The Beach Boys brings to an end nearly five years of recording inactivity of a band that has doggedly held on through all kinds of rough water. Having endured more hardships than any group should suffer — death, mental problems, periods of creative stasis and infighting — the mere fact of their survival is cause for celebration. Beyond that, The Beach Boys is actually a pretty entertaining album. Though not a world-beating act of artistic reassertion, the LP does serve to showcase those amazing voices, and to remind the world that nobody does it better — still.
The focus is on harmony. It rises in big, cushiony clouds, four and five parts deep, lending an illusion of fullness to the relatively thin songs. A fairly phenomenal deployment of advanced recording technology makes their voices ring like crystal, while the sweet, early-Sixties feel of these simple songs will rekindle fond thoughts of that era.
Despite the synth-pop progressivism of the playing — Fairlight synthesizer and drum programming abound — there's nothing terribly radical going on inside the tunes. For their commercial reentry, the Beach Boys are playing it safe, testing the waters. Their audience is immersed in the sound and feel of their early hits, and the idea seems to be that a good, strong dose of déjôÃ‚Â vu may be what it takes to pull the band back onto the charts. At times, they quote themselves outright: "Getcha Back" commences with a blast of voices not unlike the lush chorale that filled their recording of "Hushabye," and "California Calling" trades so transparently on the amusement-park bounce of "Help Me, Rhonda" and the surf mythology the band created that you can't help but smile.
The album was produced by Steve Levine, of Culture Club fame. (Boy George and fellow Clubber Roy Hay contributed a track, "Passing Friend" — the tone of wistful yearning suits the Beach Boys in their middle age.) As they get a surer handle on their career again, one hopes that they — meaning Brian Wilson, in particular — will return to self-production. Maybe some day they'll insist on playing more, as well as singing. And one can always wish, too, that when Brian Wilson sits down to compose henceforth, he won't need his shrink, Eugene Landy (who gets three cowriting credits), beside him.
In the meantime, The Beach Boys is pleasantly innocuous, undemanding and mildly enjoyable, and a heartening notice that the surf hasn't gone out of them for good.
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