In two days, I’ll be catching The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour stop at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. DLPAC is normally a stressful, unsatisfying place to see a show – if you want to get thousands of people to start throwing punches, give them a whole mess of rollercoaster rides and $11 beers. But fuck if I don’t give a damn this time. Seeing Brian Wilson on stage with the remaining original Beach Boys, cherry-picking tunes from one of the most beautiful and haunting back catalogs in pop music history, is sure to make every other possible annoyance fade away, like a sandcastle in the tide. Naturally, I’ve been listening to Beach Boys albums like crazy this month, something I do when the warm weather hits every year anyways. Here are the three records that’ve been getting the most spins. (And thank you to my stunning, loving wife, who gave me these tickets for my birthday, and will be by my side Friday night, even though she couldn’t care less about the old farts on stage.)
The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio (2012)
It was easy to be skeptical about this project, a seemingly rushed-together LP released to coincide with the tour I’ll be experiencing on Friday. But while aspects of That’s Why God Made The Radio do feel a bit half-baked, and a few tracks get cornily self-referential, it is most definitely more than a lowest common denominator cash-grab. It’s also the perfect example of the clashing artistic visions of Brian Wilson and Mike Love. If you were in any way confused why the two haven’t worked together in a while, listen to the gorgeously morbid three-song suite the closes the album, where Wilson sings “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.” Then listen to “Spring Vacation,” a dopey good-time pop song in which Love sings “Driving around, living the dream/I’m cruising the town, I’m living the scene.” Brian’s still the fragile genius, all about introspection and the interplay of darkness and light; Mike’s still the aging rock star, all about Hawaiian shirts, cool cars and (I imagine) creepy leers. I don’t mean to put a line in the sand here – Wilson’s Jersey Shore-referencing “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is an embarrassing attempt at relevance, and Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is rather sweet in its simplistic pleas. But the biggest wins are Wilson’s – the incredibly pretty, “Our Prayer”-ish opener, the title track with its wonderful, cascading chorus, and that jaw-dropping trilogy at the end (was any Beach Boys fan expecting such a perfect coda?). So if TWGMTR is wildly inconsistent, it’s still an accurate representation of where the Beach Boys are in 2012 – a band that might not be on the same page, but one that still sings like angels through it all.
The Beach Boys – 15 Big Ones/Love You (1976-1977)
Some of the biggest artists of the ’60s have dealt with their various mid-life crises by making albums filled with the songs of their youth – and like David Bowie’s Pin Ups and John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, 15 Big Ones is a fun listen, if not a particularly life-altering one. As the first LP since Pet Sounds to feature the credit “produced by Brian Wilson” on the gatefold, the album must have been a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it’s actually aged pretty well, with originals like the cheerful, organ-peppered “It’s OK,” the breezy “Had to Phone Ya” and the bluesy “Back Home” fitting the old-time rock ‘n’ roll vibe while still giving Wilson room to scratch that harmonic itch. There are some throwaways here (e.g. a grating, dated-sounding “Chapel of Love,” a sluggish “Blueberry Hill”), but the lushly produced, reverent take on The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once In My Life” ranks up there with the Boys’ best ’70s work. And who’s going to complain about these vocalists tackling “In the Still of the Night”?
Love You, the second of this two-album set (thank you Capitol Records) was the last Brian Wilson-produced Beach Boys album before this year’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. And while it’s a ramshackle shadow of his glorious ’60s work, it’s an oddly compelling little masterpiece all the same, and my favorite of all the ’70s Beach Boys albums I’ve heard (Carl & the Passions and Holland have still managed to evade my ears). Wilson’s songwriting is straight-up goofy in places, and at times painfully childlike, but it adds to Love You’s ragged blend of synthesizers and doo-wop harmonies – “Johnny Carson” is the weirdest Beach Boys song ever, a straight-faced ode to the celebrity whose verses have a strangely ominous melody. And “Solar System” is a 2nd grade astronomy lesson sung by a blissed-out organist – but because it features Brian’s voice at its hoarsest, it’s also a bit of pop innocence that’s streaked with something sadder. Then there’s the heartbreakers – “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together,” a crushing duet between Wilson and his indifferent-sounding wife Marilyn, and “Love Is A Woman,” where Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine compel us to treat women nicely over a Fats Domino-ish arrangement. When Wilson sings, “Tell her she smells good tonight,” it’s so awkward, and so perfectly earnest, I can’t help but get chills.
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
I’m not really sure what the critics think about this one, but I’ll be bold enough to come right out and say it – Pet Sounds is good. Honestly, it would be a waste of all of our precious time to blather on about the swirling, magnificently dense arrangements, the bittersweet love songs to beat all bittersweet love songs, the force of nature that is the band’s vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys have always been obsessed with the trappings of summer, but I think Brian Wilson was more obsessed with the brutally temporary nature of that season – before you know it, school’s back in session, the leaves are falling, and you’re starting to wonder if you were made for these times. Pet Sounds was summer for the Beach Boys, a time when their talents were in full blossom, their ingenious leader was as confident and prolific as he ever would be, and their songs were on the charts. Then they blinked an eye, and it was September.