As it turns out, while few people would have bet that a Beach Boys reunion was possible, Wilson had been thinking about it for years. Some of the songs started to take shape back in 1999, after Wilson recorded a solo album, Imagination, with Thomas. (Thomas co-wrote several tracks on the new album.) "He had all these great things," Thomas says. "But he didn't want to finish them. He'd say they were songs for the Beach Boys. At first, I thought that was just an excuse. But after I heard him say it about four or five tracks we'd done, I realized – he's not BS'ing anybody, he's making a Beach Boys record."
When the guys finally got together to record, another question remained: How would they fill in for Carl, whose warm tenor was the group's dominant voice in later years? What they discovered, in the early sessions at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, was that Wilson and Jardine, who used to sing higher than Carl, could cover his parts because their voices had gotten lower as they got older. "It's almost eerie," says Jardine, who sings one of the album's most spectacular leads on "From There to Back Again." "Brian really has that Carl punch now, and we both meet in his range – that really satisfying and mellow sound he had."
That's Why God Made the Radio ping-pongs between nostalgic, sun-splashed songs and the more reflective, melancholic music Wilson tends to write these days. The highlight comes at the end: a harmony-drenched 13-minute "suite" built around a twilight Pacific Coast Highway drive. Thomas says the suite's original tracks, recorded as cassette demos, sat on his shelves for years before he and Wilson started working on them again in 2008. "It sounded like a bunch of unfinished parts to me," says Thomas. "But all along, Brian had this idea about how to put them together. . . . It was like he wrote the songs in code."
The final segment of the suite, "Summer's Gone," started from a conversation Wilson had with his brother Carl shortly before he died. (Wilson's mother had passed away two months earlier, and Brian was dealing with the fact that he might end up the last surviving member of the Wilson family.) According to Thomas, Carl had planned to record a song for Imagination. But when Brian visited, Carl told him, "You know, Brian, I'm not gonna be able to make it." Brian's response was unusual. "He told me his last words to Carl were ‘I think I'm gonna stay for a while,' " says Thomas. "I mean, what a weird and emotional thing to say: ‘I know you've got to go, but I'm gonna stay for a while.' "
One afternoon in February, the Beach Boys crowd into the control room at Ocean Way to listen to the suite. John Stamos, the actor (a serious Beach Boys fan who often performs with Mike Love's band), stands in the back, twirling his sunglasses. When the music ends, the room falls silent. Finally, Stamos breaks the ice. "Magical," he says. Love, sitting next to me on a leather couch, has another reaction, which he demonstrates by putting his fingers into the shape of a gun, placing it under his chin and shooting himself in the head. "It's brilliant, beautiful, but I didn't write it, so it doesn't have that silver cloud on the cumulus nimbus," he says. "It's more cumulus than I probably would do."
Wilson may no longer have the same intense drive as he did making Pet Sounds, when Love dubbed him "Stalin of the studio." But he is clearly in control. Over two days at Ocean Way, it's a thrill to watch Wilson work – driving the singers through multiple takes of each line of a song, arranging harmonies and teaching them to the group on the spot. In all, 28 tracks were cut. And with only one more day of studio time booked, no one but Wilson knows which dozen will make the album. This makes some people anxious. "We're just waiting for word," says Jardine, sitting on the edge of a couch with his wife, Mary Ann, and their 10-year-old whippet, Willie.
One song Wilson seems most excited about is an R&B-style track Love wrote, "Daybreak Over the Ocean." "I love your new tune, man," he tells Love. "It kind of snuck up on me. I wasn't ready for it. Like, ‘Hey! What? Where? Who?' "
Wilson does not react the same way to Jardine's song. For the second day in a row, Jardine bugs Brian to work on "Waves of Love," a lovely track that features one of Carl Wilson's last vocals.
Wilson doesn't want to hurt Jardine's feelings, so he tries to ignore him. But Jardine keeps pushing. "We don't know where this is going, Bri," Jardine persists, "but it's important to put it in the bank."
"No, can't do it today, Al," Wilson says.
"Let's do it while you're here," Jardine pleads. "We've got to deliver some stuff, to the top."
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