Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys (May, 1966)

Brad's Take:

Man, I don't really even know where to begin... Pet Sounds has been in my life since I was born. I grew up hearing songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B" all the time since before I can even remember, thanks to my dad. You'll understand once you read his review underneath mine...

Pet Sounds opens with "Wouldn't It Be Nice." It's been one of my favorite Beach Boys songs for a long time. It's just an overall feel-good song about young lovers wishing they had more than they can have. I think anyone who was ever in high school can relate to this song perfectly.

"Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)" is beautifully orchestrated. The instrumentation on this song is just genius. One of my favorite moments in the song is when Brian Wilson sings, "Listen, listen, listen." I'm not exactly sure how to describe it, but I love the way he sounds when he sings that line.

"God Only Knows" is by far my favorite track off of the record. Originally, Brian was supposed to sing lead on this song, but in the end they decided to keep Carl Wilson's vocal take. Carl's gentle tenor voice really carries it. The ending is my favorite Beach Boys moment. The intertwining vocal melodies and harmonies are so gorgeous. Everything about that song is golden. In fact, while writing this review, I listened to "God Only Knows" three times in a row. The Pet Sounds version twice, and the original version with Brian singing lead once. I still think Carl's is better.

I think I can say lots of good things about every song on this record. There really isn't anything I dislike about it. It's full of solid songs with even more solid production, thanks to Master Brian Wilson and his crew, and their creative and experimental ideas.

The hard thing about listening to and reviewing these old albums is that I wasn't born when any of these originally came out. So I have to kind of take peoples word for it that these albums were ground-breaking when they were originally released. It's difficult to fully believe though because music has (arguably) evolved since then. It's like when your grandparents tell you about how innovative the train was back in the day. Big deal, you had a train. We have rockets that fly people to outer space, and people can buy cars that go 200 miles an hour. If I had been around when albums like Pet Sounds originally came out, I might be able to fully understand and comprehend what I'm actually listening to. But instead, I have hundreds and hundreds of albums that came out 40+ years after it to compare to. Another thing that is difficult to wrap my head around is that this album directly and/or indirectly influenced a lot (if not most) of the rock/pop music that came out after Pet Sounds was released. There's a lot of innovation and history behind this album that I will never fully be able to comprehend just because I wasn't actually there.

Dad's Take:

Pet Sounds has been my favorite album since I was about sixteen, a time when this record felt like the soundtrack of my life. Every song seemed tailor-made for me, with the possible exception of "Sloop John B," but I found ways to make that one apply too. it is especially rare in rock and roll to find the inner insecurities of the male mind so tenderly exposed.

Few records have had the intensely personal emotional depth of Pet Sounds. Starting with hopeful strains of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," the album quickly moves deeper into a relationship, and then into heartbreak.

But the emotional intensity of the lyrics that meant so much to me as a teenager is not all this disc has going for it, although that would be enough for me. The crazy genius of the instrumental arrangements matches the emotion perfectly. Whether it the weird plucked-and-played piano strings that open "You Still Believe In Me" or the bass harmonica and theremin, the kettle drums, the water bottle, or the jazz and classical fusion of some of the instrumental breaks, Wilson's pet sounds amplify the emotion and heartbreak. Only a genius could figure out how to combine two or more instruments at once to create a totally new sound, one that has never been heard before.

When listening to Pet Sounds, pay special attention to the percussion. And I don't just mean the drums and such. Guitars are played in a percussive manner, heartbeats are mimicked with the bass, and keyboards become sleigh bells. There's that huge instrumental break in "I'm Waiting For The Day," for example, or another on "Here Today."

Likewise, the vocal arrangements contain elements that don't seem to make sense when heard alone on the session recordings, like Wilson's flattened "me" is "You Still Believe In Me," or some of the inventive background vocal arrangements, but when combined with the instruments and the rest of the vocal arrangement, they are exactly right. Even unintentional background noises that bleed onto the tape become essential elements of the songs.

As tempting as it is to list favorites from this album, it would be pointless, really. Every track would make my list. This is as close to perfect as any record I know, from the odd guitar duet that opens "Wouldn't It Be Nice" to the dogs barking at a train at the end of the gorgeous "Caroline, No." In between you get the sublime "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)," the heartbreaking introversion of "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times," the hopeful cynicism of "I Know There's An Answer," and the most perfect two minutes and forty five seconds ever put on record, "God Only Knows." Every song is a gem, even the somewhat out-of-place hit, "Sloop John B," included to satisfy a record company that feared the album would be a commercial flop because this is not your typical teenaged rock 'n' roll album, and definitely not the fun-in-the-sun music normally associated with the Beach Boys. But Brian Wilson had something to say, and never before had anything been expressed like this in popular music.

Our list is full of experimental records, but few experimental records are as emotionally accessible as Pet Sounds. I would have to write a whole book to explain why this record means so much to me, and to list all the moments that stun the artistic part of my brain. And yet, nothing I write could possibly match the experience of putting this on for a spin in a quiet room with headphones and a suitable volume level. But don't trust me. Forget about the hype that usually puts this album at or near the top of any list of the all-time greatest albums. Put on Pet Sounds and see for yourself.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Blonde On Blonde" by Bob Dylan (May, 1966)

Brad's Take:

As you probably know by now, Bob Dylan and I don't have the best relationship together. We've listened to a small handful of his albums so far, and I have only liked one of them. Highway 61 Revisited. Since listening to and reviewing that album, I have become a little bit more welcoming to his style of music.

In our book that we're taking all of these albums out of, I read that this was the first rock and roll double-album. I believe it was also the first album to have only one song on the D-side of the record, because the song was so long. In fact, the whole album is long! It's only 14 songs, but it clocks in at just under 73 minutes. It didn't really feel like that long though, in retrospect.

I really enjoyed "One Of Us Must Know." The way it builds up into the choruses reminded me a little bit of Mr. Dylan's hit "Like A Rolling Stone." The upbeat poppy rhythm of "I Want You" was a nice surprise. What I liked most about that song though was the organ's catchy lead melody that plays during the choruses. It fits the song's subject really well. I really like the use of organ on this album.

Maybe I just hate the instrument itself, but Bob Dylan makes the harmonica even worse somehow by using it as a weapon against my ears. "Pledging My Time" had a harmonica solo that almost killed me with its overly drawn out high pitched notes. Maybe it's his way of getting back at me for disliking most of his music.

"Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" is a perfect example of what I don't like about Bob Dylan's vocal style. It's unique, and it's not that hard to get used to, but this song sort of made it bother me a little bit extra.

As a whole, I liked Highway 61 Revisited a bit more, but this album comes in close second. There are a couple songs that were hard to get through because they were so long, but I liked enough of this record that I can say that I'll listen to it again soon.

Dad's Take:

When anybody asks me about my three favorite albums of all time, I always mention this as one of them. In fact, it's one of the two that are most solidly in place. I usually say Blonde on Blonde is my number two, but it's a pretty close second.

The difference between first and second place is that my first choice, which we'll be reviewing very soon, is a much more personal record. For Blonde on Blonde, it's purely artistic. I love most of the songs. This is Dylan at his poetic best, the lost clown struggling to make sense of a world that defies logic.

There are classic hits here, namely "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "I Want You," and "Just Like A Woman." There's also one of Dylan's best-realized compositions, "Visions of Johanna." And, there's the song that turned me from a Dylan's-greatest-hits fan to a full-album fan, "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," easily one of my top five or six Dylan tunes. (I've never actually made such a list, but if I did, I'm sure this would be up there. Funny that Brad chose this particular song as an example of what he doesn't like about Dylan, when it's a prime example of what I love--playful lyrics full of allusions and humor, a song where you're never quite sure what he's trying to say but you know that, whatever it is, you like it. And I love how it always seems like the song has finally reached its end, only to keep on a-goin'.

There's also the fun, bluesy "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," the thoroughly enjoyable "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," "Absolutely Sweet Marie, the brilliant Chicago Blues of "Pledging My Time" with its classic blues harmonica--I can list almost every song on this lengthy album as a highlight.

The closest thing to a downside is the epic "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." I like this song a lot too, but it's a little too dirge-like for a 14 minute song. I don't mind the length, but, for me, a song this long needs changes and other effects to hold up. There are a few times where Dylan himself seems to be yawning the words. But if you really listen, it's a pretty amazing piece of work--just hard to listen to if you're not in the mood to put in the effort. Put in the effort, though, and the song is among Dylan's best poetry.

This has been my number two favorite album for a long time. Records move in and out of the number three spot (although it always comes back to another album we're reviewing soon), but one and two are firmly entrenched.

I should also mention another record here. I'm not usually wowed by tribute albums (although I buy them now and then), but Blues on Blonde on Blonde is a terrific little collection, containing all but two songs from the original album. It does what a good tribute album does: provide an enjoyable listening experience in its own right while giving you new insights into the songs that help you enjoy the original even more. It also has what may be my favorite cover song ever, the gorgeously heart-breaking rendition of "Just Like A Woman" by Eric Bibb. If you enjoy Blonde on Blonde or feel like the songs are great but you find Dylan himself difficult, seek out this collection. I'm betting that it will make you a bigger fan of Dylan's original work, and renew your confidence in tribute albums at the same time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Aftermath" by The Rolling Stones (April, 1966)

Dad's Take:

1966 was a pivotal year in rock and roll history. Seems like everybody started to get serious and created more artful music. The folk music explosion led to more serious lyrics, and many bands experimented with unusual sounds and arrangements. Aftermath is a typical example. Those punky kids from London expanded their horizons on this one, the first album to feature only songs written by members of the band.

Now, I have to say up front that this is not my favorite Stones record. I typically like my Stones like I like my carrots, crunchy and raw. Although still rooted in a Chicago blues sound, this album leans heavily toward more mellow, with songs like "Lady Jane." Other songs, like the still-popular-but-I'm-not-quite-sure-why "Mother's Little Helper" feature lyrics that distract me by sounding like an eighth grader's attempt to write meaningful, deep poetry. The following lines, especially, annoy me and ruin what might otherwise be an interesting song that does not not quite achieve the social commentary it attempts:

"Things are different today,"
I hear ev'ry mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband's just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
On the other hand, any album that includes the classic "Under My Thumb" is not all bad. Even that classic Stones rocker has interesting things happening in the arrangement, and it works.

The experimentation on this record led to more and more excess, as heard on their 1967 psychedelic classic, "Their Satanic Majesties Request," but here it sounds not quite cooked, and makes me miss that classic Stones sound.

Not a bad album, but not the Rolling Stones I enjoy listening to.

Brad's Take:

Let's start this off with a fun fact.
Fun fact: This album came out on April 15, 1966. Exactly 20 years before my birthday, and 20 years before my dad had to start changing poopy diapers on a regular basis.
It would be more of a bragging right if only I had actually liked this album...

I started listening to Aftermath a couple of weeks ago, but only listened to about 3/4 of it before I got bored and put on a different CD. I haven't heard many Rolling Stones albums so I can't really compare this one to their others, but I can say that this one was really hard to get through, especially twice.

"Under My Thumb" was the only song that I feel like I can listen to a few more times. Although it's one of the Stones' slower songs, it's still a nice tempo to bob your head to.

One thing I am confused about is why the UK version (the version of the album that we listened to) doesn't include their single "Paint It, Black" like the US version does. I actually really like that song, and that would have made this album a bit more enjoyable.

Either way, Aftermath only made me want to listen to a different Rolling Stones album.