Friday, November 4, 2011

Favorite Albums: Pet Sounds

To enter into Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds is to journey deep into your soul.  This album is a landmark in the pop recording era, by any measure.  Musicians love it because it tells sophisticated tales of young adulthood with emotion and with technical virtuosity that does not distract; it reinforces the themes and carries them to another level.

Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys
 Anyone who has ever wanted to write and arrange music wishes to achieve a complete statement such as Pet Sounds as the culmination of their creative output.  What amazes me about this work is that its progenitor was only 23 years old when he recorded it.  What kind of genius finds his creative peak at such a young age?  How do you gain the level of confidence that young to pull off something so bold? 

Brian was a California kid from Hawthorne.  He played high school football, and combed his hair neatly to the side.  He had two brothers, Carl and Dennis, and together they would sing in harmony.  Family members in harmony create a special sound - think of the Bee Gees.  They were a bunch of teenagers when Brian's father Murry, an modestly successful songwriter, got his sons a tryout at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.  Brian wrote a song about surfing called "Surfin' ", but he had never surfed before.  His brother Dennis was a surfer, and there was a culture building up around it that Brian tapped into with his song.  
A very young Brian Wilson on bass in the studio at Capitol

Capitol loved the song and signed them on the spot in 1962.  Brian then created hit after hit - so much so that by 1965 they were mentioned in the same breath as the Beatles.  A competition formed between them, which Paul McCartney has later confirmed. 

It is difficult to grasp now, but Brian Wilson essentially created an entire industry with these surfing songs.  Before the Beach Boys, only a few thousand people in the entire world knew how to surf.  There was no such thing as "surf music" or "surf guitar".  Now, millions of people surf all over the world.  When you think of the beach, or of Southern California, the soundtrack of those thoughts & dreams is almost inevitably Beach Boys music. 

This is the backdrop for Pet Sounds.  In late 1965, Brian Wilson was on top of his game - rich, successful, famous throughout the world, held in high esteem for both his artistic and commercial success - all at a very young age.  Capitol saw him as a cash machine and pushed him hard to create more new music.  Brian developed a nagging stage fright, and grew weary of touring.  He wanted to stay home and write.  So the band hired Bruce Johnston to stand in for Brian on tour while he worked on songs. 

Then the Beatles released Rubber Soul - their first album made up entirely of their own compositions.  Brian was deeply affected by the greatness of the Beatles' work.  He took it as a personal challenge to respond with his best work.  He even told his wife at the time, "I'm gonna make the greatest rock album ever made!"

Brian working in the studio.  He always recorded in mono because he was deaf in one ear.

Pet Sounds was the result - a deeply meditative inner search for meaning, for love, and for purpose from the perspective of a young man, surrounded with lush instrumentation and rich harmonies.  Each song deals with emotions any young man contemplates - will I ever get married?  What kind of woman will my wife be?  When does childhood end and adulthood begin?  How can I survive?  What happens when that first flower of a new relationship settles into something less exciting?  What makes it last? 

I have listened to this record hundreds of times since I was a baby.  For me part of the appeal is that it conjures memories of my youth when my mother would often play great '60s-era LPs while she was doing her household chores.  The Beach Boys are a reminder of that time, with their divine harmonies permeating my young mind.  So I always loved how the music on this record made me feel.  As I grew older, the lyrics began to reveal to me a sensibility that was very deeply mature and personal.  And now that I am older, married, and a father, my focus is on studying the virtuosity of how he combined his feelings that inspired the composition with the lyrics and the baroque arrangements.

On this album, Brian hired the best studio musicians in Los Angeles to assemble the instrument tracks.  He wrote intricate arrangements that defied normal pop/rock convention.  For example, Brian's bass lines were very innovative in that on most songs on this album, the bass note is rarely playing the root chord.  What I mean is if the song is in G in a certain section, usually the bass note is a G.  Brian would make it a B-flat, or another melody line altogether, like Mozart does. 

Carol Kaye, bass player for The Wrecking Crew - Brian's studio band
 A great example of this compositional technique is on the song "Don't Talk".  I love the break where Brian sings, "listen to my heart...beat" and when he sings "heart", the bass line suggests a heart beat with a walking-down line.  The effect is so sublime; it perfectly captures the mood of intimacy.  You almost feel you are naked in bed with your lover, in the dark, with your head on her chest listening to her heart at that moment.  The music conjures just that kind of imagery. 

I have always loved "Sloop John B" which takes you on a metaphorical journey aboard a sailing ship.  For me, it has always represented the wandering aimlessness of the single life, with its constant trips to bars and parties every weekend.  The life can take its toll on you physically.  At some point, you just want the trip to end; you want to find love and settle down.  But you're still on the ship.  "Home, let me go home..." they all sing. 

A sloop - a two-mast boat of 50-75 feet made from cedar; many were made in Bermuda for the British Navy in the 1800s. 
 "God Only Knows" has always gotten a lot of critical attention.  For me it does what John Lennon's "Across the Universe" from "Let It Be" does - it takes the listener beyond the boundaries of time and space.  But Brian went beyond what Lennon conteplated in his song by putting a man's love for a woman in the context of the eternal.  Just magnificent. 

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" is a daydream about marriage.  What will it be like to sleep with a woman, wake up with her every day, sharing everything?  "Here Today" discusses how fleeting relationships can be.  To really discover love, you have to be vulnerable; you have to expose yourself to the danger of being hurt by that other person.  Sometimes it ends quickly.  But you have to keep trying, because if you don't take that risk, you will never find the love you seek. 

This album is my favorite ever.  Thank you, Brian.  I will treasure it until my days on this earth are done.  I recommend it to you, dear reader.  Listen to it and share your thoughts. 

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