by Brian Erickson
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Following the deaths of Dennis Wilson in 1983, and brother Carl in 1998, The Beach Boys wisely kept quiet on the studio album front, splitting into three separate touring factions: Mike and Bruce as The Beach Boys, Al and the Endless Summer Band, and Brian touring under his own name. During this time of decreased activity, a new generation of fans took over, willingly preserving the group's legacy, canonizing Brian as rock's Mozart, proclaiming Pet Sounds as arguably the greatest album ever recorded, and the inescapable, "Kokomo," aside, largely erasing the previous two decades of career-defaming work. Meanwhile, small things happened that suggested a thawing of previously icy relationships: a photo shoot at the Capitol Records building, Al joining Mike and Bruce at a Reagan Library performance, and Brian overcoming his demons and releasing a stunning solo version of SMiLE in 2004.
Live at Knebworth (2002)
One of the final live performances of the founding band (recorded in 1980), Knebworth ultimately lacks the youthful energy of the 1964 Concert disc, the unpredictability of 1970's Live in London and the all-out fire of the seminal 1973 In Concert album. Instead, the band offers up solid, professional readings of their back catalog, and superior takes on more recent album cuts. Dennis' heartbreaking "You Are So Beautiful," is worth a couple of listens and Carl is still at the top of his game, vocally. It's a nice live document that marks the sad end of the Dennis Wilson era.
Brian Wilson Presents: SMiLE (2004)
When word came down sometime in the Spring of 2003 that Brian Wilson would be touring a newly-completed version of SMiLE that following year, fans rightfully didn't know what to expect. After years of beating back drug habits, eating disorders, and an abusive psychotherapist, as well as enduring the loneliness and hardship of losing both his brothers, Wilson was an old 62. Longtime fans were simply happy to have their hero still alive, willing to accept lesser efforts like Gettin' In Over My Head so long as they yielded the occasional, "Love and Mercy."
Wilson debuted the live incarnation of SMiLE in the always-friendly UK on February 20, 2004. I received an audio recording of the concert within 24 hours and was absolutely stunned. Dead-end instrumentals had been fully fleshed out with new lyrics courtesy of none other than original co-writer Van Dyke Parks; a willing participant in the album's resurrection. That September the studio version came out and it is every bit as good as advertised; a staggering embarrassment of riches that may very well have outshone Sgt Pepper. After all, Parks was courting Dylan. Lennon was singing from a circus poster.
Brian Wilson Presents: SMiLE should prove inspiring for any lover not just of The Beach Boys but of music in general and of the triumph of human spirit. It gives physical form to the cliche, "when there's a will, there's a way." It took Wilson nearly 40 years, but goshdarnit he found a way. And in doing so, rock's greatest 20th century composer accomplished something none of his peers will likely ever do: he made one of the greatest albums of the 21st century and proved once-and-for-all that Brian Wilson and his remarkable music have always been way ahead of their time.
Songs from Here & Back (2006)
A fun fun fun concert recording from the late 80s catches us at the height of Mike Love mania. The live set is appended by three new studio recordings, Brian's "Spirit of Rock and Roll," Al's "PT Cruiser," and Mike's surprisingly great, "Cool Head, Warm Heart." These are not new Beach Boys recordings. They are three autonomously-recorded solo tracks. Despite that, this odd cease-fire definitely whetted fans' whistle for the possibility of a reunion.
The SMiLE Sessions (2011)
The vintage version of The Beach Boys' legendary, lost album is reassembled (based upon Wilson's definitive 2004 reading) across five CD's, two LP's, and two 7" single's just in time for their 50th Anniversary. Musically, The SMiLE Sessions picks up right where Pet Sounds left off, with the advanced musical and compositional structure and colorful lyrics leading the would-be charge against The Beatles. Tracks like the multi-part, "Heroes and Villains," "Surfs Up," and "Wind Chimes," would have equaled or beat out almost anything else recorded during that time period, giving us a peak into an alternate history where Brian Wilson became a pop culture icon in real time, alongside Dylan and The Beatles; where he kept control and composure and never lost his mojo.
That's Why God Made the Radio (2012)
Every living member is back in the fold, singing and playing as well as they have in years. Both the title track (a Top 40 single) and parent album (Billboard #3) became bona fide hits, something The Beach Boys hadn't enjoyed since their mid 60s prime. Musically-speaking, That's Why God Made the Radio offers exactly what we might expect from a group of septuagenarians: a mixed bag of mid-tempo adult pop. The joyous title track, one which Wilson suggests is among the finest he's written, is lyrically flat but the chorus hits you in all the right places; just as any great Beach Boys song should. I could do without Mike's "Beaches in Mind," because come on! Please don't insult my intelligence by hitting me over the head with The Beach Boys singing Beach Boyish songs about thinking about going to the beach.
The album is redeemed by its closing four songs. Al Jardine delivers one of his best recorded vocals on "From There to Back Again," and Wilson's, "Summer's Gone," perfectly closes out the album with a poignant blend of sentimentality and melancholy. While Brian had originally voiced his pleasure regarding the making of this LP and his desire to record a follow up, The Beach Boys tour ended with the band fracturing again. This time, probably, once and for all.
Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour (2013)
The Beach Boys commemorated their massive reunion tour with this equally-massive double live album. Let's start with the good. The band sounds inspired and happy to be there as they run though a career-spanning 41 songs. David Marks' guitar sticks out to me as the consistently pleasurable highlight of the set. Bruce's turns on "Wendy," and "Disney Girls," exhibit how little his voice has aged over the years, and Mike Love's between-song banter has all the corny charm of your 70 year old grandfather's dinner table humor. We also get touching tributes to Carl and Dennis, and even though he doesn't say a word, Brian Wilson's presence remains towering.
But the bad part is that the band - at times - sounds too slick and too polished, as though painstaking efforts were taken to ensure The Beach Boys sounded inspired and happy to be there (14 musicians are credited with playing 26 instruments). Those two disparate oddities cancel each other out, leaving us with what acts as an "I was there," type souvenir for anyone lucky enough to catch them before they decided to fold it up once and for all. Everyone else should check out 1973's In Concert instead as it marked the final time that the band was on the same page creatively. The fact that they'd last another 40 years speaks to the genius of Brian, the heart of Dennis, the persistence of Carl, the cunning of Mike, the tenderness of Bruce, the steadiness of Al, the soul of Blondie and Ricky, and the virtuosity of David. Most of all, it speaks to the evergreen nature of the songs they wrote in the Wilson family home before they had any idea that that was what would continue to define them over five decades later.
In addition to these proper discography releases, the band also issued a number of seminal rarities packages which are home to many choice 60s and 70s cuts. The best of the bunch are Endless Harmony and Hawthorne California: Birthplace of a Musical Legacy. If you like those, and you want to venture into deeper waters, check out the group's two box sets: 1993's Good Vibrations: 30 Years of The Beach Boys, and 2013's Made in California. If you still haven't gotten enough of America's Band, go solo. Al Jardine's Postcard from California offers plenty of harmony-laced pleasantries while Brian's Live at the Roxy stands as a minor landmark. I've never heard him this comfortable in a live setting before and his between-song banter is as charming and funny as it is engaging. In the studio, he also managed to provide us with That Lucky Old Sun, the follow up to SMiLE that functions as the most inspired, and cohesive (non-SMiLE) album in his catalogue. Like it's more famous counterpart, it is a conceptual piece with repeating musical and lyrical themes that also serves as a "what might have been," had Wilson actually completed SMiLE in 1967. But the real treat might just be Mike Love's, 2015 single, "You'll Never Be Alone On Christmas Day." It tugs at the 'ol heartstrings and was recently covered by french pop band Phoenix (featuring Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman). The song, as well as Brian and Al's solo efforts are a fine reminder that - together or apart - The Beach Boys are still capable of dropping a few surprises on us.