Catch a wave

The only difference between Pet Sounds and Stereolab is a mere 30 years

"It's something you have to feel yourself and explore yourself. That's kind of the same idea with the Beach Boys. They're incredibly into levels. It can be incredibly simple, but it can also be so twisted--for the better," she adds, laughing.

Brian Wilson often said he didn't just write music, but he would play "feels": "Feels are musical ideas, riffs, bridges, fragments of themes...a phrase here and there," he once explained. "I wanted to write a song containing more than one level...A song can, for instance, have movements, in the same way as a classical concerto, only capsulized." This is why the boxed set is, in the end, such a brilliant piece of work: It not only features Pet Sounds in its entirety (twice, actually, in the original mono mix and a new true-stereo presentation), but it also breaks down every song into significant tiny piece.

Spread over the course of the four discs are various backing tracks with and without guitars or drums, without vocals, with nothing but vocals, with dissonant noise preceding final takes; it's the aural equivalent of a how-to manual, a jigsaw puzzle with the assembly instructions included for reference. And though it might be written off as nothing but a textbook for musicians and minutiae for fanatics, the box actually serves a noble purpose: It allows you into the mind of a mad genius for a moment and lets you ramble around in the dark.

Instead of seeming like incomplete pieces of music, the instrumental session tracks are songs unto themselves--as lush, as beautiful, and even as disturbing as their "completed" counterparts. When Wilson gets the musicians to run through the "Wouldn't it Be Nice" backing track, you can't tell the instruments apart; the accordion and tack piano and saxophones and trumpets blend into one complete sound. As Wilson cautions of the song in the liner notes: "Listen for the rockin' accordions...also, listen for the ethereal guitars in the introduction."

Where Wilson employed many background vocals on the early Beach Boys hits--"Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "I Get Around," and so on--for Pet Sounds he pretty much limited the vocals to the foreground; he decided instead to let the instruments fill in the blank spaces, to let the violins and organs provide the harmonies. That's why the vocalless songs seem so complete: They were written before the lyrics, for the most part, and recorded almost as orchestral wholes over which the words would be placed later--sometimes much later.

To look at the personnel on the Pet Sounds session dates is to finally understand how finely detailed and complex this deceptively simple music was: Eighteen musicians played on "God Only Knows"--and two of them on accordion--and that doesn't even include the Beach Boys, who were on tour in Europe when Brian recorded a bulk of the record. Wilson was taking Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" theory to its final conclusion, and Pet Sounds was Wilson's first real attempt to "experiment with sounds," as he writes in the boxed set's liner notes.

He had heard the Beatles' Rubber Soul and was at once impressed and angry--impressed that a so-called "pop" band could suddenly go "folk" with such astonishing results, angry that he was being left behind in the race to reinvent the new rock-and-roll form. He refers to Rubber Soul as a challenge, but it was likely more of a threat: Wilson, quite simply, didn't want to fail. Appropriately, the Beatles would then use Pet Sounds as the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the full circle becoming a knot.

It's hard, in retrospect, to understand how Pet Sounds must have seemed within the context of 1966, when pop music was still dominated by the likes of Herb Alpert, the Monkees, Nancy and Frank Sinatra, and the soundtracks to Doctor Zhivago and The Sound of Music. Perhaps it's not too different now hearing Stereolab alongside Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish. Pop music always takes one step forward, then falls off the stage.

"There's this band we played with--I won't mention their name--and they're a pop band, and there was no relief, there was no depth to their music," Sadier says. "They were serving up this category of 'pop music' as an institution, and it just made for very poor music. It didn't have any richness in it...There are a lot of things you do with your own instinct, and I think there's no point in trying to dissect it and trying to find out exactly what's going on. I don't think that Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys were dissecting every move, every step they took in the studio. They just did it.

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