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Music: Beach Boys revisited

Music | From the offensive Chili Peppers to barbershop quartets, the Beach Boys' summer never ends

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

The latest recordings by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Northern Light, Elliot Easton, and members of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) suggest that no American rock-and-roll group has had as lasting an impact on pop music as the Beach Boys. In one way or another, each recording rises to the challenges implicit in the music of a group that once was the Beatles' toughest competition. The Red Hot Chili Peppers spend much of their new album, Californication, satirically exposing the corruption beneath the surface of the Beach Boys' teenage-utopian worldview. They're unlikely candidates for the task: A decade-plus of drug abuse and run-ins with the law has made the Peppers themselves notorious for failing to grow up. But Californication, occasionally offensive lyrics and all, articulately attacks the emptiness of living for nothing but fun, fun, fun. The title song skewers hedonism on several levels: "It's the edge of the world / And all of Western civilization. / It's understood that Hollywood / Sells Californication ... Born and raised by those who praise / Control of population, / everybody's been there, and / I don't mean on vacation ... [Earthquakes] are just another good vibration, / And tidal waves couldn't save the world / from Californication." On "Emit Remmus," "Get on Top," and "I Like Dirt," the Peppers lose their satirical balance, sounding more intent on succumbing to the California myth than on resisting it. But the music, like an alternative-rock version of the Eagles' Hotel California (itself a critique of the endless-summer dream), displays a mastery not only of contemporary rock styles but also of the volatile emotions at the root of youth culture in general. Northern Light, on the other hand, offers not a critique but a tribute. Indeed, Sweet Sunny Day imitates the Brian Wilson sound detail for detail. Group leader David Sandler worked closely with Mr. Wilson on a 1972 album by the vocal duo Spring and learned his lessons well. By approaching the music secondhand, he relieves it of the burden of having to support mature expression and frees it to function as the sum of its parts. The result is a technically impressive and enjoyably faithful replication that captures the music's seductive power without denying its ultimate fragility. Elliot Easton provides the Beach Boys connection on Sounds of Wood and Steel, Volume Two, the latest in Windham Hill's series of acoustic, instrumental recordings by musicians better known for plugging in. The former Cars guitarist's version of Brian Wilson's 1966 solo hit "Caroline, No" serves as a reminder that at his peak Mr. Wilson's instrumental arrangements were as inventive as his vocal ones. Last, there's Can't Stop Singing!, a delightful collection of a dozen highlights from the 1998 SPEBSQSA Convention in Atlanta that proves the barbershop-quartet tradition underlying Mr. Wilson's vocal arrangements still thrives. It also proves that performance styles and the values they celebrate don't lose their freshness simply because they're labeled "old-fashioned."

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