Yeah, I know, it's not much of a title for
a music column, but you probably picked this guide up for free anyway,
so quit yer complainin'. Besides, it gives me a reason to start
using a ratings system -- for all those who, like me, prefer a user
friendly precise option in their media reviews:
^^^^^ = Five chips - The salsa's great and the
chips are eternally refreshed. Dunk at will and repeatedly. Own
^^^^ = Four chips - The chips are a wee tad more stale than you
would prefer. Enjoy the salsa, though, 'cause it's mighty tasty.
You might want to own this.
^^^ = Three chips - Salsa's less than perfectly fresh and the chips
are still stale. It adequately mimics the peach salsa experience,
but that very special something is missing. Borrow this at least.
^^ = Two chips - It physically resembles chips and salsa, but it
ain't it. Don't feel bad if you miss hearing this.
^ = One chip - It seems to resemble a foodstuff, but who knows what
it is anymore? If you must, crane your neck briefly to take notice
of this, as you would a car wreck on the highway.
= No chips - Better you eat cow chips than this. Avoid this and
warn your friends to avoid this. Please. All set? Good. Now for
the new reviews…
And let's start with some old bits
of business. You Beach Boys fans have been waiting some thirty-eight
years, but the long awaited follow-up to the classic Pet Sounds
has finally arrived. Oh, wait. That was Smiley Smile. Or was it
Wild Honey? Surf's Up, maybe?
The truth, in a way, is that it was all of those. During
a time when the Beatles (spurred on themselves by Pet Sounds) launched
into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brian Wilson enlisted
session man and eclectic pop-songwriter Van Dyke Parks, with the
intent of topping the artistic heights of Pet Sounds. It was a tall
order, and one not helped by a growing rift in the band between
the original pop ethics embodied, for example, by Mike Love, and
the new found pop-avant-garde approach aggressively being pursued
by an increasingly drug-fueled and emotionally fragile Wilson. Ultimately
the intended whole of Smile was split up to be adopted later by
Beach Boys albums from Smiley Smile (sadly bearing a perversion
of the original album's intended name) through 1973's Holland. The
original Smile has become a legend, a great never was, turning up
in speculative collections that collected disparate pieces and bootlegged
studio sessions left unreleased, but never bearing the final touch
of the artists responsible.
That is, perhaps, until now. Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks,
after collaborating on a live setting of their Smile songs in the
fall of 2003, finally entered the studio with a new band to make
a new recording having finally developed the ideas they originally
intended for Smile. It's not Beach Boys, so don't think of it as
Beach Boys. Brian Wilson presents Smile (Nonesuch Records, Sept.
2004 ^^^^^) is a culmination of a brilliant musical moment for
Wilson. It's a reuniting of the separate parts that, even if it's
a questionable historic recreation of the original tapes or intent,
provides an invaluable window into the mind of a brilliant musician
as far out on a limb as he dare get.
Using a new ten member band (including Wilson stalwarts Jeffrey
Foskett, Paul Mertens and Jim Hines, and the Wondermints' Darian
Sahanaja, Probyn Gregory and Nick Walusko (the band whom, supposedly,
Wilson most recently intended to record Smile)), Wilson has assembled
a brilliant piece in three suites which fearlessly uses harmonics
that the original Beach Boys no doubt would have lended (or did)
to this material. Wilson, of course, sings lead on these tunes,
some of which have never been released on any official Beach Boys
album. "Roll Plymouth Rock," "Barnyard," "Old Master Painter," "Child
is Father of the Man" and "I'm in Great Shape" only existed for
bootleg fans before, doing little justice to the developed idea
of the finished product as heard here.
Within this album is represented the musical invention that
first startled people on Pet Sounds. Along with dead-on Beach Boys
vocal doppelgangers, pianos, guitars, drums, horns and such, we
hear drills, saws, animal sounds, studio manipulations, seemingly
all accomplished with the latest technology, but mind blowingly
alive with the aesthetic of the state of the studio art, circa 1966.
Also here are favored Beach Boys instruments peppering the proceedings:
bass harmonica (all over "Heroes and Villains"), kettle drums, celeste
(as on "Roll Plymouth Rock"), harpsichord… in short, every thing
you might have expected to hear in that fabled never-happened Beach
Boys' Smile album.
Listen to "Old Master Painter/ You Are My Sunshine" for a
small example of what Wilson and Parks are doing. Yes, Wilson sings
a version of "Sunshine," but what a plaintive thing it is, sung
in a minor key, preceded by a bit of baroque styled string arrangement,
underscored by a dissonant string arrangement and topped off with
a wacky sax solo (all performed by the "Stockholm Strings 'n' Horns").
This, of course, leads into "Cabin Essence" with its' lyrical scene
of rustic domesticity, underscored by vocal "doing-doings", banjo,
piano and cello, leading into a beautifully harmonized vocal chorus,
intoning the gently ironic question "Who ran the I-ron Horse?/ Who
ran the I-ron horse?," with a Phil Spector wall-of-sound like arrangement…
jeez, who else was doing this???
I've just listened to it twice and it is amazingly smooth
pop, while still being filled with incredibly off the wall ideas,
vintage 1966 and… heck, even now! Most impressive, is that Wilson
has the cohones to pull off a studio recreation/rethinking of "Good
Vibrations," the most famous of the Smile castoffs (although it
could as easily be considered a leftover from Pet Sounds). (Side
note: he now interpolates "Vibrations" in his arrangement of "Song
for Children") This is arguably as musically valid and vital an
interpretation as the original. Stranger still, it's also arguably
the most meaningful contribution to this recording that his old
bandmates made, since it's the only original tune here with a fellow
Beach Boy (Mike Love) receiving songwriting credit. Yes, some fans
might object to Wilson's lyrical re-write; basically every verse
after "the colorful clothes she wears" and before the first bridge
is jettisoned. Those originals are lost, however, in favor of new
lyrics that seem to better fit the mental state reflected by the
rest of the album. A controversial choice? You bet, but Wilson is
reenergized here, embracing the half-finished musical legacy of
Smile whole hog, with new energy and all the focus and energy that
this material deserved the first time around.
It's all here. In this interpretation of vintage Wilson,
you can hear Sgt. Pepper Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Syd Barrett
era Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Bonzo Dog Band, Radiohead, David Byrne's
"The Forest," XTC… wow. That's a lot.
And if Van Dyke Parks' lyrical work is still deliberately
thick with impenetrable imagery, it leaves all that much more to
ponder. Bravo to Wilson, Parks, the Wondermints and company for
a smashing job. Wow. Rethinking a masterpiece. Let's see McCartney
try anything like that with Pepper…
…then again, let's not. Tampering with history is something best
left to experts or crazy geniuses. ______________________________________________________________
Well, that's all for this issue. Please join me for more attempts
at musical guff every Friday night/ Saturday morning from Midnight
to three a.m. on the "Call It Thing" show, in the Friday Gothics
slot. Until next time, see you on the radio.
WWUH: November/December Program Guide 2004 ©