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Sound Check

If disc two only hints at why a few years was more than enough for surf music to run its course, what remains of Cowabunga! drives it home with a disconcerting mouthful of ocean water. Despite noble efforts to keep the California dream alive from the Surfaris ("Bombora"), the Sandals ("Theme from Endless Summer"), the Pyramids ("Penetration") and a few other stubborn hangers-on, the box set's third CD, Ebb Tide (1963-1967), is largely a wash -- repetitive, recycled and only intermittently interesting. And with the exception of the Mermen, the Aqua Velvets and the ageless, unrelenting Dick Dale, the artists that loosely make up surf's post-modern contingent -- represented here on the fourth and final disc, New Waves (1977-1995) -- have little new to offer but improved production values, random novelty appeal (Corky Carroll and the Cool Water Casuals' "Tan Punks on Boards") and, in some cases (Surf Punks' "My Beach"), obnoxious, decidedly unfun attitude. Tag these last two CDs "for completists only." Still, the first two CDs make Cowabunga! a rad investment. (*** 1/2)

Cowabunga! steers clear of the road-related themes that were another aspect of the California sound, perhaps for risk of spreading itself too thin, but where the Rhino set is lacking, Gary Usher Greats Volume 1 is happy to pick up the slack. In addition to his song-writing collaborations with Brian Wilson on "Fun, Fun, Fun" and other auto-related Beach Boys hits, Gary Usher was the all-around handyman at Capitol Records in 1963 and '64. During that period, Usher and his "troops" (as he called his cache of crack studio musicians) were the label's unofficial house band for all things surf and hot-rod related. Greats Volume 1 combines two long out-of-print studio projects from Usher: the Kickstands' Black Boots and Bikes and the Knights' Hot Rod High. Unlike the Beach Boys' four-wheeled material, much of the music on this CD, while sharply recorded, is conspicuously lacking in the pop touch provided by Brian Wilson. Without that melodic ingenuity, most of Usher's well-executed tales of truancy, drag races and motor-bike mamas remain stranded at the starting line. (**)

A little better is Rare Surf Volume 3: Johnny Fortune & Johnny Barakat and the Vestells, which combines the reissue of Fortune's 1963 Soul Surfer LP with a collection of little-known tunes recorded by his pal and onetime touring partner Barakat. Fortune's "Soul Surfer" single was a notable contribution to the oeuvre (which is why it's included on disc two of the Rhino collection), but the rest of Soul Surfer is like-minded surf instrumentals -- pleasant as beach-barbecue background music, but hardly earth-moving.

For his part, Barakat never made it far enough to record a proper full-length release, and these primitive recordings are all that's left as a document of his brief, undistinguished career. You can hear the potential in these tinny-sounding instrumentals, but that's about all -- though there is an amusing bit of tape with Barakat screaming orders to his dad in the studio. Not surprisingly, you won't find any Barakat in the Rhino box. (***)

For anyone but the most die-hard Kahunas, Cowabunga! is more than enough wave action for your wallet (sadly, you can't buy the discs separately; if you could, Ground Swells and Big Waves would be enough). The AVI discs, like the final two in the Rhino set, are really for cultists only. Like all good music should, surf's best moments transcend seasonal, regional, cultural and generational barriers to serve as a universal soundtrack of summer, whether the season is outside your door or only inside your mind. -- Hobart Rowland

***** Hurricane swell
**** Primo pounder
*** Decent point break
** Mild chop
* Flat as glass

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