Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Anyone who has followed this blog for the past year and a half knows that I like to revisit a few albums at a time by a particular artist as I work my way through their catalog. The goal is usually to acquaint myself with songs and albums I may have missed the first time around, before they languished on my CD & LP shelves for years, and usually my existing opinions have been confirmed (with albums both great and mediocre). In the week since my last post, I’ve spent time with three Beach Boys albums released in 1966 & 1967, as well as one that wasn’t actually released (those recordings were recently re-worked into a representation of what might have been). Within these four titles I experienced incredible highs and some disappointing lows, but it was never less than enjoyable. They also reminded me how much the band had changed within 5 years of their debut album, and because I was born in 1966, it’s hard to imagine how fans of their surfing and hot rod songs reacted to these changes at that time. They may be legendary now, but I’m sure there was a lot of head-scratching going on back then.
Some albums attain “classic” status but don’t really live up to the hype, while other lesser-known albums should be tagged with that label. In some instances, however, the legend only scratches the surface, and that’s certainly the case with Pet Sounds (1966). Although it’s about a million miles from “Surfin’ Safari” or even “California Girls,” this album was the culmination of everything Brian Wilson had been working on in the studio after he stopped touring with the group. It was also a direct reaction to the songwriting and production advances that The Beatles displayed on the previous year’s Rubber Soul. The most well known song, “God Only Knows,” was sung to perfection by Carl Wilson, with Brian and Bruce Johnston adding vocals during the outro. Paul McCartney once stated that he thought it was the greatest song ever written, and it’s hard to argue that point. The only word that comes to mind each time I hear this song is “Wow.” It’s a perfect combination of melody, vocal performance and instrumental arrangement. It was also the perfect soundtrack to the final scene of the film Love Actually. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” displays similar “grown-up” sentiments to “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man),” but everything about it is much more sophisticated than that earlier record. “Sloop John B” is their arrangement of an old folk song, brought to the group by their resident folkie, Al Jardine. Until this week, I don’t think I was aware that Brian sang lead, as I had always assumed it was Carl or Al. The arrangement is amazing, going from sparse & simple to full-on Phil Spector wall-of-sound, and the a capella section in the middle is startling. “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is simply one of Brian’s greatest achievements, shifting from the swirling, almost hypnotic verse to the more straight ahead pre-chorus (“They say I got brains but they ain’t doin’ me no good”) and the mournful chorus. I also love the spacey Theremin near the end.
[The Beach Boys – “You Still Believe In Me”]
The almost hymn-like “You Still Believe In Me” is probably the song that made the most impact on me this past week. I love the baroque sound of the harpsichord. Brian’s wailing falsetto after “I wanna cry” is gorgeous, and the choir of vocals that follows is stunning. The lyrics are romantic but also reveal Brian’s insecurity (even though most of the lyrics are credited to Tony Asher, I have to believe this song was all Brian). “That’s Not Me” is a driving rocker with Mike Love on vocals, and it features only Brian, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson instead of the usual session musicians. It’s followed by the sparse & haunting, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” which has some powerful and emotional vocals from Brian (especially the line, “Let’s not talk about tomorrow”). “I’m Waiting For The Day” has an interesting arrangement, shifting from powerful and bombastic to a more pastoral sound, then shifting again after “I’m waiting for the day when you can love again.” The string section before the vocal outro was also a nice touch. The slightly syncopated rhythm and honking sax (or is that harmonica?) on “I Know There’s An Answer” make it stand out from the rest of the album. It’s nice to hear Al and Mike share lead vocals for a change. “Here Today” made me feel both happy and sad, with several distinct sections: the sparse intro (“It starts with just a little glance now”), the cascading pre-chorus (“A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing”), the fun section (“It makes you feel so bad…makes your heart feel sad”) and the bright chorus (“Love is here today and it’s gone tomorrow”). The instrumental “Pet Sounds” has a Burt Bacharach/60s soundtrack vibe, which leads into the amazing album closer, “Caroline, No” (which was actually released as a Brian Wilson solo single in 1966). The lyrics express heartbreak and the loss of innocence, all delivered via Brian’s breathtaking vocals. The stark musical backdrop is perfect, as instruments are slowly added to the mix. Pet Sounds is definitely among the contenders for “greatest album of all time.” It certainly earns every ounce of praise it receives, and for this brief period Brian was leading the game of sonic one-upmanship with The Beatles. That lead wouldn’t last long, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.
Brian’s next undertaking was the single, “Good Vibrations,” which took months to complete and became their third #1 hit and probably their biggest worldwide smash. The groundbreaking production and vocal arrangement set it apart from anything they had done, and Brian’s goal was to produce an album that was just as innovative, to be called SMiLE. It’s been well documented that the limitations of studio technology, record company pressure and numerous other factors caused the album to be delayed, and eventually Brian’s ambition got the best of him and he scrapped the whole thing. For years, SMiLE was the holy grail of unreleased albums, as song fragments and re-recordings would surface, indicating how brilliant it might have been. Several years ago, Brian recorded a version of SMiLE with his solo band, piecing together a running order that may or may not have matched his original intentions, but it was the closest he would get…until Capitol Records released SMiLE Sessions (2011). Based on the blueprint provided by Brian’s solo release, this version uses the original Beach Boys recordings from 1966 & 1967. Although I can’t review SMiLE as it was originally conceived, I decided to delve into this release and get to know these songs now, as that knowledge will come in handy when revisiting the albums released in the wake of SMiLE’s disappearance. If Pet Sounds was a departure from their earlier recordings, SMiLE was from another planet, with poetic yet abstract lyrics by Brian’s new collaborator, Van Dyke Parks.
The album opens with two brief tracks, “Our Prayer” and “Gee.” The former sounds like a hymn with those heavenly vocal harmonies, while the latter (with it’s refrain of “How I love my girl”) is basically a doo-wop tune that leads into one of the key tracks, “Heroes And Villains.” I’ve known this song from the re-recorded version that appeared on their next album (to be discussed below), but this version is so good it’s beyond comprehension. There are so many things happening, both lyrically and musically, and I can only imagine what an undertaking it must have been to put it together into coherent form. No matter which version got released, it would’ve been difficult for fans and radio programmers to grasp everything that’s going on, and lyrics like “I’m fit with the stuff, to ride in the rough, and Sonny down snuff I’m alright” wouldn’t have made things any easier. With 21st century ears, and as a progressive rock fan who loves extended tracks with multiple sections and time signatures, this song is right in my comfort zone, and it’s never sounded better to me. “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” is a little too scattered, and I don’t really like the ooga-chugga section near the end, but the “rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock, roll over” section has been embedded in my brain for a week. I could only describe “Cabin Essence” as “strange Americana,” and I mean that in a positive way. The verses could be a campfire ditty, but then there’s the swirling psychedelic sound of the “Who ran the iron horse” section. “Wonderful” is a highlight: a tender ballad with harpsichord and slowly ascending vocals. “Child Is Father Of The Man” only consists of the words in the title, but it’s the haunting, interweaving vocals that make it so special.
[The Beach Boys –“Surf’s Up (SMiLE Sessions version)”]
“Surf’s Up” is another one of those all-time great Brian songs. The lyrics might be hard to crack (“columnated ruins domino”?), but his vocals are extraordinary. They reprise the theme from “Child Is Father…” at the end, which was a pleasant surprise. I also noticed that the descending xylophone melody is similar to Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us In Two,” a favorite of mine from 1982. Sparse percussion and Carl’s soft vocals carry the song “Wind Chimes,” until it opens up to a bigger arrangement. “My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine)” is a downbeat, cello-laden version of “You Are My Sunshine,” and another example of “strange Americana.” Although “Vege-Tables” is catchy and finger-snapping fun, I find it a bit silly and unnecessary. I do, however, enjoy the “sleep a lot, eat a lot, brush ‘em like crazy” section. “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)” is a dissonant and frightening instrumental with a circular melody and lots of eerie slide whistles. After “Love To Say Dada,” which is basically a wordless interlude, the album ends with the aforementioned “Good Vibrations.”
There are some bonus tracks (on the main CD and the bonus disc) that mostly consist of alternate mixes, vocal montages and studio chatter. They’re interesting and in some cases very enjoyable (especially Brian’s solo version of “Surf’s Up”), but the 19-song album is what I focused on. Although there are many incredible performances throughout the album, and I’m impressed with the ambition on display, I never warmed to it as much as I did with Pet Sounds, which was obviously a very tough act to follow. Still, I’m glad that I spent so much time with SMiLE Sessions, as these songs would provide the framework for several of their subsequent albums.
After the dissolution of SMiLE, they still needed to release new product for Capitol Records, so 16 months after the release of Pet Sounds they delivered Smiley Smile (1967) to a public that had moved on. Featuring less polished, newly recorded versions of several SMiLE songs alongside some new ones, it was the first album to bear the credit “Produced By The Beach Boys,” and also the first to be mostly missing their distinctive harmonies. The version of “Heroes And Villains” here is much less polished and intricate, but as the version I’ve known for years it’s still pretty impressive. The minimal arrangement on “Vegetables” might have been an inspiration for the sparse songs on The Beatles’ self-titled album in 1968 (a.k.a. The White Album), and apparently includes an appearance by Paul McCartney chomping on a carrot. “Good Vibrations” shows up here, even though the single had been released nearly a year earlier, and of course it sounds great. “Wonderful” appears in a sleepier, possibly stoned version that doesn’t hold a candle to the original, and what’s with the laughing party section in the middle? “She’s Going Bald” has a cool bongo groove and a percussive vocal line (sung by Mike), but is ruined by the speeded-up vocal section that makes them sound like they’ve inhaled helium. I do, however, really enjoy the bluesy section near the end (“You’re too late mama, ain’t nothin’ upside your head”). “Little Pad” has a Hawaiian feel, with the ukulele and those “doo-doo-doo” vocals (which might have been an inspiration to singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson), but the drunken-sounding vocals undermine the song. I like the repeated mantra-like phrase (“On and on she go dum-be-doo-da”) and the droning organ backdrop on “With Me Tonight.” It’s probably a good late night song when you’re in a mellow (i.e. stoned or drunk) mood. “Wind Chimes” has a similar drone-y quality, and sounds like a work-in-progress compared to the SMiLE Sessions version. There are elements of “Getting’ Hungry” that I really enjoyed (especially the cool organ intro), and the off-kilter, under-produced feel points to the work of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, most notably in his solo career and on that band’s Tusk album. Smiley Smile is rightfully considered a disappointment, and that feeling is even stronger after listening to the more fully realized SMiLE Sessions recordings, but considering the weight of expectations on them and the hasty manner in which it was recorded, it’s not without its charms. It would be way down on my list of recommended Beach Boys albums, though.
Released just three months later, Wild Honey (1967) was a step back toward relevance, yet they still had a long way to go. The album begins strongly with “Wild Honey,” a little bit of psychedelic soul with a sparse & slightly weird backing track, and Carl really stretching the limit of his vocal chords. There’s also a great keyboard solo (a clavinet, perhaps). Carl sounds like he’s at the edge of his range on their version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her,” which gives the track a sense of urgency that works in its favor. Most people probably don’t realize that “Darlin” is a Beach Boys song, even though it was a Top 20 hit. I love the driving groove and the horn chart, which gives it a late-60s AM radio pop sound. “Here Comes The Night” has a bouncy bass line and piano melody, and an interesting vocal arrangement (it sounds like the voices are darting through Brian’s lead during the chorus). “Let The Wind Blow” recalls Pet Sounds with stark piano and Mike & Brian sharing lead vocals. Brian moves nicely from yelping vocals to his falsetto, and I love the section with “Don’t take her out of my life…” It’s nice to hear their group harmonies, which have been mostly absent on these last two albums, on “Country Air,” most notably at “Get a breath of that country air.” I like the simplicity of the “mm-mm-mm” vocals during the verses. The harmonies are a bit rougher on the minimally arranged “Aren’t You Glad,” but it has a cute, simple melody and I enjoyed the trumpet line. “A Thing Or Two” jumps from jazz/pop in the verse to a more rockin’ sound in the chorus (“Do it right baby…”), with Brian’s vocals sounding tougher than usual. My favorite discovery on this album is “I’d Love Just Once To See You,” a confessional song with some nice guitar work (both finger picking and acoustic strumming), and simple lyrics (“I’m doing this and I’m doing that”; “I’m wasting the night away”). The first few times I played this album it didn’t make much of an impression, other than a couple of tracks, but it slowly worked its way into my head. They were still finding their way, and the lack of their distinctive vocal blend is sorely missed, but Wild Honey was a step in the right direction. I definitely like it more than its predecessor, but I think you have to be a dedicated Beach Boys fan…and give it enough time to sink in…to really appreciate it. I’m glad I gave it so much attention, and I think I’ll continue to appreciate it even more in the future.
I enjoyed listening to this batch of albums as much as any that I’ve revisited, and yet ironically it took a long time to write my thoughts down. Sometimes music is so perfect (Pet Sounds, much of SMiLE) that it’s almost impossible to explain why that’s so. In the end, most people reading this post will already know the music, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts and let me know how these records have impacted you. Or maybe just pull out your copy of one of these albums, sit back and remind yourself how good they are. After all, the music is what really matters. I’ll be back next week to wrap up their ‘60s recordings before moving on to the next decade (and the formation of their own record label).