Monday, 9 March 2015
The Beach Boys "That's Why God Made The Radio" (2012)
That exhilarating moment when you hear a song you've never come across before and instantly know that someone out there in the universe 'gets' you. The songs that take on a whole new meaning for a certain moment in your life when mere words cannot express everything you're going through. Passing nothing time with the one you love when background music is suddenly the centre of your universe. These are all the reasons why God (or at any rate Marconi) made the radio. This album, however, is not why God made the radio. Heck, it's not even why God (or at least Murray Wilson, Nik Venet and everyone already mentioned in these pages, not to mention a teenage Brian Wilson) made the Beach Boys. No one at the inception of the world's first wireless ever thought to themselves 'gee, what a great opportunity for a bunch of has-beens who hadn't made a record in twenty years to get back together again and prepare to be teenagers!' And yet that's what we've got.
Rather than doing what I usually do during the eight years we've been together now, dear reader, and rushing out a review of a new release straight away, I thought I'd wait a bit for this one. Try and see whether this album really was a one-off blip or a part of a longer-term comeback that might make more sense of this album. To find out whether all the hyperbole about how brilliant this album was could in fact be more about the wonder of the Beach Boys getting back together again at all (honestly, most of the sycophantic reviews I read seem to have been written before hearing a note, based purely on the fact that the band worked pretty well fifty years ago so why not now?) But mainly I left this review so that my anger could simmer down. You see 'That's Why God Made The Radio' is not the comeback I dreamed of. Yes Al Jardine is back in the band for the first time since quitting the group sometime around the millennium. Yes Brian Wilson is back in the band for the first time since 1989. Yes David Marks is here on an actual bona fide record for the first time since blooming 1964! Perhaps even more surprisng than any of this, yes this is The Beach Boys back on Capitol with their first new product on the label that basically only existed because of them since the sixties. And yet this still isn't The Beach Boys - it's a collection of Brian Wilson songs that somebody somewhere thought might sell better with The Beach Boys name on it. Brian's usual backing group The Wondermints play all the instruments, which is fine (without Carl in the band there's only Dave whose much of a musician left anyway) - but they also sing almost all the vocals. Mike Love, the lead singer who rightly or wrongly has been the proud promoter of The Beach Boys and all they stand for, working tirelessly through a series of concerts to become everyone's memory of what The Beach Boys were, gets two vocals across the entire album and a mere one co-write. Al gets just one vocal and no writing credits whatsoever. Bruce's song got thrown out of the album's running order at the last minute. And for the first time in a half-century Dave Marks' main contribution seems to have been appearing on the photos used in the packaging (which is a waste because he's a great guitarist when given the chance, as the accompanying live shows proved). No one was expecting a fully democratic turns-in-the-spotlight CD like the 1960s and Brian was always going to dominate this record by sheer dint of reputation, but did the whole thing have to be so dishonest and so ersatz?
Again and again I scoured the usual sources for reviews, waiting for someone to speak out and tell the truth: that this was a Brian Wilson album so poor it simply wouldn't have sold without a gimmick connected to it. While Brian's solo albums are far less consistent than his golden works with the band they usually have something good about them - whether it's the ambition of 'Brian Wilson', the masses of vocals on 'Imagination' or the that-0was-my-life concept of 'That Lucky Old Sun' (or at least that was my take on it - you can read our review of that album using the links at the bottom of this page, if my memory is working enough to remember to add them!) However recently the creative well has dried and Brian - still in need of money after so many years of spending it unwisely and having it spent for him - has been reduced to making Christmas albums, George Gershwin tributes and - God help us, whether he made the radio or not - an album of Disney cover songs. Word has it a duets album with celebrities not known for singing is due for release later this year; while none of these projects are entirely pointless this is a poor substitute for the brilliance 'Smile' and 'Sun' seemed to usher in a decade ago. Clearly the moneymaking reunion with The Beach Boys was merely a paycheque away for quite a while now. Officially of course the line is that Brian had been thinking for a long time about the first get-together since he quit the band twenty years earlier. That songs have been set aside because they felt more 'Beach Boysy' than his solo works and - so it's hinted - that they're better than anything he's done without the magic of the band (is this the right time to point out that his previous album with the band featured the wretched unexpected hit 'Kokomo' and where Brian's biggest contribution was a noisy song about his car?!) That's clearly rubbish - only 'Summer's Gone', by far the greatest song here, was kept in case of a reunion one day - and significantly it was intended from the moment it was written as the final track on the final Beach Boys album (a fact played down in the media at the time but now seems rather likely given what's happened since this album came out). Initially Brian wanted the whole of a reunion album to sound like this, with a downbeat nostalgic feel and 'Summer's Gone' the album title - but instead Capitol rejected it for something more 'commercial'. Rather says it all.
I also spent my time scouring the media for signs of divisions within the band. Surely someone in the media would point out that all was not well within the group - that the tensions that had kept not just bandmates but 'brothers, friends and cousins' apart for decades couldn't be erased with the arrival of a big fat advance? Instead we got the usual tired thing about how the band love each other then, now and always. All those court cases, on-stage arguments and explosive interviews were just them being misunderstood. To be fair Dave Marks always looked pleased to be here, reunited with the band he never should have left, while Al Jardine and Bruce Johnstone were their usual professional selves, trying to keep the peace and not think about what happened the last time these various factions were in the same room together. However events since the album's release paint a different story. Mike has come out since and said that he'd pleaded to go back to writing songs with his cousin the way they used to, that he'd take however long it took out of his touring Beach Boys schedule, involve everyone somewhere down the line and make this a true Beach Boys collaboration between everyone still alive (arguably the first since 'Sunflower' way back in 1970). At first Brian said yes and the next minute the album was a fait accompli, with Brian having worked with his usual sources like Joe Thomas (a regular collaborator since 1998) and Jim Peterik (a more recent find). In the end the other Beach Boys became guest singer on their own album, like the 'Stars and Stripes' album, only worse. For the moment though Mike bit his lip and backed his cousin, his doubts soothed by a token song on the album in 'Daybreak Over The Ocean', a song that - worryingly - had already been tried once during sessions for the gloriously titled yet abandoned solo record 'Mike Love Not War' and found wanting. Brian then announced when the tour was nearing an end that he'd enjoyed the experience so much (or perhaps the pay cheque that came with it) that he'd like to 'do it again' using the same winning formula; at this point Mike blew his top and announced that he'd already intended to honour a series of dates his 'old' Beach Boys with Bruce had already booked as a 'backup plan' if the reunion didn't work out. The public, used to rooting for Brian and treating Mike as a pantomime dame, all booed and there were lurid headlines about Mike 'sacking' his cousin (as well as Al and Dave and the Wondermints) and leeching off the hard work Brian had put into this record. However I have to say my sympathies are rather the other way around: this was a reunion project that was flawed from the first, with no one quite sure how long it was going to last or what exactly the record was meant to achieve. Was it the start of a whole new legacy? A chance to properly finish the Beach Boys discography which had been in disarray since at least 1979? Was it - as initially planned in an idea sadly abandoned in the rush to get this album out in the shops - a tribute to Carl and Dennis, using 'Free As A Bird Beatles' style overdubs on some unfinished recordings? Or was it simply a chance to get rich quick?
I can't tell you how upset I was at this album's release - not how angry I was at the reviewers falling over themselves to call it 'the best Beach Boys album since Pet Sounds', thus ignoring a cruelly overlooked and endlessly fascinating career across the rest of the sixties and seventies. In truth, this album isn't even good enough to be better than 'Summer In Paradise', the rather sorry Mike Love led-record from 1992, which at least had the good grace to throw the rest of the band a bone or three and pay tribute to Dennis as well as some naive yet nice attempts to remind us to 'save the planet'. There's not one song here The Beach Boys hadn't already done better somewhere else in their oeuvre: the poppy songs are embarrassingly empty for men in their sixties which even Mike sounds uncomfortable singing; the attempts to get modern are far more laughable than much derided attempts at the same in the disco and 80s synths years; the characters in the story-songs are woefully one dimensional and loathsome; while even that glorious streak of Beach Boys melancholy - the closest thing to a saving grace on this album - sounds limp and artificial set against the rage of 'Til' I Die' or the poetry of 'Surf's Up' or the glow of 'Warmth Of The Sun' et al. Not once on all the repeated hearings I gave this album did I think 'gee, that's something I hadn't heard The Beach Boys do before' or 'gosh, this is really gripping'. Instead this album wants to beat you over the head with how clever it is time and time again, how the modern Beach Boys are as perfect as you'd always remembered them, honest - even though most of the vocals are so audibly auto-tuned to within an inch of their lives (we expect that from hapless boy bands, not music pioneers!) and The Wondermints do almost all the singing anyway. What's worse, by trying so hard to sound like The Beach Boys over and over - a sea reference here, a sense of nostalgia there - the band have forgotten all about what used to make them so special; their sheer eclecticism which meant you never knew what was coming next; instead most fans on hearing the band were getting back together again could have imagined a more interesting album than this one.
Now before I get carried away, there are two clever developments on this record that save it from being the worst mistake in the history of popular music (just about, anyway). The first of these is that the band treated this record as if it was made in the old days of vinyl, complete with a side one and side two. The happy-go-lucky commercial ditties where the band still played around in a Summer that could have been fifty years ago takes up side one; the sadder reflective maturer songs from more or less and older point of view takes up side two. Not since the 'Today' album of 1965 had The Beach Boys been quite this clever in a stylistic sense and this is a welcome method of getting so many sides of the band across without veering from one extreme to another. The second is the closing quartet of songs which pick up from the 'That Lucky Old Sun' album to present a (supposedly) more autobiographical slant from Brian's perspective than usual and add a touch of drama and emotion to the end of this album, which nearly gets away with sounding as if it's 'real' and heartfelt. In truth there's nothing here that Brian hadn't already done better ('Midnight's Another Day' and the middle eight of 'Goin' Home' from 'Sun' are far better attempts at trying to come to terms with Brian's fascinating life story and what his twenty-something self would have made of how it all turned out) . But at least the band tried to do something more than simply a dozen pop songs, so for that I salute them. Typically, though, this concept - dubbed 'The Life Suite' during the making of the record - originally lasted for six songs (the entire second side) but got cut to make way for some of the poppier material. God only knows why (or if he did in fact make the radio).
However a cursory glance through the album's lyrics reveals what an empty record this is, with even 'Summer's Gone' reduced to banality without the music. After all, what do we learn from this album? That God made a radio (a very odd lyric, with God not the Devil responsible for rock and roll, that tries to be 'Add Some Music To Your Day' but fails), that the band would like to go back to the beach/that summer/that girl again just like yesterday (an emotion that pales in comparison to the lively re-make of 'Do It Again' recorded at the same sessions and released as a standalone single, which is erudite and catchy not bland and repetitive as here) and in 'The Private Life Of Bill and Sue' a weird attack on reality TV (the album's one attempt to address the modern changes in lifestyle since the last album - and then they mess up by sticking another ruddy fun-in-the-sun chorus on top!) Reunion albums always tend to be a funny business - from The Beatles to The Small Faces to The Who they've nearly all been disappointing or at least inconsistent. However this album is somehow worse than all of these examples (though The Who's 'Endless Wire' cuts it close) presenting an ersatz version of a band as if it's just another product to sell, with melodies vaguely enough like the old songs for fans to remember by, with lyrical references to old songs for fans to notice, without any attempt to show the world why people so rightly worshipped The Beach Boys for so long and how much they still have to offer (not just Brian but even Al's and Mike's solo records from the past twenty years are much more interesting than this record!) In short, this is a sell-out album, the first time since the almost equally misguided 'MIU' in 1978 that the band have met up purely to sell as many records as possible (for instance Love recalled writing 'Springtime Promises' 'within about five minutes' and didn't spend that much longer on the other songs he was involved with; while this speed occasionally worked with the younger, sharper band with something to prove it's clearly a mistake here with an album terribly rushed sounding).
However I've not even reached the worst and most off-putting thing about this album yet, perhaps because by comparison it is a minor point: that album cover. Last time around 'Summer In Paradise' was stunning, an underwater painting that not only worked in its own right but fitted in with what the lyrics were saying. Clearly somebody somewhere had paid a lot of attention to the packaging and how it went with the record, even if you had the sneaking suspicion it wasn't any of The Beach Boys. This album cover is ugly waves that are on the one hand ripped off the famous illustrations by Japanese artist Hokusai and on the other re-drawn by the hand of what looks like a toddler in a few seconds using the top of a baked Alaska as a template. Even this sorry mess of an album deserved a better sleeve - in retrospect, despite the strong reviews and warm nostalgic glow, it's amazing this record sold anywhere near as well as it did looking like that!
Overall, then, 'That's Why God Made The Radio' is a disappointment on almost every level - it doesn't work as nostalgia reminding the world about why the band were so great, it doesn't work as a modern release made as part of a continuing career and it certainly doesn't work simply as yet another addition to The Beach Boys' canon. Only the joy of hearing those voices wrapped around each other again - albeit infrequently, joined by The Wondermints and digitally altered to within an inch of their lives - plus the final suite of songs makes this album of any interest to collectors at all. In truth people probably weren't expecting much from this record after thirty odd years of only slightly less sloppy work and many people were surprised at how good this record was compared to their memories. Which can only show, dear reader, how quickly people forget; at their best The Beach Boys were the perfect example of why somebody somewhere made the radio - they brought life, love, joy, tears and soul to our world and made California sunshine the backdrop to any day, whether you were a stones throw from the beach yourself or sat in a rained-on roof-leaking flat in Wick. But this album is the perfect example of why God frowns on reunion albums, especially those done for all the wrong reasons. For all that though, the Beach Boys taught me hope too and I hope that, despite their recent differences, the band can still come together at least one last time and add to their legacy with one last great finale. But this time they have to do it properly: the band should work together from the first, not just meet up during rehearsals; the album credits should reflect the democracy of the band however badly the record company want the tried and tested Brian in charge; the backing band, great as they are, should stay in the background and support rather than overshadow the singers we've come to hear; Carl and Dennis ought to be here, somewhere, at what after all is a party celebrating them as much as the survivors - it would be easy to do, more so than for most groups, as there are lots of unfinished Beach Boys recordings featuring the former and solo unfinished recordings featuring the latter and Brian's already had a go at some on his solo albums; but most of all the next album should be made from the heart - however un-commercial, however ugly and however controversial the results. That after all was how it started, when music was a precious means of communication that allowed a troubled teenager and his revved up cousin to speak of all that was on their minds and shaped their lives and that's why God made The Beach Boys. Oh well, at least they didn't record something as crass as 'Brian Is Back' this time around - not like the last time they got back together!
'Think About The Days' starts the album off on a high - well, for the opening fifty second burst of magical harmonies anyway, working as a sort of 'Our Prayer' style overture to the album, full of that massed block of melancholia that only Brian Wilson can write. Already, though, it's ominous that the most audible voice here isn't one of The Beach Boys but Wondermint Jeffrey Foskett singing the part that Brian can no longer reach and Carl is no longer around to fill (in fact is any of the 'real' band here apart from Al Jardine doo-doo-dooing in the background?) The piano accompaniment is also terribly clunky and is one of those sounds that's so '2010s' (appearing on records by everyone from Fiona Apple to Robbie Williams) that this record is in danger of sounding as dated as 'Summer In Paradise' in another twenty or so years. As a result the sounds both blissfully on the money and strangely artificial and anticlimatic all at the same time - a problem the listener will have across the whole record. That said though the sudden unexpected use of trumpet for merely five notes at the end is a good example of why Brian Wilson's genius is still around, even if it kicks in a lot more intermittently these days.
Title track 'That's Why God Made The Radio' is one of the stronger (read less irritating) songs on the album, sounding at once like a sequel to 'Add Some Music To Your Day' and a 'motto' for the album - that music is a powerful form of healing that's more important than any personal problems a good one for a band who've fallen out more times than they've made albums (and they've made an awful lot of albums). There's also a neat throwback to Brian's 'first' career overview (of sorts) the EP 'Mount Vernon and Fairway' included as a 'bonus' release with 1973's 'Holland' album. In that record a poorly Brian equated his staggering burst of creativity across the past decade as being beamed to him by a creative 'radio' that was being taken away from him and handed over to his brothers and cousin (the EP was even named for the street where Mike lived in childhood). Note, for instance, this song's most moving line, about 'receiving your signal with a prayer' - Brian's radio is finally back in the right frequency. The song was named after collaborator Joe Thomas commented on a certain song they both liked when driving with Brian to his studio to 'work' - he loved Brian's quip enough to turn it into a full song. This song, then, also sounds like Brian taking back charge of 'his' radio and vowing to use it for spiritual purposes. Certainly the melody of the song sounds more inspired than most on the album, full of criss-crossing vocals coming at you this way and that and with an actual middle eight (the only song here almost to bother). However lyrically once the idea is established it has nowhere to go - unlike, say, 'Add Some Music' there's no sense of a progression here, of the narrator discovering just how widely their music has taken on a life of its own without them noticing. Instead we get some curious lines about God 'waving his hand' and 'giving us rock and roll' which seems to sit against every other folklore story about rock and roll coming from the devil (although it makes sense that if God is anywhere he would choose Brian's spiritual music to speak to us). Performance wise too this is a Wondermints performance backing either Brian (briefly) Bruce or (even more briefly) Mike and doesn't have the same 'wow' factor as hearing the band together. Taken together the whole recording sounds stiff, as if it's a collection of some stunning 'feels' (Brian's word for his sudden inspired nuggets of musicality) that haven't quite been tied up into a full song. Still if the rest of the album was up to this standard I wouldn't have been too upset; alas it's the best thing here until the very end.
'Isn't It Time?' was the first song recorded for the album and therefore the first time those voices had been heard together for a good twenty-five years. Pleasingly there's more of the 'band' here and less of the 'Wondermints', with the vocals passed a\round like a musical relay race and there's a gorgeous 'aaaaah' moment when everybody chimes in. However as a composition this is, to be frank, appalling. A failed attempt to re-make 'Do It Again' this song is gauche and contrived where the former song sounded so natural, with an irritating walking pace melody and a stop-start rhythm that's difficult to listen to more than once. Fans who talked about how this album was so much better than 'Summer In Paradise' clearly didn't notice the true clunkers allowed through into this song ('Can't forget the feeling of the Summer of love, uh I wanna take you there!') After setting up what should be the greatest chord in existence (the punch line of the 'woooooah' tag that's so electrifying') we get a beat of silence and the non-melodic line 'the good times never passed'. It's as if Brian was setting cousin Mike up for a 'fall', with that oh so Brian rush of inspiration turning into a soggy near-spoken word part (which sounds rather like those heard in the 1980s/90s years it has to be said). The band are on ropey vocal form too with the exception of a double-tracked Al who still sounds much the same, although shockingly it's Wondermint Jeffrey Foskett's shrill falsetto that's the most off-putting (in context we could have forgiven it had Brian at least had a go at the line and failed - but if the younger Foskett can't reach it either then the band have clearly been too ambitious). Scarily this too is one of the better songs on the album.
'Spring Vacation' is the closest in feel to an early Beach Boys song. Unfortunately it's closer in texture to one of those written-in-a-hurry 'filler' songs from the mid-sixties when The Beach Boys were on a contract that saw them churn out four albums a year whether they were ready or night. Mike revealed in an interview that, not liking the non-Beach Boysy lyric Joe Thomas had originally given the song he re-wrote another on the spot within five minutes just before the band went into record: I could well believe it. A cliched song about going back to the beach for a holiday break, it's vapid and pointless, full of clumsy references to old songs seemingly designed simply to convince fans that yes this is still The Beach Boys, honest, however odd they sound here. Full of lines like 'easy money, ain't life funny? Hey what's it to ya? Hallelujah!' given by Mike to Brian to sing it almost sounds like he's taking the mickey of his old cousin and his need to re-form the band. The melody is better but again sounds disjointed, with a respectable verse and a slightly too poppy but passable chorus stapled together unconvincingly. Vocally it's nice to hear not just Brian and Mike but Bruce taking their share of the lead vocals, but of all the tracks on the album this is the one so obviously computer treated, at times making Brian sound like an alien (other more soulless bands like Take That can get away with it - their audience isn't quite convinced they're all real anyway, but the whole point of The Beach Boys is their warmth and naturalness and we fans would rather have the band however they sound than an artificial beast constructed afterwards in the studio). Even 'Summer In Paradise' recycled it's source material with more respect than this.
'The Private Life Of Bill and Sue' is this album's one attempt to extend The Beach Boys sound (and surely puts paid to the idea that Brian was 'putting songs aside' he thought would suit the band - this would have sounded out of place even one of his solo records). Damning reality TV, Brian claims that he's not interested in Bill and Sue ('Can you dig whet I'm telling you?' he adds as if it's still 1967) and then spends an entire song about what they're up to. Didn't you listen to yourself Brian? We're not interested either - rather than sounding like a grumpy man sounding off about something not built for him and his generation perhaps he could have written a song about how The Beach Boys' life story is so powerful and unlikely it's threatened to overshadow their music (or a novelty song about trying to promote something 'real' from yesteryear through modern eyes?) Together with the irritating but oh-so-modern Brian 'hey did I tell ya?' spoken word part that sounds part calypso and part nursery rhyme, this song may well be the worst effort on the album. There's also a clueless walkie talkie part (perhaps linking back to the album 'theme' of radios) that's pointless because we can't hear it (is it meant to be the telly on in the background? is so then where is Sue?) The rest of the band are barely here either, with just Bruce joining Brian and the Wondermints on the chorus by the sound of it - perhaps they refused to have anything to do with such a wretched song? In some parallel universe out there I can picture how the recording of this song might have gone with Dennis still alive too ('What? But I'm king of the jungle - I won 'I'm a celebrity' a dozen times and only got booted off because I tied Ant and Dec to a surfboard and threw them in the sea for being rude about one of my songs!)
'Shelter' is another song about a 'radio', but this time it's the music running round the narrator's head, always playing 'our favourite song'. Another hymn to the healing power of music, this song would have been nice had there actually been any music here - the song seems like it's getting somewhere with those jagged sudden builds of power so common to the Thomas-era Brian, but the song wastes it: the songs goes bamDamDUMDUMDUMD!U!M! and then nothing, a second's pause, a drum rattle so poor I can hear Dennis chuntering from here and a nothing chorus ('I'll give you shelter from the storms'). As for the idea - that the narrator can offer shelter to his girlfriend - it's nice to hear Brian writing a love song again, but why then is the song so confused between who he's singing to? (Sometimes he's singing to someone he's been with for fifty years and who he has shared memories with - at other times he's imagining her with a whole new life after a parting years ago; were two songs stapled together because again that's what the musioc sounds like - come on guys you can do better than this!) Only an occasionally interesting lyric reflecting on a lost love (Wendy? Marilyn?) and a stronger Beach Boys presence in the vocals makes this song one of the other better tracks on the album.
'Daybreak Over The Ocean' is the only song Brian didn't have a hand in and is an entirely Mike Love song. While many reviewers picked on it as the runt of the litter, that's more to do with the music press' traditional dislike of Love than the song itself, which at least has the grace to sound like The Beach Boys if being as similarly uninspired as most of 'Summer In Paradise'. An unfinished song dating back to the early 80s, it sounds at one with the songs Mike wrote with Terry Melcher and has that same 'what would the band have sounded like had they been brought up in the hip hop era with polluted beaches to surf in?' feel of that period. It's a sign of how weak this album is that the throwback in sound almost sounds like a relief, with lots of wide open spaces, room for the vocals (with everyone more or less involved) and even sounding as if the spirit of Carl is back in the room when Brian and Al's similar voices unite in tandem. However there's no way I can forgive the song's cheeky similarity to 'My Bonnie' ('Daybreak over the ocean, bring back my baby to me!') or the rhyme of 'ocean' and 'devotion' which seems so Mike Love it's hard to believe he hadn't used it before. Still, fans of Kokomo (there must be some!) will find much to enjoy and at least this song sounds like The Beach Boys at last.
'We've got beaches in mind - man it's been too much time!' is an outrageous lyric and should have started the album; it's so Beach Boys in philosophy, outlook and cheekiness. So why isn't there a good song to go with it? The half-baked white reggae backing is never a good sign and not a sound that has ever really worked for The Beach Boys before, while the lyrics about 'dreaming' of the chance to get back together again are promising but unfinished, as if Brian got cold feet about making the song too obvious in case the reunion never happened. Ultimately though this song's biggest crime is that it's unforgettable - well that and the appalling drumming that's so artificial and yet so tiny at the same time. Still, there's a nice capella opening and even a chance for Dave Marks to strut his stuff on guitar (though all too briefly sadly) so at least recording-wise this song is halfway there. There's even a middle eight too, cliched as it is. But when you're praising the least offensive and most forgettable song on an album for not making as many mistakes as some of the others - and when that band is The Beach Boys - then you know something's gone seriously wrong.
'Strange World' is the start of a suite of songs that are meant to be the sound of a man returning to the Pacific Coast Highway in California, driving along the road and being hit by all sorts of memories as he leans out the car. While these songs become in danger of sounding like a travelogue, at least there's bit of emotion in them and the record does get slightly better from this point. The lyrics, for example, are better, Brian sighing over the 'multi-coloured lives we run' when the world seemed so much better and simpler in black and white and his lines about 'the setting rays of the sun' are enough to bring a lump to the throat. 'Strange World' still isn't quite there though - this isn't a melody, really, just a string of words put together with some 'doo doo de doos' weaved through them like a thread trying to keep the song together and some of the lyrics sound more tired than inspired ('You can drive your car to the country fair, or ride your bicycle - anywhere'). As for the chorus, why is this a strange world? Presumably California looks different to what Brian's elder narrator remembers and there's a hint that he feels adrift in a very different modern world of polluted beaches, mortgages, careers and brerakdowns - but it's hinted, not stated, and an extra verse exploring this wouldn't have gone amiss. After all, surely the major plot point of this suite isn't that the narrator can't do what he used to do but that he's been overtaken by another generation who can - and who enjoy what he once did but with the added pressures of a 'strange world'? We don't get that better sounding poignant song though - we get some OAP too old to surf muttering 'strange world' under his breath as he lists all the places from his youth.
'From There To Back Again' is the closest in feel to 'Pet Sounds' Brian, with a long sweeping melody and lyrics of nostalgia and longing (even if there's the same all-too-simple pounded piano part from the same era along for the ride too). The decision to give the song to Al to sing is a masterstroke though and he turns in easily the best lead vocal on the album, pleading with his wife of many years to 'run away' with him back to the beach and his adolescence. 'Why don't we feel the way we used to anymore?' is the song's central phrase, as the memories of yesterday call him to the beach 'with the wind'. Once again, it's a beautiful day not in L.A. but the beach where the band grew up and for once some of that magic and mystery is here on the recording, even if this song too has a slightly irritating stop-start feel to it (Brian might have been aiming for 'Smile' here but can't combine his little bits of magic together like he used to). Unusually Brian is used as not emotional heavyweight but as inner conscience, ending the song with the Pink Floyd-like thought that 'through our compromise paradise is just another place in the wall', that the band 'gave it all' but lost it all 'through the wine' (erm, not the usual reason the biographies give but Brian may be using the word as a metaphor for all addictions here and not just the physical ones but the abstract too).
Against all the odds 'Pacific Coast Highway' is sweet too, a reprise of 'Think About The Day's but with less irritating piano and a sweet finale where Brian reflects on feeling older with the minor key wistfulness of his best years. backed solely by the Wondermints, this is more like his recent solo style and recalls the classic 'Midnight's Another Day', pausing to think about the 'setting sun' once more and ending with a teary harmony drenched 'goodbye' (the single best use of the Wondermints on the entire record). If, though, this song is a continuation of Brian discussing his life story as per the 'Lucky Old Sun' album then note what this song says: that Brian doesn't need the Beach Boys as much as he thought he did, that he's found a place where 'I'm better off alone' and can find his own identity rather than living up to what he achieved in his youth. The fact that Brian sings without the rest of the band (but with his regular solo band) underlines the effect even more - so why is it here of all albums? How typical, though, that the most deep and powerful song on the album lasts slightly under two minutes and is treated as if it's this that's the big throwaway on the album instead of the previous ten tracks.
The album then ends with 'Summer's Gone', a moody ballad intended from the first as the 'Beach Boy's farewell song', which it might yet be even if Brian was hastily downplaying the idea when he realised how well the reunion project was being received. Co-written with Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, it's the closest this album comes to a classic song and features those familiar melancholy minor chords and a vocal that somehow manages to sound isolated despite being drenched in some stunning chorus harmonies. Slow to the point of being a crawl and with another nothing lyric that says nothing more than 'I'm getting old', at least this song feels like it has some emotional resonance inside it, full of some exquisite chord touches that tug at the song left and right, like another wave of emotion hitting the narrator. As he puts it 'it's finally sinking in' that one day he might die and never see the beach again, a surfer leaving the great surfing summer behind and embracing his twilight Autumn years, even after losing both his brothers along the way ('One day begins, another ends, I live them all and back again'). Throughout the melody rises and falls as if in sympathy, sounding at peace with the realisation despite the starkness of the words - this is someone whose already done so much they're still in shock and content to have finally made peace with the world. It's a worthy place for The Beach Boys' canon to say goodbye (much more so than the John Stamos cover of 'Forever' that ended 'Summer In Paradise') and the song ends with a characteristic Brian Wilson production touch, an added twinkle that recalls both the fairy dust of the song that first 'inspired' him ('When You Wish Upon A Star' from Disney's 'Pinocchio') and his early classics when Mike's sister Maureen played the harp. However the fact that the whole Beach Boys reunion seems to have been written round this one song, where the hell are The Beach Boys?! Only Al appears to be here, with The Wondermints filling in all the other gaps and even he is demoted to being nearly inaudible. Surely this tribute song to the band's golden sunshine youth needed to be heard sung by the band and with all the blemishes of age left intact? Though better than anything else on the album than a country mile, 'Summer's Gone' still seems ultimately like a waste.
Overall, then, this record is a disappointment. Why go to all the lengths of having The Beach Boys reunite and then barely use them? (Hear this album back to back with 'Summer In Paradise' and then hear how Mike went from singing everything to singing barely anything). Why weren't Al and Bruce allowed to contribute anything? (The band had apparently worked up a revival of 1985 track 'She Believes In Love Again', which doesn't bode well, but that song is still better than a good half of what's here; similarly Al was hurt when his revival of the song he'd worked on with Carl, 'Waves Of Love', got pulled from the running order - allegedly at Capitol's assistance, which may well be the daftest move on this rather daft record). Why is there all of one guitar part for Dave to play? (guitar was, after all, as much a part of the band's original sound as the harmonies). I know the group couldn't do much about missing Carl or Dennis (though an all Beach Boys version of, say Dennis' 'River Song' would have been stunning, never mind the outtakes from the last session the band did with Carl as heard on the 'Made In California box set), but they could and should have done something about how poorly Mike, Al, Bruce and David are used. The sad truth is that even if this album had appeared as a Brian Wilson album with the odd guest appearance it would have been a disappointment - both for how poorly the rest of the band are used, the lack of group vocals and the fact that this album would still have been the weakest of all of Brian's releases of original material to date. Released under The Beach Boys banner, it's a disaster, a cringe-worthy collection of shoddy songs and antiseptic recordings that even their equally troubled 1980s incarnation would have sniffed at (at least they had Carl to get them over their problems). Despite a bit of promise with the closing quartet suite, the odd decent vocal and the promise that didn't quite make it of the title track 'Isn't It Time?' and 'Daybreak Over The Ocean', this is easily the weakest album released under the band name. Instead it sounds suspiciously like the cheapest and easiest way for Brian to make more money - and the rest of the band went along with it because of the chance it gave them to have one last turn in the spotlight. The band who played on that 'Surfin' demo tape in 1960 would have been furious at how it all turned out (you can almost hear mum Audrey Wilson saying 'boys, play nicely!' while dad Murray would most certainly have thrown out the horrendous auto-tuning equipment) and this album is as good an example of any was to why the music Gods seem to frown on music reunions. However in a weird way perhaps it is a clue as to why God made the radio - so that bands like The Beach Boys could sound forever young and timeless and creative, without the wounds of age and financial troubles getting in the way. As for me I'll be on the beach, trying to bury this album in the sand and trying not to think of it ever again.