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The Beach Boys
The Pet Sounds Sessions
(Capitol Records)

Not long ago VH1 aired a documentary on the making of some Fleetwood Mac record -- it hardly matters which. Lindsey Buckingham sat behind the console, fiddling with knobs and dials until he managed to completely deconstruct one song, isolating the vocal tracks, guitar lines, bits of percussion, and piled-up effects. Like a mad surgeon, he sliced open his creation to reveal the tiniest pieces inside -- not just the heart and muscle, but every cell and secretion. In the process, he absolutely ruined the essential mystery of rock and roll.

And so it is with the long-delayed The Pet Sounds Sessions, a four-disc box set that spills Pet Sounds's guts all over the floor -- every note is repeated, every vocal track and every run-through included, every Brian Wilson instruction and every mistake revealed. A box for fetishists, those who would seek to understand how Wilson built his masterpiece from the ground up, it pulls back the curtain and reveals the midget standing on the ladder, stripping away the intrigue till Pet Sounds's thirteen perfect songs become dozens and dozens of half-finished, start-and-stop-and-start templates. The how-to kit comes with a 120-page instruction manual and two versions of the completed product itself, one in stereo and another in mono. Never before have we been given such a chance to see a genius at work; never again will we want to.

Pet Sounds ranks among the most important rock records of the past 30 years -- the record that inspired the Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper, the record that merged pop and psychedelia, the record that ushered teen music into adulthood. It's essential listening, especially for those who know the Beach Boys only as a golden-oldies act relegated to playing state fairs. Pet Sounds is an album of heartbreak and fear, filled with one man's songs about how he doesn't fit in, how he longs for escape to a place he will never find, how he longs for the sort of love he will never know. It's as much about surrender as celebration, and it's still surprising to discover how many of Brian Wilson's twisted demons we call our own. "God Only Knows" and "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" are perfect love songs, teardrops on a smile.

Pet Sounds is also about how Brian found the answers not in drugs or religion but in his music, in the luxurious and textured sound that comes on like a whisper and leaves like a train. Sessions puts you inside Wilson's anguished head for a moment, letting you (sort of) understand why he went this way instead of that. You can hear him giving instructions to the myriad musicians piled into the studio, telling them to stop doing that and start doing this.

Of course, there are reasons this kind of stuff is left off records: It's interesting only until it detracts from the results. Do you really want to see Georges Seurat put all those little dots to the canvas, or would you rather just gaze at the finished painting?

The "Stack-O-Vocals" collected on disc three are perhaps the most rewarding moments: It's exhilarating to hear the unadorned, swelling harmonies of the Beach Boys, most of whom weren't too thrilled to sing Wilson's anguished lyrics after years of having so much fun, fun, fun on those odes to surfing, cars, and California girls. By underscoring the words, these a cappella cuts prove Pet Sounds wasn't only about the intricate arrangements. "Sloop John B" becomes less a folk standard performed Beach Boys-style than a dark exploration of "the worst trip I've ever been on." In retrospect, Capitol's release of "Sloop John B" as the first single from Pet Sounds is comical: If anything, it contained the album's most blatant drug reference, and it summed up Wilson's intentions better than any song on the record. Pet Sounds was one long bad trip, a comedown after so many highs.

The Pet Sounds Sessions isn't as rewarding as listening to the album alone; there's little pleasure to be gained from drowning in the details. Wilson understood that the best music was the melding of melody and words, the formation of an inexplicable third element. The words made you think, the music made you feel, and the song made you whole.

-- Robert Wilonsky

Lief Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
EARQUAKE
(Ondine)

Remember those rock LPs that commanded you to "Play It Loud!"? In the same spirit, the Finnish classical record label Ondine has brought us EARQUAKE, a collection of classical music that stakes its reputation on being extremely loud. This is a rather silly concept, of course, but the folks at Ondine help it succeed by trying not to obscure the silliness and by selecting music that is both offbeat and ambitious.

Instead of the usual Orff, Wagner, and other overly familiar sound bites, conductor Leif Segerstam and Ondine have selected excerpts from the works of Howard Hanson, Carl Nielsen, Erwin Schulhoff, and others. This sixteen-cut CD ends with a work called "Hekla" ("Volcano") by Icelandic composer Jon Leifs. Ondine claims that this is the loudest single piece of music in history. I don't doubt it: The 140-piece orchestra requires 22 percussionists who smash rocks with hammers, rattle metal chains, strike anvils, bash steel plates, make sirens wail, and fire several dozen cannon shots. The musicians demanded earplugs; so might you.

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