A few years ago, two of my Canadian cousins were visiting California and stopped back at the house enthused.
The cause of their excitement? They had been driving around in their rental car when the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" came on the radio. After years of listening to the band's lush harmonies, they had finally heard them in Southern California itself — an experience probably more authentic than the rides at Disney California Adventure.
It says something about the timelessness of the Beach Boys' best music that even after Brian Wilson's decades of psychiatric woes, even after all the lawsuits filed by band members against each other, even after years of bad press and tell-all biographies, songs like "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Surfin' U.S.A." still resonate with their vision of a utopian California where life revolves around waves, girls and cruising through the hamburger stand.
Of course, that's one side of the classic Beach Boys. The other is the groundbreaking studio band who challenged the Beatles in the mid-1960s for pop supremacy, whose "Pet Sounds" album may have surpassed any the Fab Four ever made. It's a rare rock band whose catalog includes dozens of songs that have turned into beach party staples and dozens more that critics compare to Beethoven and Mozart.
When word got around that the Beach Boys had a new album coming out this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary, though, I wondered if either side of the band would emerge intact on the disc. Virtually everything the group has recorded since the mid-1970s has drawn widespread critical scorn, and furthermore, anyone who has heard Bob Dylan in recent years knows how age can ravage a once-powerful voice.
So now "That's Why God Made the Radio," the Beach Boys' 29th studio effort, is in stores. And considering all the doubts mentioned above, the word "comeback" barely suffices here. "Resurrection" might be more appropriate.
OK, the album isn't "Pet Sounds," and there's no individual track that astonishes like "Good Vibrations" or "Heroes and Villains." Most of the songs could be described as musical comfort food: upbeat melodies, chipper harmonies and lyrics — "We got beaches in mind / Man, it's been too much time" — that won't threaten Joni Mitchell's place in history.
But then, the Beach Boys' classics were rarely profound either, and the up-tempo tunes here could at least pass for B-sides from that era. Where the disc really astonishes is in the voices. A little deepening in Wilson's pipes notwithstanding, the group's harmonies sound as vibrant, and sometimes even as youthful, as they did four decades ago.
And then, right at the end, there's a true miracle: a little four-song suite, composed and mostly sung by Wilson, that leaves party anthems behind and delves into a poignant look at aging and mortality, complete with symphonic pauses and multiple tempo changes.
The lyrics take a poetic leap too — on "Strange World," Wilson looks around at "the uninvited who've lost their way" on the Santa Monica Pier, while on the closing "Summer's Gone," he pines for departed old friends and notes that "our dreams hold on / for those who still have more to say."
If the entire album had been in the vein of those final tracks, it would have been a masterpiece. Instead, it feels more like a reassurance: proof that after years of disillusionment, a group that once defined youth culture for the world can regroup and strike those remarkable notes again.
Welcome back, Boys. In all your imperfect glory, it's good to have you.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.