Friday, September 6, 2013

Review: The Beach Boys’ 'Made in California' Box Set


A lot has happened since the 5-disc, career-spanning box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys was released in 1993, and much of it was unthinkable at the time. Carl Wilson was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, and we lost him the following year. Brian Wilson worked past his aversion to touring and performing, and even more incredibly, gave us both a solo version and approved a Beach Boys box set of his unfinished masterpiece SMiLE. He has reunited with the often-feuding surviving members of his group for a fiftieth anniversary album and tour. This year marking the five-decade anniversary of The Beach Boys’ unchallenged dominance of pop music (at least in America where the British Invasion was still a year away), it’s a good time to update Good Vibrations, and Capitol/UMe has released a 6-disc set called Made in California that brings the story to the present.

With 175 tracks and almost eight hours of Beach Boys music, what’s to criticize? The absolute essentials are all here with the important assumption you already own Pet Sounds and The SMiLE Sessions (and if you don’t, you need to get your shit together). There are a dozen or so studio recordings and a dozen more live ones that are totally unique to this set. Plus there are about 40 alternate mixes. Made in California is grand, no doubt, but it isn’t perfect either. So let’s get the geeky nitpicking out of the way before getting into why it’s essential.

There are some issues with the song selection, particularly when comparing and contrasting Made in California with Good Vibrations. This new box set seems clearly designed as a replacement for the earlier one, so it’s disappointing that all the tracks that were unique to Good Vibrations have not been remastered and included. The dead soldiers include “I Just Got My Pay,” “4th of July” (which has since only been released on a various artists compilation), “Games Two Can Play,” “H.E.L.P. is on the Way,” the Party! outtake “Ruby Baby,”  Brian’s magical solo performance of “Surf’s Up” from 1966, and alternate mixes of several SMiLE tracks. Though Made in California has been expanded to an extra disc, certain spots of The Beach Boys’ career have been contracted. Perhaps the assumption you own Pet Sounds accounts for why fewer tracks represent that album (including an alternate version of “Hang on to Your Ego”), but there’s no excuse for why Carl and the Passions and Holland get shorter shrift this time. Indeed, aside from “Sail on Sailor” and an unhinged live version of “Wild Honey,” there’s no evidence of great singer Blondie Chaplin’s stint in the group, and that includes his failure to get a mention in the oral history included in the set. There are also a couple of other great songs that didn’t make the transition between box sets (“She Knows Me Too Well,” “Long Promised Road”) and a few that inexplicably didn’t make either (“Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “You’re So Good to Me,” “Cuddle Up”). What gets expanded is the down slope that followed Holland, which was represented by just 15 tracks on Good Vibrations but is swelled to 36 on Made in California. Not all of these tracks are bad. The Beach Boys managed decent covers of “Rock and Roll Music” and “Come and Go with Me,” there are some good live tracks (particularly the SMiLE tracks performed on the 1993 tour and a Carl-sung version of “Sail on Sailor”), Dennis Wilson contributed a couple of gems to the generally unloved L.A. (Light Album), and Brian recaptured a little of the old magic on the 2012 reunion album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, but you have to weed through “Kokomo” and its ilk to get to those tracks. Civilization definitely would have been A-OK if crap like an alternate mix of “Brian’s Back” and the horrid outtake “Goin’ to the Beach” had never seen the light of day. Some fans may also take issue with the reliance on stereo mixes when Brian was always a “back to mono” kind of guy.

OK, so let’s now forget all of that and get to why you should own Made in California. The most obvious reason is the inclusion of several otherwise unavailable and genuinely wonderful outtakes and rarities. The most fabled is Dennis’s “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again,” a leftover from Surf’s Up that has the grandeur of “Cuddle Up” and an extra layer of eeriness in light of his early death. Dennis’s “Barnyard Blues” is another wonder, recapturing much of the SMiLE vibe in 1974. There’s an amazing 1:45 version of the previously 40-second “Meant for You,” an excellent version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” that puts to shame the other covers on 15 Big Ones, and Brian’s cool outtake “You’re Still a Mystery” from 1995. The 1963 sax-heavy “Back Home” sounds like Pet Sounds three years ahead of schedule. There’s almost a full disc of excellent unreleased live recordings. Along with the previously mentioned goodies there’s a rocking cover of “Runaway” from 1965, a version of “The Letter” from 1967 that would have fit nicely on Smiley Smile, and a crazed rendition of “All I Want to Do” that slays the studio version. The final disc of outtakes and a cappella and instrumental mixes offers a lot more worthy stuff than its counterpart in the Good Vibrations box.

I also liked the amount of thought put into the presentation. The set begins and ends with atmospheric aural montages, so the first and last sound you hear is the surf rolling in. It lends a cinematic touch to the whole thing, bringing this massive history full circle. In between there’s “Surfin’” and “I Get Around” and “God Only Knows” and “Cabin Essence” and “Darlin’” and “Forever” and “Feel Flows” and “The Trader” and “That’s Why God Made the Radio” and “Help Me Rhonda” and “Good Vibrations.” Really, when about an hour of an eight-hour box set is sub-par, it’s just greedy to gripe. So forgive the greed I expressed above and feel assured that Made in California is a very fine career summation of America’s greatest Rock & Roll band.

Get The Beach Boys’ Made in California at Amazon.com here:

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