If you get into Beach Boys fan­dom, you’ll read and hear a lot about “the California Myth.”  This phrase comes from The Beach Boys And The California Myth, the ground­break­ing book on the group by David Leaf that rede­fined their group and their appeal for a post-mod­ern rock audi­ence.  It refers to the fan­ta­sy des­ti­na­tion that the group cre­at­ed in their songs, a place where the teenager was king and the king­dom con­sist­ed of surf­ing, drag rac­ing and romance on the beach.  This glo­ri­ous illu­sion is a big part of what keeps fans com­ing back, an illus­tra­tion of the pow­er of music to cre­ate a secret world that fans want to end­less­ly revis­it.

All Summer Long is the last stu­dio album of the Beach Boys’ first, most inno­cent phase as record­ing artists: Wilson would start exper­i­ment­ing with drugs and exper­i­ment­ing with his for­mu­la on the next album, a path that would lead him to the tri­umph of Pet Sounds before end­ing all too soon with the soul-shat­ter­ing implo­sion of the Smile ses­sions.

All Summer Long also hap­pens to be the best album of that first Beach Boys era.  By this point, res­i­dent surf-pop auteur Brian Wilson had mas­tered his approach to the group’s sun & fun sub­ject mat­ter and infused it with an unex­pect­ed emo­tion­al depth.  As a result, the songs pre­sent­ed here rep­re­sents his most cohe­sive and defin­i­tive por­trait of the California Myth.

Indeed, All Summer Long is full of tight yet lush­ly-tex­tured songs that are sta­ples on Beach Boys com­pi­la­tions.  The title track, lat­er immor­tal­ized as the end cred­its music of American Graffiti, offers a trav­el­ogue of California teen fun — amuse­ment parks, hot rod­ding, minia­ture golf and, of course, vis­its to the beach.  The break­neck trip through the­se des­ti­na­tions becomes tran­scen­dent when gor­geous, inter­lock­ing lay­ers of vocal har­mony are applied.  A sim­i­lar vocal approach is pur­sued on “The Girls On The Beach,” a por­trait of surf­side beau­ty where the har­monies soar in an intox­i­cat­ing man­ner that sells the love­li­ness of the tit­u­lar ladies.

The love­li­ness of those high­lights is bal­anced by oth­er clas­sics that have a more rhyth­mic, propul­sive approach.  “I Get Around” cap­tures teenage rest­less­ness and the desire for new expe­ri­ences with a clev­er, stun­ning­ly com­plex mix of an instru­men­tal track brim­ming with tricky rhyth­mic frills and fast-mov­ing waves of vocal har­mony that “accel­er­ate” high­er from one key to the next on the cho­rus.  Driving around is also a concern on “Little Honda,” a taut lit­tle pop rock­er where the har­monies per­form a sim­i­lar “accel­er­a­tion” trick over a track built on a stac­ca­to hook dou­bled on bass and gui­tar.  Even the bal­lad the­me of “Wendy” is pro­pelled by tum­bling drum fills and taut­ly strummed rhythm gui­tars.

Even the tracks that are obvi­ous­ly filler have their charms.  For exam­ple, gui­tar-dri­ven instru­men­tal “Carl’s Big Chance” is the kind of twangy gui­tar show­case that would have fit in on an ear­ly 1960’s Ventures album and “Our Favorite Recording Sessions” adds a bit of amus­ing goof­ball fun that fits in nice­ly with the thread of lock­er-room humor that runs through the Beach Boys discog­ra­phy.  Neither of the­se fillers over­stay their wel­come like sim­i­lar tracks did on Shut Down Vol. II and the album’s sense of bal­ance between bal­lad, rock­ers and tongue-in-cheek fun shows how rapid­ly Wilson was com­ing to terms with the idea of an album as a tool of musi­cal expres­sion.

Finally, it’s worth not­ing that All Summer Long stands head-and-shoul­ders at the top of the ear­ly Beach Boys album stack because of how impres­sive it sounds.  Wilson’s secret weapon, engi­neer Chuck Britz, gets a bold, detailed sound for Wilson that lends clarity to the mix of rhythm-sec­tion punch and vocal-har­mony lush­ness he was going for.  Wilson lives up to the skill­ful record­ing qual­i­ty by tak­ing advan­tage of it with intri­cate arrange­ments at both the instru­men­tal and vocal lev­els: the instru­men­tal track for “I Get Around” is a stop-start mar­vel packed with ornate­ly-inter­lock­ing hooks and sur­prise left-turns while the cov­er of doo-wop favorite “Hushabye” retains the pas­sion of the song’s orig­i­nal street-cor­ner har­mony style while open­ing it up to a choir-size lev­el of vocal stack­ing and har­mon­ic rich­ness.  For a pop album aimed at teenagers, Wilson man­aged to cre­ate a sur­pris­ing­ly intri­cate feast for the ears here.

In short, All Summer Long is the per­fect clos­ing chap­ter for the Beach Boys’ ear­ly era: it shows a mas­tery of the hot-rod and surf pop idioms that the group helped kicked off while show­ing a com­plex­i­ty in vocal and instru­men­tal tex­tures that hints at the glo­ries yet to come.  The next phase would see Wilson push­ing his group’s sound into more grandiose and baro­que direc­tions.  Neither the Beach Boys — nor American pop music itself — would ever be this sweet­ly inno­cent again.  As a result, All Summer Long has become a bit­ter­sweet trea­sure from an era when pop music was ambi­tious enough to sus­tain a dream as big as the California Myth.