Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio (review)

Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio (Capitol) review

It’s their best album in 40 years – and we’re not kidding

There is a lesson to be learned from the history of the Beach Boys – if you stick around long enough, everything will eventually come full circle.  Once regarded as little more than a glorified nostalgia act, the Beach Boys have found themselves back in favor, due in large part to the excellent archival release of last year, The Smile Sessions (read our review here), which unearthed some fascinating, revelatory pieces of music from over 40 years ago, and helped remind everyone just how insanely talented Brian Wilson was.  Now, all the surviving members are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band with a brand new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.

The group’s 29th studio album, it’s the first to feature Brian Wilson as producer and leader in a long, long time (you have to go back to Love You from 1977).  The roller coaster that’s been his career is the stuff of legend.  Yet, here he is, once again where he belongs, at the forefront, directing a new Beach Boys album – a fantastic new Beach Boys album.

All the remaining members are back in the fold – Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and Wilson.  This marks the first Beach Boys’ album not to feature brother Carl Wilson, who succumbed to cancer in 1998.  In his place, Carl’s childhood friend, and early member David Marks, returns for the first time in over four decades (original drummer Dennis Wilson drowned back in 1983).

That’s Why God Made the Radio is not only a triumphant return of America’s quintessential band – it’s the best album they’ve released in 40 years – and we’re not kidding.  In that span, the group has only been able to muster up 10 new albums, of which only Holland and Love You even come close to matching this new, surprisingly cohesive effort.  What’s different this time around?  The band seems to have taken this project seriously; this could’ve easily been another hack job like the half-baked Keepin’ the Summer Alive, or they could’ve filled the record with oldies like the dreadful Summer in Paradise.  Instead, they’ve finally constructed something that they (and their fans) can be proud of.

The album opens with the wordless vocalizing of “Think About The Days” – which immediately recalls “Our Prayer” off of Smile, but with a piano that’s got a contemplative quality to it. This transitions nicely to the record’s single and title track.  “That’s Why God Made the Radio” is an ode to a magical time when the airwaves were full of new and different tunes.  The song features clever lines like “it’s paradise when I / lift up my antenn-eye.”  There’s lots of great harmonies, and the chorus takes you to unexpected places, all propelled by a rhythm similar to “Surfer Girl.”  Near the end, it breaks down with a cascade of voices, in classic Beach Boys’ fashion, then a loud thud, before repeating the chorus to the end.

Not surprising, a great deal of the album deals with the past.  “Isn’t It Time,” led by a strummed ukelele, features the words “remember those nights we spent / just you and I / little did we know / how the time would fly.”   There’s also several nods to the doo wop groups that influenced the Boys’ harmonies.  “Daybreak Over the Ocean,” the one song completely written by Mike Love, features the excellent street corner lines “bring back my baby,” complete with multi-layered harmonies that will give you chills, backed by a Caribbean rhythm.  “Shelter” borrows the beat from “Don’t Worry Baby,” and contains an excellent falsetto chorus.

And, what would a great Beach Boys’ album be without a quirky Brian Wilson number? “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” fits that bill.  With a nod to the past, the song mentions cities from around the country, a la their hit from 1963, “Surfin’ USA.” But, this time around they’re not talking about hittin’ the waves for enjoyment, but watching reality television – I’m not sure that qualifies as cultural progress.

The disc’s only dud is the all-too obvious “Beaches in Mind,” featuring the words “we got beaches in mind / man it’s been too much time.”  The only thing that saves the track is the inclusion of some odd talk box guitar-work from guest Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – hadn’t heard that used in a song since Frampton!

Al Jardine turns in the album’s best track, the gorgeous “From There to Back Again.”  The gentle ballad is full of  longing – the melody pauses several times, as if to reflect on days gone by, featuring tasty wah wah guitar and flute.  This adds great effect, especially at the 1:52 mark, when they sing “if you just fall / just fall / to the GROUND” – the Beach Boys harmonies haven’t sounded this good since “Good Timin’” back in 1978.  The track ends with a bouncy coda that is over far too quickly.

The album ends with two reflective Brian Wilson songs, reminiscent of Pet Sounds. “Pacific Coast Highway” returns to the melody of the opening track as Wilson sings “sometimes I realize / my days are goin’ on.”  At a mere 1:47, it’s less a full song than a staging piece for the finale. The closing track, “Summer’s Gone,” is as poignant a song they’ve ever done.  With the hindsight of 50 years, the track is a sad, sobering look at the past.  Opening with a echoey piano, similar to the one used on “Heroes & Villains” on Smile, but instead of joyous tinkling, the notes are filled with regret, as Wilson sings “summer’s gone / it’s finally sinking in.”  The music creates a dreamlike setting with percussion, vibes, and oboe that recall “Caroline No” (incidentally, co-writing credits go to none other than Jon Bon Jovi).

Thats Why God Made the Radio reminds us of everything that we continue to love about the Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson – great harmonies, surprising and intricate melodies, and plenty of songs about summer, surf, love, and good times.  No matter what era of the Beach Boys moves you – there’s something here for you to enjoy.  –Tony Peters