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.

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