Time-Life stabs at the heart of sun-drenched nostalgia, making a more-hit-than-miss box-set that ultimately gets weighed down by a merely passable surfing documentary (though there are certain summer gems contained that absolutely cannot be missed).
Ah, summer. A time of sunburns, beaches, and the occasional clothes-optional party. Girls in two-piece swimsuits, guys in flip-flops, and the radio always turned way, way up. Memories are made, fun is had, and the whole season sure beats the work-filled drudgery of the nine months that follow.
Of course summer isn’t really summer until Time-Life cashes in on your sun-drenched nostalgia (naturally). Here, Time-Life (whose yearly release schedule is challenged only by Ryan Adams) takes it to the surf with Chasing the Sun: The Greatest Songs of Summer. Always the packaging geniuses, this three-CD/one-DVD set comes in a cute little mock-up cooler, but it’s small enough that it can easily fit into a purse (or an abnormally-sized fanny pack). Of course, given that it’s Time-Life, the set focuses largely on the hits of yesteryear -- particularly the '60s -- when the surf-music scene was prevalent. It features all of the usual suspects (nine of the 59 songs have the word "Summer" in the title, though the Beach Boys show up only three times), but where the set really shines is in selecting some left-field gems that truly outdo their more populist brethren.
The first disc, simply entitled Surf, is just that: a series of surf-related songs. So, of course we get the Beach Boys’ "Surfin’ U.S.A.", the Surfaris' "Wipeout", and Dick Dale’s "Miserlou" (aka that Pulp Fiction song). Yet thrown into the mix are some unexpected pleasures: the down-and-dirty pop-rock of the Ramones’ "Rockaway Beach", the darker surf tones of the Chantays’ "Pipeline", plus the laid-back surf vibe of "Surfer’s Stomp" by the Marketts. Some of the inclusions are a bit repetitive, but at least they’re interesting -- if not solely for historical purposes (Jan & Dean were always classified as a cheap Beach Boys imitation, despite the fact that they had charting hits a full four years before Brian Wilson’s crew ever did). Most surprising, however, is that even Phil Spector got in on the surf-rock fun, lending his producing talents to an old Jack Nitzsche instrumental called "The Lonely Surfer". It is a stunning mid-tempo number that’s filled with orchestral strings and a rollicking, carefree melody. In the long run, it’s moments like these that make these themed collectors boxes totally worth-while (well, that and the Rivingtons’ "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow").
Hey, sad Casanova! Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places? Here’s something that’ll give you a little edge: the second disc of this Chasing the Sun compilation. It’s called Shag, you see? Sweet summer songs for that "uh" on a summer-night. A wella-wella-wella … what?! "Anna (Go to Him)" by Arthur Alexander? Did he really just sing the line "I still love you so / but if he loves you more / go to him"? Yes. Yes he did. Well … that was a buzz kill. Sorry, man. I’ll just … sulk off now …
So maybe titling the second disc Shag is a bit misleading (and no, we're not talking about the dance craze of the same name). Oh sure, there’s some happy feel-good tracks on here, but it’s also got some serious numbers like Willie Tee’s mournful "Walking Up a One-Way Street" and James & Bobby Purify’s submissive ballad "I’m Your Puppet" that kind of bring the mood down a bit. There’s no denying that these songs are good, but they’re odd choices for the disc’s theme, especially when contrasted with Betty Everett’s "The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)" or the Capitols’ always-fantastic "Cool Jerk". This disc also features Jackie Wilson’s "Whispers (Getting’ Louder)", in which sounds like Jackie’s vocals were recorded in a thin-walled bathroom (and no, this doesn’t sound too great). One could even ask questions like "what does ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ have to do with summer?" -- and such inquiries would be completely valid. It can be argued, however, that answering such mysteries is almost tantamount to pointing out plot-holes in Michael Bay movies (which, incidentally, always get released in the summer as well).
Yet those puzzling flaws are practically forgotten when the final CD gets its spin. Christened Summer: 1950-1990, this disc features non-surf/non-shag songs that tie in directly to the theme of summer, and the sprawling scope easily makes it the most entertaining of the three. This vaguely-chronological set runs on a topic that’s only vaguely-thematic, allowing us to put the DJ Jazzy Jeff/Will Smith jam "Summertime" right next to the feel-good bounce of "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina & the Waves (which itself is followed by the Jamies’ immortal "Summertime, Summertime"). Plus, we get the Beach Boys’ "Kokomo", the Go-Gos' "Vacation", the Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City", Bobby Darin’s "Beyond the Sea" … the list goes on. It’s easily the most crowd-pleasing CD of the three, but it also manages to accomplish a feat that any good compilation should aspire to do: to be nothing more than a flat-out fantastic collection of great songs.
A documentary DVD, Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing, rounds out the set. It’s only an hour long, and the exact kind of thing you’d expect to find on PBS some random afternoon. It’s workman-like in nature, featuring interviews with various surfing forefathers throughout the year that gets spliced with pretty-good footage of guys catching big waves, but the whole project still doesn’t compare to the likes of surf-doc heavyweights Step into Liquid or Riding Giants. Liquid Stage briefly mentions the surf-rock movement, but even then it only has Dick Dale on for a couple of minutes, and that’s all. The whole thing is serviceable, but it certainly doesn’t classify as "essential viewing" by any means.
As the sun sets on the last day of summer, college kids get ready for another school year, their parents wrap up their last family vacation, and autumn’s cold beauty gradually slips into our streets and neighborhoods. There will always be other summers, but the summer song canon is a special thing that rarely gets messed with. While Chasing the Sun certainly has its flaws and missteps, it just might be the closest thing we’ll have to a sand-sound time capsule. Why is it still relevant? Because unlike the summer itself, great songs never go away.