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 That’s Why God Made the Radio, with its corny, hopelessly outdated title track, sinks on an ocean of amiable yet forgettable, bland pop tunes, and the famously fractious quintet cruises on autopilot: “We’re back together/Easy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.”
Mayer works well in introspection mode.
Download: Queen of California, Shadow Days.
Joe Walsh, Analog Man (Fantasy/Concord) * *
Glenn Frey, After Hours (Hip-O/UMG) * * 1/2
Eagles singer-guitarists Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey take different approaches on their first solo albums in 20 years. Walsh sticks to his rock comfort zone, occasionally delivering one of his distinct, cutting guitar solos, while Frey takes the dreaded Rod Stewart standards route.
Much as we’d prefer for Frey to write another original New Kid in Town or Heartache Tonight, the 63-year-old croons with surprising agility and clarity on pristinely arranged, mellow pre-rock tunes like For Sentimental Reasons and My Buddy. Sure, it’s disconcerting to hear the Eagle sing amid syrupy strings on the gushy Here’s to Life, a song Barbra Streisand recently performed to a similar arrangement on one of her albums, but he also one-ups fellow aging rockers by performing more contemporary fare, such as one of his mid-‘80s leftovers (the romantic title track) and familiar California pop like the Beach Boys’ gorgeous Caroline, No — and he does so with confident authority.
The only nostalgia Walsh is interested in is writing a sequel to his 1978 stoner classic, Life’s Been Good. On the new Lucky That Way, the sober, happy-to-be-alive family man takes stock of all that has gone right in his life. “I get to live out here in California/I’ve got a palm tree and a swimming pool/Have some fun and try to play my music/Was all I really set out to do.”
The jaunty and catchy One Day at a Time, a song the Eagles performed live on tour in 2005 but hadn’t recorded, pays homage to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Analog Man is overwhelmed by the sterile and now formulaic Jeff Lynn production style. Everything the ex-ELO mastermind touches has that slick, strummed acoustic guitar sheen and plodding drums he slathered on late-’80s records by George Harrison, Tom Petty and Traveling Wilburys. The aural sweetening and Walsh’s songs of domestic bliss mean the once hard-living rocker has happily found a healthy alternative to a life in the fast lane, but it also makes for a rather uninteresting collection of songs. Stick with his 1978 solo standout, But Seriously, Folks...
Download: One Day at a Time (Walsh); Caroline, No (Frey).
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