one, you turn it over and the mood quickly changes as the darker Brian really takes charge lyrically as well as in the arrangements. The guy's still got it, complete with Phil Spector influences. "The calypso-tinged "The Private LIfe of Bill and Sue" is lightens things up a bit and the harmonies are the album's best.
From there things turn really dark in a "Surf's Up" wonderful way. Wilson confronts and accepts his life-long "not just made for this place" feeling on "Strange World." The string and woodwind drenched closer, "Summer's Gone" with a co-writing credit going to Jon Bon Jovi, is just what you think the title implies and it's a stunner.
This is a better Beach Boys album than even the group's most ardent admirers could possibly have expected and I'm not writing that as an old bag sitting in the PBS fund raiser audience. It really is!
As for the sound, well it's a first class digital production, not a cheapie, much of it done at Ocean Way. The picture has been skillfully drawn, the vocal harmonies carefully spread across the stage and the instruments dimensionally fleshed out—at least conceptually. It's a very nicely mixed recording. But it's all M&M shell with no chocolate insides. All cleanly rendered skeletons with no flesh on the bones. Very clean.
Don't get me wrong: it's very, very listenable but when you listen you'l hear what is and what could have been had the "boys" returned to Capitol and let the tape rolled. Still, you'll find it a more than enjoyable listen sonically, and musically it's moving on so many levels.
Very highly recommended. The pressing I got was flawless and quiet.