The Pet Sounds Sessions
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
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.
This is a great way to get heavy metal heads interested in classical music. It could also break up your marriage or get you evicted from your apartment. The recording quality is -- well, smashing. Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic prove themselves masters of rhythmic volume and unsubtlety, just what this program calls for.
-- Raymond Tuttle
With mainstream country music little more than refried Eagles and the "Americana" alt-country scene a plate of old Flying Burrito Brothers crumbs, there's not much out there for country connoisseurs that's innovative. But just when you think there's nothing new in country's cornpatch, up pops a sound at once fresh and familiar, a new and tasty take on time-honored treats. Like Alone, the debut CD from Greg Garing. He's a former Nashville retro-tonker who relocated to New York and figured out a way to hog-tie trip-hop technotica and wrap it around kinda-country songs. The results, for the most part, are guaranteed double takes. They make for a stylistic shotgun wedding of studio trickery and down-home tradition that works in wonderfully unexpected ways.
The surprises start from the get-go with the opening cut, "My Love Is Real," an arresting slab of hip-hop hoodoo and gritty, swampy techno. The unlikely sonic alchemy is startling at first, but that off-kilter feel enhances Garing's pleading multitrack vocals as he wonders, "Why must you do the things/True lovers never do/Always aware of the pain that I feel." The sentiment, though hardly new, is made haunting by the eerie, sharp-edged backdrop.
His studio acrobatics are less convincing when his songwriting stalls. "How the Road Unwinds" comes off as a nervous, surfish rockabilly ride that doesn't quite get where it's headed. "Where the Bluegrass Grows," a well-intentioned tribute to the late Bill Monroe, finds Garing and bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan picking and squinting through so many skewed backwoods sounds it's impossible to hear a melody, much less keep the lineage straight.
Garing is far stronger when he sticks with his own vision. At his best, he rivals PJ Harvey in pounding out emotions that slice and dice at odd angles. "Don't cry baby .../Look beyond your sight/Trust in me, hopelessly," he sings on "Don't Cry Baby," allowing the verse to teeter between threat and request with an anxious ambiguity. On "Fallen Angel," his reedy voice sounds like a spooked-up Jimmie Rodgers, reeling off bittersweet couplets such as "Sometimes people change/Sometimes angels fall from the heavens." The song's jungly bluegrass and jagged beat make for a fitting finale, one that helps mark Alone as a gripping schematic of a wounded soul's dark pages.
-- Ted Simons
The Bottle and Fresh Horses
While rumors of the demise of Tempe, Arizona's Gin Blossoms inch ever closer to fact, their miserable New Southwest experience soldiers on under the guise of the Refreshments. That the Blossoms and their sound-alike progeny share a hometown cannot be overemphasized. Every note-perfect jangle-riff and yearning, cry-in-yer-microbrew chorus on the Refreshments' sophomore effort seems cribbed from the Blossoms' Byrds-cum-Petty playbook. The sharp-dressed banditos did have the humility to thank the Blossoms in the CD liner notes. Why stop there? There's always songwriting credits.
-- Hobart Rowland