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The Beach Boys' Perfect Imperfect Box Set

Aug 29, 2013

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Beach Boys mainstay Mike Love (with John Stamos on drums) performs at Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 2012. The band's new box set, Made In California, has critic Marc Hirsh thinking again about a group whose legend never made sense to him.

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Years ago, I publicly declared that I've always thought the Rolling Stones were overrated. In so arguing, I acknowledged the brilliance of Beggars Banquet and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" because, I mean, come on, I have ears and a soul. But one unimpeachable album and one perfect single didn't exactly add up to the World's Greatest Rock And Roll Band to me, even if you tossed in Exile on Main St. and Let It Bleed for good measure.

(Which, incidentally, I sort of did, causing my editor to tell me that maybe I shouldn't start my piece on why I didn't like the Rolling Stones by explaining just how much I really liked the Rolling Stones. Nevertheless.)

I could just as easily have written about the Beach Boys, who never really hit me, save for the exquisite neurosis of "Don't Worry Baby" and the lush romanticism of Pet Sounds.

Even so, Pet Sounds is an album that I like but don't love — which is to say that I find about half of it ("Wouldn't It Be Nice," "I'm Waiting For The Day," "Sloop John B," "Caroline, No," "I Know There's An Answer") heart-stoppingly magnificent and half of it underwhelmingly ambiguous and overworked. "God Only Knows" straddles that line exactly, with Carl Wilson's vocal (and Brian Wilson's melody) gliding sublimely until the orchestral breakdown in the middle, which fragments the momentum entirely, and the whole thing seems to have to restart all over again.

So while I have, of course, absorbed vast quantities of their output up to and including "Good Vibrations" through sheer cultural osmosis, I've never been a fan of the Beach Boys. And yet, for the past month, I've been enamored with the new six-disc Made In California box set, on sale this week.

Part of that is because it's made me cock a serious ear to the band for more or less the first time (though the 2010 DVD rerelease of The T.A.M.I. Show, with the Beach Boys' performance restored to the running order, laid the foundation by reminding me that it was an actual self-contained band before Brian began having grander ambitions than could be realized by a simple rock 'n'roll lineup).

But more satisfying still, Made In California conveys the entire sweep of the Beach Boys' career, from Chuck Berry-besotted car and surf enthusiasts in matching club wear — seriously, there are few bands in rock history, and maybe no major ones, that were so aggressively middle class — to purveyors of mad Spectorian symphonies to bummed-out hedonists to seekers of mystical truth to self-conscious echoes of their youthful selves.

It contains the best of the Beach Boys, but it's not, itself, the best of the Beach Boys. What it is is the story of the Beach Boys, something close to a straightforward, objective sonic biography, with implied encouragement to explore down any number of side alleys as they catch the listener's attention.

Which is to say, it accomplishes what almost every box set is supposed to do but rarely does. That doesn't mean that the ones that don't can't be terrific. But typically, throughlines get whitewashed, dead ends and wrong turns get swept under the rug, trivialities get imbued with disproportionate importance, narratives get reframed. If nothing else, most multidisc compilations emphasize the cream of a band's discography so as to present it in the best possible light from start to finish. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, especially from a consumer perspective.

Made In California, on the other hand, is curated to present the Beach Boys, warts and all. "Heroes And Villains" pops up toward the end of the second disc, which leaves more than half of the set to concentrate on what's generally viewed as the inessential part of the Beach Boys' catalog.

That not everything works — that not everything is even good — isn't a liability; it's the collection's strength. The reality is that after Brian crumbled under the pressure of following up Pet Sounds (really, following up Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), the Beach Boys' mojo substantially dried up, both commercially and creatively.

Made In California addresses that head on. There are inchoate fragments of SMiLE, marked shifts of creative control from Brian to Dennis to Carl and back again, baldfaced attempts to revisit past glories sitting alongside uncertain efforts to grasp relevance in a musical landscape shifting far too quickly (and dramatically) for them to keep up with. And, worst of all, effing "Kokomo."

Among the disc-and-a-half of concert recordings and unreleased/rare tracks is the 1974 gem "My Love Lives On," stark and burned out for reasons that go well beyond its being nothing but Dennis and a piano. Eliminate any of it, and you paint a picture that might be prettier but avoids confronting some important truths about the band.

Doing so would also undersell more than a few songs that might be considered inessential in a set primarily concentrating on the Beach Boys' classic period. Instead, Made In California allows some undervalued tracks to shine by providing them with oodles of context.

"Do It Again" must have felt hopelessly behind the times when it came out in 1968, but here it reveals itself to be their "Get Back," a conscious return to simplicity that still draws on their experience. "Sail On, Sailor" should be an object lesson in why the Beach Boys couldn't hack the '70s, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work like a monster. Perhaps that's because it's surrounded by other songs that really showed how adrift the Beach Boys could be around that time.

Longtime Beach Boys fans surely know this. And now, so do I. Made In California, and the attendant Wikipedia hole it constantly sent me down to learn more (ultimately leading me to YouTube to hear the unbelievable "Help Me, Rhonda" session hijacked by the Wilsons' drunken, passive-aggressive father, Murry), had me doing about 25 years' worth of investigation all at once.

Not many box sets succeed in conveying the sensation of consuming the full scope of a band in one sitting. The exemplary Made In California is a rare exception.

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