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Weekly Alibi Revisit the Beach

By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

The Beach Boys Endless Harmony Soundtrack (Capitol)

Released in conjunction with a VH-1-produced, two-hour-long videography, Endless Harmony is worth its weight in gold--even for new Beach Boys converts. Collected here are 25 tracks spanning the brilliant, if sometimes confusing, career of one of the best pop bands in history, certainly the best singing group to ever emerge from the American pop scene. Endless Harmony contains much of the Beach Boys' most familiar material served up in alternate, demo and live versions, along with a host of material that didn't blast up the charts but was integral to the Boys' live incarnation. In the studio and live, the Beach Boys were two very different bands. Brian Wilson, the band's own mad professor, took musical brilliance one step further by adding to his monumental songwriting and arranging talents the ability to step outside his brainchild and effectively produce some of the best records in history. And while Pet Sounds may have been the eldest Wilson's crowning achievement, Endless Harmony shows a number of different sides to his persona.

Where the Beach Boys were precise and even protracted in the studio, they were as raucous and frenzied on stage as any rock band of the late '60s and early '70s. The stage version rarely included Brian during that era, leaving his vocal and bass parts to Bruce Johnston. Younger brothers Carl and Dennis played guitar and drums respectively, managed distinct and horrifyingly complex harmony parts and, in Carl's case, a number of lead vocals. Wilson cousin Mike Love stood as lead vocalist for the most part, and Al Jardine played guitar and sang. That was the core. To back it up, the Beach Boys employed a variety of horn players, keyboardists, guitarists and even drummers. Endless Harmony gives the listener a feel for how the conglomeration worked on stage and then shifts into several live rehearsal demos that demonstrate how the core group made perfect sense of songs that are beyond the performance capabilities of most singers even today. The included versions of "Good Vibrations" and the gorgeous, stripped-down "God Only Knows" are the best examples. The producers of Endless Harmony, in an attempt to make the soundtrack as enlightening as the documentary it accompanies, chose remixes and alternate versions expressly for the purpose of underscoring elements of individual songs not instantly recognizable on the versions released as singles. And although only two of the tracks included here are previously unreleased in any form, the overall feel of the record is fresh, almost as if the Beach Boys had recorded a new album.

Most importantly, though, Endless Harmony is visionary in the sense that it traces briefly and effectively a peak period in the Beach Boys' career from 1963 to about 1973, and goes hand-in-hand with its video cousin. The collection goes even beyond diversity by additionally including a pair of delicate Dennis Wilson ballads ("All Alone" and "Barbara"), a Mike Love creation for a solo album that never materialized ("Brian's Back") and, finally, Bruce Johnston's "Endless Harmony," written during his brief sabbatical from the band in the mid-'70s, during which time Brian had returned. For Beach Boys fans, Endless Harmony is an essential addition to their catalog, touching brilliantly on the intricacies and subtle mastery of the pop legends. For those less familiar, it's a stunning introduction to their wildly diverse body of work. In a very real sense, Endless Harmony is both an historical document and a learning tool, as well as one of those rare releases that seems to have a life all its own.

While Endless Harmony was not intended to be a comprehensive retrospective, it succeeds boldly in offering snapshots of a legacy born some 35 years ago. Three-and-a-half decades later, the harmonies are still resonant, soaring and, indeed, endless.

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