The Beach Boys, ‘Made In California’ (Capitol/UMe)
“Made In California” puts a final cap on the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary events, which also included the release of the band’s first studio album of new material since 1996 (2012’s “That’s Why God Made the Radio”) and a sell-out tour featuring all the surviving Beach Boys (Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, David Marks and Bruce Johnston; the other original members, Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson, died in 1983 and 1998, respectively). The six-CD set presents a good mix of greatest hits, album cuts, live material and plenty of rarities (about a third of the set is previously unreleased).
The set is packaged like a high school yearbook, featuring a golden, padded cover, and lavishly illustrated with dozens of photos, faux “autographs” (“Stay cool and smile! Brian Wilson”) and parody ads. Quotes from the band members provide the text. One of the first spreads has a picture of a crew cut Wilson sitting at the piano in his parents’ home, next to a school essay from 1959 (when Wilson was 17) outlining “My Philosophy”: “I don’t want to settle with a mediocre life, but make a name for myself in my life’s work, which I hope will be music.”
The band is best remembered for fun-in-the-sun hits like “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “California Girls,” and “I Get Around.” What makes this set interesting to listen to chronologically is hearing the music becoming increasingly sophisticated and complex over time. The “Pet Sounds”/“Smile” era is much lauded by Beach Boys aficionados, but it’s often overlooked that the band’s music continued to progress well into the ‘70s, as evidenced by strong material like the save-the-environment plea of “Don’t Go Near the Water,” the haunting melancholy of “’Til I Die” and the mature pop sound of “Sail On, Sailor.”
But 1976 seems to be the tipping point; after the success of the Top 10 hit “Rock and Roll Music,” the band’s music became increasing generic (with the occasional exception, like the laid-back “Kokomo”). By the mid-‘90s, it seemed the group — or groups, given that there have been various permutations of the touring band — had run out of new things to say and was permanently relegated to being a nostalgia act. Which made the release of “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” a pleasant surprise; only two songs from the album are included on “Made In California,” but they update the band’s positive outlook without being corny or trite.
A sequence of 14 live songs spans the years 1966 to 1993, showing the Beach Boys to have a tougher sound in concert than they do on record. And hardcore Beach Boys fans will love the “From the Vaults” disc, which is filled with previously unreleased gems, like a 1964 radio session the band recorded for the BBC.
Over the years, the Beach Boys have generally put more effort into their reissues. Unlike their Capitol label mates, the Beatles, Beach Boys CD reissues have regularly featured rare material and extensive liner notes. “Made In California” continues to uphold that standard; it’s a thoughtfully compiled selection of songs, beautifully packaged, with enough to please both new and longtime fans of “America’s Band.”