Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Pet Sounds Sessions

I don't think it's far-fetched to say that discovering Pet Sounds, the 1966 studio album by the Beach Boys, was one of the happiest finds of my life.  I first came across the album in its entirety when I was fourteen, on a long airplane flight, through tinny earphone speakers and a crackling barrier of static; I don't believe I listened all the way through.  When I was seventeen I bought the CD, curious to verify the rumors I'd read of its artistic brilliance.  Alongside Brian Wilson's recreation of his lost masterwork, Smile (which I discovered at about the same time), I listened and I listened, and I was soon satisfied that the rumors were true.  The band that I'd been lead to believe was largely inconsequential had made a work of art that I wanted to carry with me for the rest of my life.

Listening to Pet Sounds changed the way I thought about art; in many ways, it made me really think about art for the first time.  I realized in a moment of clarity what beauty there was in desire, loneliness, and sorrow.  There was life in those feelings, spilling out of my stereo in rays that illuminated the room with glorious harmony.  There was license in Pet Sounds for me to feel those emotions, rather than deaden myself to them, or bury them where they couldn't be seen.  In time my whole worldview came to be colored by these songs, and I heard echoes of them in my life and everywhere else.  And whenever I felt truly sad, and I often did, I could listen to those songs and feel the same life affirming force like I'd rediscovered them all over again.

It's pretty obvious that I love Pet Sounds; I've baffled many a roommate with the depths of my devotion, but even more casual acquaintances have heard me preach its gospel.  This year, for my twenty fifth birthday, my girlfriend bought me The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, a four disc compilation of outtakes and alternate versions.  At that point we had only known each other for about six weeks; but in that short time, she seemed to have no trouble determining what would touch my heart the most.

To say I was happy is an understatement; I was positively inarticulate.  It was as though I had the vocabulary of a child, which was just as well because it felt like Christmas when I was ten years old.  The one thought I managed to express coherently (apart, perhaps, from boundless gratitude) was that we needed to listen it.  Right.  Away.  God bless her, she agreed.  I don't know if she could hear the album quite the way I did, but I wanted desperately for her to hear the heartbeat of the music that was so incredibly close to mine.

In a certain sense, there was very little in the box that was new to me.  I wouldn't describe three discs of sessions highlights, studio chatter, and a cappella tracks as essential for casual listeners; as for the album itself, I still have the same CD I bought nearly eight years ago.  But that didn't matter to me.  For one thing, I am exactly the sort of hardcore fan who is meant to listen to this sort of box.  More than that, I the box set is a way for me to reaffirm my connection to the music, and the special place it holds in my library.  I won't try to convince everyone in the world that they need to buy this box, but I do want to talk about what makes it worthwhile for me, and why I'm glad to assign it precious shelf space.

Disc one contains a stereo mix of the original album, which had never been done until 1996; the Beach Boys did all of their 60s recording in mono, for aesthetic and practical reasons.  I'd heard it before, of course; the CD I already owned contained the entire album in both stereo and mono.  As to whether the stereo is better than the mono, that is a question I've turned over in my mind multiple times.  When you've listened to them both as many times as I have, there are marked differences: the lack of double tracking on the lead vocal in You Still Believe in Me, or the removal of the quiet studio chatter from the bridge of Here Today are only the most obvious changes made to the stereo version.  I find both of those changes to be more or less positive, but I much prefer the mono version of God Only Knows; it seems to have a more restrained, intimate, sound than the stereo.  I'd rather not be forced to pick between them; suffice it to say that whatever the abstract concerns of a purist might be, the stereo remix is expertly done.

Spread out over discs one and two are highlights of the recording sessions for each of the thirteen songs from Pet Sounds, plus their finished backing tracks, sans-vocals.  Also included are sessions for Trombone Dixie (an unreleased instrumental), and Good Vibrations, which was meant for Pet Sounds, but ultimately held back and rerecorded from scratch.  It's this section of the box that I find most fascinating, because it reveals so much about the creative process: there's Brian, tweaking arrangements and guiding to completion the ingenious compositions he'd made in his head, with infectious enthusiasm and humor all the while.  The backgrounds themselves are stunningly beautiful and sophisticated, and I was even startled by a few of them.  How could I have never noticed how angry those horns sounded in the chorus of Here Today?  These songs contain worlds, and it's almost always worth following the path of any one instrument in the whole arrangement, because each is full of clever surprises.

Disc three begins with the isolated vocal tracks from each song, and they make a decent listening experience on their own.  The Beach Boys could sing a cappella beautifully, but these aren't a cappella arrangements, and unaccompanied voices always sound strange.  Still, these tracks represent the only contribution by the non-Brian Wilson members of the band, apart from some lyrics and a few guitar parts.  There's no mistaking that it's his album though and through, but the sound they produced when singing together was by no means worth losing: on an album noted for the technical achievement of its arrangements, the sound of multi-part harmony is always the defining instrument.

The Sessions end with a collection of demos and alternate versions, which are mostly of historical value rather than a pure listening pleasure.  God Only Knows never needed a saxophone solo, and hearing Mike Love make an attempt at the lead vocal of I'm Waiting For the Day is something between bizarre and unsettling.  On the other hand, it's very interesting to hear Caroline No in its original key; the released version was sped up by a half step, and while that may not sound like much, the difference is enough to make the song sadder than ever seemed possible.  As for Hang On to Your Ego (an early version of I Know There's an Answer), it isn't terribly different from the final product, but it does have a more interesting title.  This section of the Sessions is probably the least essential, and it requires a high degree of knowledge and familiarity with the band to really appreciate. 

Finally, disc four is the album itself: Pet Sounds in the original mono.  It goes without saying that it sounds good, because it always has.  You Still Believe in Me continues to rise into the heavens like an earnest prayer.  Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) still sounds like the hidden music of silent, post-coital bliss.  I Know There's an Answer vibrates with nervous alienation and paranoia, even without the explicitly psychedelic jargon that originally informed it.  And sometimes, I still tear up when I hear the heartbreaking bridge of Caroline No.

Brian Wilson was twenty four years old when he produced Pet Sounds.  It shouldn't be possible to make something so timelessly beautiful with so little life experience, but it wouldn't have been possible to make Pet Sounds without the sensitivity of youth.  Given the economic realities of the music business, it would have been easier not to make this album.  But miraculously it exists, and I'm forever grateful for that.  It's the crystalline standard of pop music: a transcendent representative of the genre, and a window toward what lies beyond.

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