The Beach Boys, That’s Why God Made the Radio (Brother Records/Capitol) * *
The Beach Boys cover as many bases as possible in reuniting properly for their 50th anniversary. The surviving members even tracked down David Marks, who hasn’t sung on a Beach Boys album since 1963 to help flesh out the most distinctive vocal harmony sound in all of pop. Two of the Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl, have long since passed, but the blended harmonies on the group’s first studio album in 20 years sound remarkably intact, like dispatches from the California coast circa 1970.
Despite the nostalgia-stoking harmonies, lyrical references to beloved oldies like Good Vibrations and I Get Around, and lush production that strives hard to recreate the Beach Boys’ swell Sunflower-era, there isn’t any fun, fun, fun here. That’s Why God Made the Radio, with its corny, hopelessly outdated title track, sinks on an ocean of amiable yet forgettable, bland pop tunes, and the famously fractious quintet cruises on autopilot: “We’re back together/Easy money, ain’t life funny,” they sing on Spring Vacation.
The reunion isn’t a complete washout, as glimpses of songwriter/producer Brian Wilson’s brilliance bubble up on the melancholic triptych of From There to Back Again, Pacific Coast Highway and Summer’s Gone. These album closers almost evoke the musical ambition of Pet Sounds before the feeling quickly dissipates.
These final three short cuts also seem to set the sun down on any subsequent reunions when a weathered Wilson sings, “My life, I’m better off on my own,” especially considering his own recent solo albums, like 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, had more energy. The downcast Summer’s Gone ultimately sums up the entire reunion/anniversary project: “Summer’s gone/I’m gonna sit and watch the waves/We laugh, we cry/We live then die/And dream about our yesterday.”
Thanks for the memories, guys.
Download: From There to Back Again, Pacific Coast Highway, Summer’s Gone.
John Mayer, Born and Raised (Columbia) * * *
In a week in which the Beach Boys release a reunion album that sounds more than 40 years old, it’s almost fitting that John Mayer’s pastiche to 1971-era Laurel Canyon pop tops the Billboard album chart.
Granted, Mayer’s music on Born and Raised is more of the folk-rock, reflective variety championed by Blue- and Harvest-era Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, both of whom he name-checks on the pedal steel-kissed Queen of California. David Crosby and Graham Nash lend backing vocal accompaniment on the title track, giving the mellow rustic tune even more period authenticity.
The worst that could be said about the laid-back music on Born and Raised is that it’s merely pleasant, a not altogether off-the-mark criticism, but the soul-searching singer-guitarist who found himself in a heap of trouble after mouthing off on Twitter and an infamous Playboy interview, works to earn your forgiveness on fine, contrite songs like Shadow Days. “I’m a good man with a good heart/Had a tough time, got a rough start/But I finally learned to let it go.”