Brimming with romance and pathos, the shorthand version of The Beach Boys story is hard to resist. Even casual fans likely know the gist of it: Brian Wilson, raised on Chuck Berry and the Four Freshmen, hears beautiful melodies in his head, utilizes the finest session musicians and the vocal chemistry he conjures with his brothers, cousins, and friends. He bestows those melodies, first in service of songs about youthful pursuits like surfboards, cars, and girls, then burns out while his band nostalgically carries on recreating those songs in concert for decades.
When the anthology Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of The Beach Boys first appeared in 2003, it very much stuck to that truncated story. The 30-song collection was heavy with the evergreens from the early era, with only five songs released after 1970 included and only four more postdating the derailed Smile album that, according to the legend, was Brian’s creative breaking point.
The only problem is that version neglects a funky, slippery, musically fascinating part of the band’s history. As Brian Wilson’s productivity waned, the remainder of the core group (Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston) steered the ship through the late 60s and entirety of the 70s with a series of albums that were sporadically spiritual, sumptuously soulful, and largely unconcerned with the band’s massive legacy, instead focused on adventurous artistic expression.
When you listen to the albums from that underrated stretch, they can be a rollercoaster, with the artistic sensibilities of Carl, Dennis, Mike, and occasionally Brian tugging in different directions from song to song. But the newly reissued Sounds of Summer does a great service by restoring the best moments of that time period from those “other” guys and putting those songs on a pedestal alongside Brian’s best work.
The first two discs of the new box set contain the original compilation’s 30 songs in the same sequence, and it’s a peerless sampler of Brian Wilson, musical supergenius. Not that he could have pulled it off without that stunning vocal blend or the help of ace lyricists (Love, in particular, doesn’t get enough credit for his wordplay on those early hits). Starting with “California Girls” and ending with “Good Vibrations” means the bookends are musical highwater marks. In between are peak after peak: the shambolic bliss of “Barbara Ann”; the unstoppable momentum of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “I Get Around”; Al Jardine’s piercing vocals on “Help Me, Rhonda”; the frenzied shifts of “Heroes And Villains”; Brian’s tenderness and vulnerability on “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room”; and, of course, the interweaving voices supporting Carl’s for-the-ages lead on “God Only Knows.”
It’s when you head to the third disc that the surprises start to appear, at least for anyone who bailed on the band after the hits dried up. Carl Wilson came into his own as a frontman and songwriter, with grippingly evocative tracks like “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road” representing that transformation. Dennis, for all his personal demons, stepped forward with some of the most sensitive and beautiful tracks in the band’s history, such as “Forever” and “Baby Blue.” And Love, while sticking to the more optimistic side of things, still managed to dig deep on tracks like “Add Some Music To Your Day” and “Everyone’s In Love With You.”
The new Sounds of Summer also provides room for some of the more unsung Beach Boys and their standout songs. Part-timer Blondie Chaplin makes world-weariness sound transcendent while tearing through “Sail On, Sailor.”
In addition to being an integral part of the harmonies, Al Jardine’s showcases like “All This Is That” are fresh and unburdened. And Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls,” a proudly sentimental sigh of a record, is one of the group’s greatest triumphs.
Interspersed among these nuggets on the latter discs are some more Brian beauties, from both the early (“Wendy”) and later (“Goin’ On”) years, to add more context to the complete story. It says something about the catalog that this package goes 6 discs and 80 songs deep and diehards will still complain about exclusions. (Your humble writer would have loved “Please Let Me Wonder” to have made the cut, but that’s nitpicking, isn’t it?)
These guys have been anthologized more than most, so calling anything definitive in that department is presumptuous. But it’s hard to argue against the notion that the reissued Sounds of Summer tells the entirety of their in-studio musical story with thoroughness, skill, and love. For those who have relied upon the Cliffs Notes version up to this point, you’re in for a treat when you hear this.
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