Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: The Pet Sounds Sessions (1966)
This eagerly anticipated boxed set -- four discs, one in a mini-LP sleeve, handsomely packaged with two extensive booklets, which have some insightful notes but get a bit repetitive with their hallowed, hushed treatment of the project -- marked the first time a single rock album merited an entire, fairly extensive multi-disc collection devoted to its creation, similar to the exhaustive collections often afforded to landmark jazz recordings and performances. The title The Pet Sounds Sessions is slightly misleading because this isn't really four discs of process and refinement. Rather, it's an engaging, casual but always listener-friendly deconstruction of the Beach Boys' (and Brian Wilson's) most accomplished album that tackles multiple aspects of its elaborate, fascinating genesis.
The Beach Boys' standard recording methods in the mid-'60s were unusual for a rock band, at least one with as much creative control as they exercised, and bore more of a resemblance to the tactics behind Motown and Philles singles of the day. For a while after Brian Wilson became the band's producer, primary writer and musical leader, the records were for the most part conventionally crafted with actual Beach Boys playing most of the parts; Brian got early practice managing large rooms full of musicians on his outside productions for other artists, but even after he stopped going on the road with the band and threw himself into studio work full-time, the records were primarily oriented around the band itself up through Today! in 1965, with a few scattered exceptions. (Songs like "Our Car Club" and the unissued "I Do" that mostly consist of session musicians are in such a state because they were originally meant to be sung by other artists.)
Things changed after that; essentially, on portions of Today! and Summer Days and nearly all of Pet Sounds and Smile, Brian Wilson wrote and arranged the songs and then modeled their production on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound method, with the Beach Boys recording their vocal parts only after the tracks were otherwise complete and recording none of the instrumentation (except occasionally Carl Wilson on guitar). His own explanation many years later was that a greater number of musicians could create new and different sounds; a guitar and a piano together might sound unique, particularly if it became three guitars and three pianos, or even more via overdubs. Moreover, with the ambition wrought within Brian by various personal pressures and his own infatuation with Spector and the Beatles, the use of the merry band of studio musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew allowed him to work almost nonstop on new Beach Boys music without the rest of the actual Beach Boys needing to be in town. This later gave rise to the myth that the Beach Boys play on few of their actual records, but the methodology only really holds for the few albums noted. Pet Sounds is the extreme case; with the exception of "That's Not Me," all the songs are primarily played by session musicians. (Even Smile would have slightly more Beach Boys involvement musically.)
The story of Pet Sounds itself isn't really a Beach Boys story anyway; it's about Brian's own path to expressing his hopes and fears about relationships and his own alienation from his peers, helped along into verbal and musical clarity by lyricist Tony Asher. Asher and Wilson didn't just talk about lyrics during their time together; they would spend time discussing their past, future and families, and the women in their lives, and growing older. Brian was only 23 when he made Pet Sounds, an astonishing feat to rival or topple Orson Welles' creation of Citizen Kane at 26, but you can sense for the first time real, scary adult concerns taking over his writing. Part of this was surely by design -- the album functions very specifically as a song cycle of broken, breaking or fragile relationships, and of feeling alone among other people -- but it's also reflective of a more basic intention, to record an album unbroken in its mood and quality. Summer Days had been a masterpiece, the Beach Boys' first, but it was eclectic and varied and restless, whereas Pet Sounds sticks to its focused melancholy through and through.
Like all of Brian's "wall of sound" recordings and even some of the material he made with just the Beach Boys, Pet Sounds was recorded -- and is definitively heard -- in mono, where its sounds blend into a remarkably poetic collision of symphonic yearning, baroque despair and Beautiful Music-style lushness that would years later be known as chamber pop. As remarkable as Phil Spector's records were, Wilson's work of the period, and Pet Sounds in particular, marked the first time the Wrecking Crew wall had been used in so personal and idiosyncratic a fashion. Beginning with the song "Guess I'm Dumb" that he produced for Glen Campbell in 1965, Brian not only used the recording studio as an instrument, he used it as a personal catharsis. As good as other elaborately produced, intricate singles of the '60s were, none of them felt so emotionally alive as a song like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" did. Years later, these songs can still cause a jolt and a tear. This effect was achieved with great care and specificity by Brian, who worked out every note in every part and understood how they would all mesh on the final record.
By conventional wisdom, it would seem pointless to try to duplicate this experience in stereo, where the separation of elements inevitably creates an entirely different musical effect, but after years of requests for Pet Sounds in stereo (it showed up on vinyl in so-called "duophonic" form, a hideous rechannelling process favored by Capitol when Brian and other producers didn't turn in stereo mixes), Mark Linett went back to the master tapes and created an approximation, which opens this boxed set. The result is jarring in some ways but it does sparkle, and at the time it was reported that it was mostly intended for scholarly study. (It's since shown up on standard reissues of the album on CD and streaming sites, and it's hard not to have mixed feelings about that.) Some elements are missing -- here, the biggest exclusion is Mike's vocal on the bridge of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," a problem later corrected on subsequent releases, while the double-tracked vocal on "You Still Believe in Me" and Brian's initial vocal on the tag of "God Only Knows" remain absent -- and the effect is sufficiently different that the two experiences can't be looked upon as remotely interchangeable. But for someone who's loved this album for much of their life, the stereo mix is a revelation and a delight to hear... and fortunately, the fourth disc presents the original mono version in its entirety.
The remainder of the first two discs comes closest to justifying the box's title. The majority of the power that lies in this boxed set comes from witnessing Brian Wilson completely impassioned, dedicated and confident as he directs his musicians to duplicate the songs as they already exist in his head. You might be skeptical of any statement you've heard that Brian was a genius of both pop song form and pop recording; if Pet Sounds itself doesn't lay these doubts to rest for you, hearing Brian's meticulous work on it in real time should do the trick. It is honestly riveting. We get tracking sessions for all of the album's songs except for "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," plus a stunning demo and almost overwhelmingly sad string overdub for that song as well as the piano "intro" session for "You Still Believe in Me." The session tracks themselves range from just a minute or two to over nine ("God Only Knows") and they merely scratch the surface of the material that's been bootlegged, which really tracks the evolution of these songs bit by little bit, but we must remember that space is limited on this set which is meant for a more general audience, and unlike session bootlegs this package never gets repetitive or dull in the interest of archival listening. After each sample of the session tape we get the complete backing track for each song (including "Don't Talk"), so with a bit of programming you can create a complete instrumental Pet Sounds. We also get sessions and a master for the unreleased "Trombone Dixie" (likely discarded for its similarity to "The Little Girl I Once Knew" -- the omission of which from consideration here is a bit of a disappointment) and an early version of "Good Vibrations." Finally, for the two instrumentals that made the final album we get basic track versions excluding subsequent overdubs.
The third disc opens with what may be the highlight of the box -- credited on the sleeve as "Stack-o-Vocals," it separates the vocal tracks from the eleven non-instrumental songs on Pet Sounds so that we can hear them upfront and without any disturbance. You think you know these songs, and then you hear them like this; the Beach Boys' singing and harmonies have been analyzed and discussed more than any other aspect of their interplay as a band, but hearing this it seems fully justified. Hearing Carl's angelic lead on "God Only Knows" unaccompanied seems to drive home that something indescribably special was happening during the recording of this record; talking of Brian being so young when he made this album, consider for a moment that Carl wasn't even twenty yet when he sang this song! The vocal-only mix of the album is so impressive and moving it could justify release all on its own, easily as much so as the semi-revisionist stereo version. The only disappointment is that, given that the release as a whole is credited to the Beach Boys and not Brian, it sort of bristles that we don't get to hear the band working on their vocal tracks like we do with the Wrecking Crew, only the finished product, probably because most of the banter and discussion wasn't saved. But this section of the box justifies its entire existence.
Lastly, there is a conglomeration of alternate takes, only a few of which will be of great interest to non-hardcores. A few regular alternate vocal takes are nice to hear, and the snippet of a discarded harmony background on "Don't Talk" (released before as "Unreleased Backgrounds") is sonically stunning. A variation on "God Only Knows" with a saxophone solo in the break is less painful than it sounds, though as with most of these experiments it's a good thing the direction was changed. There is of course "Hang on to Your Ego," the clumsy original lyric of "I Know There's an Answer," and "Caroline, No" at its original slower speed with a brief diversion on the recording of the barking dogs afterward. It's fun to hear Brian try the lead on "God Only Knows" and "Sloop John B," excruciating to hear Mike try to make his way through "I'm Waiting for the Day" (little wonder he was given few leads on this record), and generally this Anthology-like journey through the record won't cry out to be heard more than once, unlike the remainder of the package.
So in essence, this isn't really a chance to hear Beach Boys recording sessions, or many recording sessions at all; it's much more just a way to hear Pet Sounds in several different, interesting ways, but because Pet Sounds is such an evergreen, sophisticated record with so much to offer, all of these oddities, works-in-progress, incremental changes and radical breakdowns of elements have a wide-ranging appeal to a much bigger audience than would typically be interested in a release like this. Pet Sounds is staggering in stereo, in mono, with the vocals removed, with the instruments removed, and to a lesser extent in the varying forms presented on the third disc. You can't break it. That may be more a testament to the original album than to this box, but the music given to us here is endlessly revealing and resonant and anyone who loves Pet Sounds will be richer for the chance to hear it.