9:06 a.m. - September 15, 2006
As this music week comes to an end (only one more music entry this weekend, then it’s back to normal…whatever that is), I wanted to write a review for the #1 album on my list, the album that I think is the best album, ever.
Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.
Those of you not familiar with this album, let me tell you that it’s far far away from the “Fun Fun Fun” days. This is an adult album, with a lot of emotion, feeling, warmth, and complex thoughts about growing up, moving on, letting go.
The music for Pet Sounds was recorded over a period of time where the Beach Boys touring group was in Japan on a tour, leaving Brian to his own devices in the studio. He, along with lyricist Tony Asher (an advertising man) wrote a series of complex songs that required some of the most complex and moving arrangements in popular music to date.
When the band returned from their tour, Brian trucked them into the studio to record the vocals. The vocal arrangements were amongst the most complex they ever attempted, and Brian was a taskmaster, requiring take after take, frazzling nerves along the way.
But it was well worth it.
When you put on the first cut, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the Beach Boys were breaking out of their idiom, as that’s a fairly up-tempo song with typical Beach Boys harmonies. Only when you dive into the song, and realize what magic is being worked behind the voices, can you hear what’s really going on. You realize that there are not really guitars or surf music at the forefront – the arrangement is lush, complicated, complex.
As the first side moves along (yes, I’m going to use sides, because the first time I heard this record, it was my sister’s copy and I loved it just the same), you become enraptured by the album. The second cut, “You Still Believe In Me” is some of Brian’s best work. It’s plaintive, heartfelt and beautiful. When the backing vocals in the chorus come in, you can’t help but shed a tear.
But this cut also reveals the limitations that Brian was working under. Because they only had four tracks at their disposal, the bicycle horn had to be left in the arrangement, even after the song was changed midway through the recording process. Also, when they mastered this song for CD, they could only use a single track of Brian’s vocal, instead of the original double tracked vocal.
The rest of the first side is equally stirring. “That’s Not Me” is a thoughtful song about the changes one goes through as one grows up and moves through life’s changes. “Don’t Talk” is a beautiful love song with a simple yet moving arrangement and “I’m Waiting For The Day” always found a place on mix cassettes I gave to potential girlfriends back in the day. Just listening to the percussion, with the timpani and drum intro, and the simple recorder and keyboard behind Brian’s voice in the opening voice, is proof of the genius inherent in these songs.
“Let’s Go Away For A While” may seem like filler, since it’s an instrumental, but it’s a chance to hear Brian’s vision at work. The first side ends with “Sloop John B”, a song Al Jardine brought to the group. It was released as a single, and Brian didn’t want it on the album. However, it definitely fits both thematically and musically.
Side two starts with THE cut on Pet Sounds. Before this album, Carl was mostly known as the guitar player that sang an occasional song. However, the youngest Wilson brother shone in his lead vocal on “God Only Knows”. The sentiment of the song, and the heartfelt vocals, make this the classic Beach Boys cut, and maybe the classic love song of all time.
The rest of the second side is full of complex and complicated songs. “I Know There’s An Answer” created a rift in the band when it was originally titled “Hang On To Your Ego” because Mike Love (who if I didn’t want to keep this family friendly I would let you all know what I really think of him – tool) objected to the lyrics. In fact, Love objected to the whole album because he just wanted to keep feeding the hit machine and didn’t think about artistic growth at all.
Of course, when that jackhole started writing some of his own stuff it was lame and he needed a lot of help. Anyway…
“Here Today” is more of a traditional song, except that the arrangement is interesting, and during the bridge, you definitely can hear some studio chatter. Brian wasn’t so good about preventing leakage. Oh, well, it makes the album charming.
“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” could be MY theme song. I’ve often felt like that I was out of step with the people my age, in my peer group. I suppose we all think those thoughts. Just listening to this cut now, the arrangement is stunning, and you can hear the fear and angst in Brian’s lead vocal. “Where can I turn when my fair weather friends turn foul / what’s it all about” resonates with me to this day.
The title cut is another interesting instrumental, and then the record concludes with a haunting love song. “Caroline, No” is a solo vocal performance by Brian, and again, it makes you weep. Hal Blaine’s percussion is a perfect counterpoint, and the sound was made my hitting an empty milk jug.
However, “Caroline, No” illustrates what the record company thought of the album. They released this as a solo Brian Wilson single, not a single by the band, and it didn’t do as well as it really should have.
On the whole, the album was a commercial disappointment, as it was probably a bit beyond some of their audience and the radio programmers of the time. However, musicians and audiophiles adored the album from the beginning. It forced the hand of the Beatles to really go way out and explore. Which is ironic because this album was written in response, partially, to Rubber Soul.
Pet Sounds is a special album. It needs to be listened to all the way through, and listened to with care, as you could miss something magical. I try to listen to it once a month to keep my mind right with the world.