Sunday, June 12, 2016
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS - PET SOUNDS 50th Anniversary Box
It's the 50th anniversary of the landmark Pet Sounds album, certainly worthy of a special box set. After all, it's often listed as the #1 or #2 album of all time by many compilers of such things, England usually picking it at top, U.S. magazines often #2 behind Sgt. Pepper. Even if not at or near the top, I'd say it's safe to say almost every credible poll has placed it in the top ten, so let's not quibble.
How to celebrate, then. The big problem was that it's probably the most reissued album, like, ever. A mere six years after its original release, the first reissue came out, oddly appended to The Beach Boys' latest release, the strangely named and horribly selling Carl and the Passions - So Tough. Then, it came out on its own in 1974 again. Then it fell on hard times, and for awhile wasn't even in print. Come the CD age, it got cranked up again and Capitol Records has had a field day finding ways to put it out again and again and again, in a variety of ways.
A huge deal was made in 1990 when it came out on CD for the first time, along with three previously-unreleased tracks. Then in 1997, a first Pet Sounds box set came out, with the very first stereo version of the album, plus hours of session tapes and alternate versions of songs, a pretty spectacular effort. Then for the 40th anniversary, there as a fuzzy green box, there'a been a DVD-audio version, and since the vinyl comeback, at least three different issues of thing, including a mono and stereo 2 LP set on coloured vinyl. Original 1966 vinyl copies now go for at least a hundred bucks in good condition, to several hundred for mint.
What they've come up with this time is the biggest box yet, five discs. Four of them are CD, the last a blu-ray pure audio one with 5.1 surround mixes of the album proper, instrumental versions and a bunch of the alternate tracks. The four CD's draw on mostly the same material as the 1997 box, -with one major addition, 11 live cuts of Pet Sounds material taken from shows over the years. Between the sound advances since 1997, the new packaging and those live cuts, it's probably enough to draw in the crazed collectors (hi), and the higher-end purchasers not afraid of the $70 - $90 price tag.
It is a nice package, done up as a coffee-table book style, with a hard-bound cover, big pages, lots of photos, very attractive. However, it's a little light on the content, certainly nowhere as extensive as the 1997 box, with its two separate thick booklets. I guess they felt they shouldn't re-use the same lengthy notes, or maybe that everything has already been said, so stick with the basics. I do like that all the lyrics are here, all the session musicians (the so-called Wrecking Crew, featuring Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Billy Strange, Tommy Tedesco, Glen Campbell, etc.), and a few listening hints from producer/leader/genius Brian Wilson (Here Today: "Listen for that trombone part in the middle".)
I guess I should say something about the music; after all I've spent most of my life agreeing that it is the best album ever, at least to my tastes. What you have here is 23-year-old sensitive soul who has in the past four years gone from being an awkward kid to the most respected musician/producer in the game, completely rewriting the rule book for pop music. He has created a suite of music around the idea of moving from childhood to adulthood, struggling with love and heartbreak. As well, he's arranging sophisticated music with melodies, harmonies and instrumentation far above any of his colleagues, working with the very best players in not only rhythm sections but horn and string sections as well. His ability to conceive of instrument combinations that created unique aural final products is perhaps still unequaled to this day: "I'd like to start it out this time with the organ and the Fender bass, then the bongos will come in the second half like everything else. Here we go, organ, Fender bass and piccolo."
Once you get into the album, it is quite fun and revelatory to go through the various session takes, and hear Wilson directing these highly-experienced pros doing stuff they've never done before, The music alone is mesmerizing, but then you hear the singing added, and realize he had this all in his head from the start; where the verses and choruses would go, how each individual Beach Boy would blend in the final product. Some of the alternates include different lead vocals from other band members, as Wilson experiments, or the rare bad idea, like a sax solo on God Only Knows, but for the most part this was pain-staking, time consuming work mostly to get the very best possible performance from the players and singers, in a day when you pretty much had to get most of the take done live off the floor, rather than pieced together in chunks. No matter that this has been issued for the most part before, if you don't have it, I suggest you give yourself a treat. Unless, of course, you don't like God Only Knows ("The greatest song ever written" - P. McCartney), in which case, you're excused.