Since I’m one of the new guys here, it’s worth doing a bit of level setting before I dive into reviewing the first Beach Boys studio album in 16 years.First, I think Brian Wilson is a genius.  His ability to hear music in his head and then meld disparate, seemingly unrelated pieces of instrumentation with the beautiful vocal instrument that was the Beach Boys created some of the greatest American music in any genre.  Wilson’s compositions deserve to be mentioned along with Gershwin (one of Wilson’s influences), Copland and Coltrane.Which leads me to one of my second personal musical truths:  Pet Sounds is the great American album of the 60’s.  It’s well known that Wilson felt he was competing with the Beatles, but for as much as I love the Beatles, I listen to Pet Sounds far more than their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandPet Sounds, for me, is the most musically complex, yet easily accessible albums ever made.  It has unbelievable arrangements and again, those classic Beach Boys’ vocals and harmonies.

With that as background, you might be able to appreciate why it took me almost a month to listen to and finally review That’s Why God Made the Radio.  The record’s premise alone made me cringe.  To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the “original” Boys were getting back together, recording an album and going out on tour.  Filling in for the late Carl and Dennis Wilson would be a charter member of the group, David Marks, (who hadn’t appeared on a Beach Boys’ album since 1963) and long-time band member, Bruce Johnston.  Oh, and of course, Brian would be reuniting with Al Jardine and Mr. F. Mike Love (listed as the album’s executive producer).  I figured this was a cheap money grab accompanied by an album that, in my low expectations, would be lucky to produce a song even on par with the vile “Kokomo”.

It took me exactly 2 seconds into the opening track, “Think About the Days”, to realize I could have been wrong.  That’s the point when the groups harmonies come up in a wordless vocal tone piece reminiscent of SMiLE‘s “Our Prayer”.  Right away I realized that Brian and the Boys might still have it.  But when I heard the chorus on the the album’s title track (and first single) I knew they did.  It’s wonderful, with multiple parts sung over what sounds like a baritone sax.  When they sing it a Capella after the bridge, you’re transported back to a simpler, sunnier time.

And that’s the thing about this record – it sounds great. There are plenty of hooks and gorgeous vocals throughout.  Brian even breaks out his trademark falsetto, notably on “Shelter”.  It’s as if he and the Boys are showing the generations of bands they’ve influenced how it’s really done.  The last three tracks, all credited to Brian and Joe Thomas (who received a recording credit on the album, too), are standouts.  They’re a bit slower in tempo which is where I think the Beach Boys have turned in some of their finest, most complete performances.

The songs are ostensibly about the end of summer, but just as the first few songs on the album announce “we’re back together” these leave little doubt that the record is more about farewells. Indeed, the penultimate song, “Pacific Coast Highway” fades out on the group singing “farewell”. The final, and probably my favorite, track on the album, “Summer’s Gone” is wistfully lovely song that ends with the lines “We live then die/And dream about our yesterday”- a touching, fitting closer.

So is this a great Beach Boys’ record? Of course not.  As good as the songs sound, the lyrics are, to be charitable, mostly lacking, particularly on the tracks where F. Mike Love gets a co-writing credit.  For example, a group of 70 year olds singing about the joys of “Spring Vacation” is a bit much no matter how good it might be musically.  Indeed most of the tracks co-penned by Love stray a little close to “Kokomo” territory.

On the whole, though, this is a solid effort from an iconic American group.  If the Beach Boys are near the end, they’re going out on, mostly, a high note (no pun intended).  I’ve been told by people whose opinions I trust that the tour has been pretty good with plenty of rarities to go with the hits.  I’m sorry now that my initial misgivings kept me away from a show they did near me, so go see them if you can.  If you can’t, go ahead and put this album on in the evening of your next BBQ. You won’t be sorry.

GRADE: B
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