The Beach Boys: The Pet Sounds Sessions
The Wilsons: The Wilsons
Brian Wilson: Imagination
In the past nine months, there have been three albums released to remind us why Brian Wilson earned, and is still earning, the tag of musical genius.
Brian Wilson, the founder of the Beach Boys, and main composer and producer of their classic hits, is cited by just about every "serious" musician as an influence. This confounds the average member of western civilization who knows all the major Beach Boys hits backwards, but can't understand how they could be a continuing influence as opposed to a snapshot of an American dream in the 60s.
The key to this understanding is the Pet Sounds album. Released in 1966, it is regarded by more than just a few people who know their music as the greatest album of all time. Pet Sounds has nothing to do with surfing or car fantasies, but everything to do with real life as experienced by every man and woman on this planet. It also had everything to do with love, acceptance, insecurity, being way ahead of one's time and adapting to a changing and uncaring world. And it had everything to do with the most gorgeous music ever created, the most sophisticated backing tracks ever laid to record and some wonderful vocal arrangements.
The Pet Sounds Sessions is a 4 CD box set that unravels some of the makings of the classic album as well as splitting out the vocal and instrumental components of the original album. 4 CDs covering maybe fifteen different songs may seem overkill to the uninitiated, but it is riveting listening throughout. Newcomers to Pet Sounds would be well advised to start with the 4th CD which is the original album in mono remastered with the latest technology. Listen to it a few times, listen to the vocal arrangements, the lyrics, the backing instrumentation, listen to all together and gradually it will envelope you in it's seductive coil. There are two separate booklets, which provide a useful context for the album, as well as on how it was made.
The other three CDs contain a complete stereo mix of the album, vocal-only versions, instrumental tracks and alternative versions. Possibly the most revelatory part of this set is the excerpts from the tracking sessions. This is where Brian was guiding the musicians through the various songs and they show the depth of his musical vision, and ultimately his genius.
Pet Sounds ends with a song called "Caroline No", which at first listen seems like a simple ode to a love gone sour. Of course it is one of the most beautiful tunes ever written, but at the end of the song there is terrific percussion roll which sounds like the world collapsing on someone. After that, you hear the horn of a diesel train, representing movement and change, and some dogs barking, as if not understanding the need for change.
The whole ending is prophetic. Brian Wilson, having already created the greatest album of all time, tried to create an even better album. He struggled to get his new music accepted by his peers and the record company, and then, when the Beatles came out with Sergeant Pepper, felt he had lost the race to be the best. Of course, use of drugs in vogue at that time didn't help, and for the next thirty years, Brian retreated from the race to be the best, while having to deal with demons from his past such as an abusive father and sometimes unsympathetic family, as well as the consequences of the drug use.
He never lost his touch, though, and the past thirty years are littered with great Brian Wilson songs. However when he did make music, it was on his own terms, and not from a frantic desire to be the best. However, now in 1998, Brian Wilson has released an album which shows him, if not trying to make the greatest album ever, at least confronting his past, accepting what he can't change and moving graciously forward.
Imagination is a very good album, filled with memorable tunes and vocals. At times the instrumentation seems a bit bland and radio-friendly, but the overall impression is extremely positive. The past is confronted by revisiting four old tunes, two fairly obscure Beach Boys songs, "Let Him Run Wild" and "Keep An Eye On Summer" and two tunes written more than twenty-five years ago but never released, "She Says She Needs Me" and the opening part of "Happy Days."
"Happy Days" both reflects on a dark past in it's dissonance of the opening section (the tune here was originally called "My Solution" and was originally set to lyrics telling a bizarre Halloween tale), and looks to the future in it's joyous closing. It is clear that Brian has found some sort of redemption through his new wife, and some sort of spiritual peace, and while his life isn't perfect, it seems much better than anytime since Pet Sounds.
Another song on Imagination, "Lay Down Burden", looks at the flipside of the 60s hedonism in the cost of broken relationships. It seems to reflect on recent losses in Brian's life, his mother Audrey, and brother and fellow Beach Boy Carl Wilson. It has a measure of regret but also the need to lay down the burden of the past and move forward. And like "Caroline No", 32 years ago, it shows that Brian hasn't lost the ability to deeply impact on our souls through music.
Imagination also contains some lighter stuff such as the fun song "South American", written with Jimmy Buffet, and "Dream Angel", written for his two adopted step-daughters. Both songs are catchy, and deserve to put Brian right back at the top of the hit parade.
The third album recently released, "The Wilson" is actually the latest release by Brian's daughters from his first marriage, Carnie and Wendy. You should remember them from Wilson Phillips, and now Chynna Phillips has gone her own way. This album is definitely a lesser opus than the first two reviewed, and much of it is unremarkable 90s pop, but Brian Wilson is involved in four tracks. One is a remake of the Beach Boys song "Til' I Die", one of Brian's most fantastic creations, a song of despair written just before the worst time in his life. The version here is OK, but you should be looking for the original Beach Boys version.
The real reason to get this album is "Everything I Need", written by Brian and Tony Asher. This is where these three releases turn full circle, as Tony Asher wrote most of the lyrics to Pet Sounds, and interpreted Brian's, and all of our, deepest feelings. This song was a one-off songwriting reunion between the two, and it is about a mature, long-lasting, romantic relationship, freed from the insecurities reflected in Pet Sounds. It is a pretty song, nicely sung and arranged, and it does give a real feeling of hope of the long-lasting power of love.
Pet Sounds was a brilliant album, surely the best ever made or likely to be made, and Brian said he made it to share "spiritual love" with the world. It is a loving album, but ultimately one that ends with sadness as Brian realises that the world isn't ready for him (listen to the key Pet Sounds track "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times').Brian had to retreat from the world, and from the manic race to be the greatest, to save himself, and his redemption has been a long process. And now with "Everything I Need" and the Imagination album, that redemption seems to have happened.
Brian Wilson may not be a household name, but his impact on our lives through the big hits of the Beach, and on other musicians who cite him as an influence, is inestimable. Buying one, two or all three of these releases will let you into a part of popular music's greatest canon. These records may change your life, or at least give an insight into why it has changed others.
Pet Sounds Sessions ***** (5 stars)
Imagination ****1/2 (4.5 stars)
The Wilsons *** (3 stars)