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Some music has a setting, a place that feels woven into its sound.
For The Beach Boys, one of rock 'n' pop's most enduring groups, the setting always has been California. But the Golden State makes for remarkably varied terrain, and while early singles like "409," "Little Deuce Coupe," and "California Girls" are odes to the Southern California landscape original Beach Boys Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, and Brian Wilson experienced in their youth, the band's discography finds them later exploring the northern recesses of Big Sur, the psychedelic mindscapes of San Francisco, and the plight of the working man in Salinas Valley.
The Beach Boys are celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2012, following up the finally completed SMILE (released in 2011, only 44 years after it was recorded) with a new album, That's Why God Made the Radio, and a tour that finds them exploring well-known hits and lesser-known highlights from their massive songbook. The sounds range from blue-eyed soul to surf, from rock 'n' roll to hypnagogic pop, but Brian Wilson and Al Jardine say it's all "California music."
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"When we did 'California Girls,' we knew we were in for a good record," says Wilson, noting that landscape of California inspires him "primarily the same" way it did when the band started.
"Brian and Mike were very successful in their writing — the early stuff — [about] the cars, the girls, the high school memories," says Jardine. "They captured that, but there's a point where you expand your consciousness and you reach out."
Some of that reaching out can be heard on That's Why God Made the Radio, the band's first record of original material since Summer in Paradise in 1992.
"Well, Brian has about eight years' worth of songs stored up in him and he didn't want to do another solo album," Jardine says. "It just kind of all works.
The record ends with a three-song "California Suite," comprising "From There to Back Again," "Pacific Coast Highway," and "Summer's Gone" (the latter featuring songwriting assistance from Jon Bon Jovi). The trilogy has its precedents in the Beach Boys catalog, serving as a sort of sequel to the stunning "California Saga" from 1973's Holland, a song set in northern California.
"It's picturesque," Jardine says of "California Saga." "That nostalgia thing. It's kind of a landscape that we painted long ago. That might have been one of the first of its kind [for us], that kind of trilogy, like what you find at the end of God Made the Radio." Speaking in more oblique terms, Wilson says the suite that ends the new record "starts with the guitar, and then it goes into an organ and it sweeps [across] the state."
Jardine says that having the surviving original Beach Boys (as well as longtime members David Marks and Bruce Johnston) onboard for the 50th anniversary has given the material — hits and more obscure songs alike — new life.
"You can only imagine if you didn't have all the voices there," he says. "It wouldn't be as interesting. But we've got everybody singing their original parts and putting in 100 percent. Every night's like a new show."
"It's quite an event to play with those guys," Wilson concurs.
Utilizing archival video, the tour even gives the band a chance to sing along with Carl and Dennis Wilson, both songwriters who defined the band's "wild and woolly" era (Dennis died in 1983; Carl in 1998). The moment has become a highlight of the show, says Jardine, and Wilson says that it deeply affects the Beach Boys, too.
"We all cry. Every time we do that, we all cry," he says. "The whole band. It feels cathartic, because we all loved them."