Tag Archives: Brian WIlson

Classic Albums Revisited: REVOLVER

REVOLVER, The Beatles seventh studio album, just celebrated an impressive 50th anniversary earlier this month. Last night I sat down with my son and listened to in its entirety for the first time in many years. Growing up, REVOLVER was my very first Beatles album. It was one of two CD’s my parents owned for many years which means this is The Beatles album I am most familiar with. Because it was the first time my son Warren had heard an entire Beatles album, I decided to try my best to listen with new ears, not an easy task for an old Beatle-fan like myself.

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For starters, I was surprised at how clean and modern REVOLVER sounds. Sure, this type of rock music isn’t what’s in vogue today, the album could still have easily been released today. I know that this isn’t a new revelation, and is, in fact, the chief aspect that makes The Beatles and their work still so relevant. But I was still nonetheless impressed with how well REVOLVER holds up. I also noted, maybe for the first time, what a fantastic bridge album REVOLVER is between the early “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” Beatles and the drugged out later period. The band is still trading on their moptop image/sound but there is a clear effort to craft songs that are both sonically diverse and that cover meaningful topics outside of merely wanting to hold a girl’s hand and/or being in love. There are, history tells us, several factors that contributed heavily to this evolution in the band’s sound. The first is, of course, the band’s exposure to Bob Dylan, which began a sea change in the band’s writing on RUBBER SOUL released the year before. Lennon, in particular, was increasingly trying to say more with his music thanks to Dylan’s influence. Drugs, specifically LSD, and the psychedelic counter-culture movement also played a tremendous influence on the band and REVOLVER. Lastly, I’d also say that George Harrison meeting Ravi Shankar, how expanded upon and improved Harrison’s sitar playing during the summer of 1966 also heavily influenced REVOLVER.

REVOLVER might also best be described as Harrison’s coming out party. Though his best Beatles-era songs are arguably on ABBEY ROAD, I would argue that it is REVOLVER where it becomes apparent that Harrison is just as good a songwriter as Lennon-McCartney. It’s worth noting that this is the first (and only) time that a Harrison-penned song opens a Beatles album. And what an interesting choice “Taxman” is when you consider the song’s subject matter. This is the first time The Beatles get political and it’s not about war but rather their pocketbooks! I’m not sure I would be aware of the tax situation in the UK during this period of history were in not for this song and The Rolling Stones eventual decision to be tax exiles during the recording of EXILE ON MAIN ST. Interestingly enough, unlike many protest/political songs of the era, “Taxman” is probably the closest song to remain topical even to listeners today.

Though largely considered to be the pop Beatle, the one with the keenest commercial sensibilities, even Paul McCartney gets serious on REVOLVER. True, McCartney (like Lennon) had been maturing in his songwriting with each successive album, REVOLVER features one of his darkest songs ever, “Eleanor Rigby.” Though the song was written in conjunction with Lennon, who often gets credit for being the more artistically-serious Beatle, McCartney came up with the impetus for the song. Listening to “Eleanor Rigby” with fresh ears, I was struck at how hopeless the song’s characters are. That McCartney, a wealthy young rock star, would write such a sensitive song about ordinary, lonely people is still surprising to me. Though the similarly melancholy ballad “Yesterday” gets the lion’s share of accolades, I think “Eleanor Rigby” is the better song. The arrangement is more complicated and the lyrics are more evocative. Without devolving into a simplistic story-song, “Eleanor Rigby” manages to paint the listener a few sad vignettes that cut to the very heart of loneliness and the plight of people society at large has forgotten about. Sure, the song is a bit dramatic, perhaps even a bit melodramatic, but I still get chills listening to the track’s mournful strings.

The Beatles dipped their toes into psychedelic music with “I’m Only Sleeping.” A John Lennon song about the joys of staying in bed, the song features reversed or “backward” guitar tracks, a touchstone of psychedelic music, and has an overall druggy feel to it. The song is one of the few Beatles songs that feature an explicit outsider perspective (“I’m a Loser” might be considered a proto-outsider song, “The Fool on the Hill” is a notable example, as is “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”). Was the world judging Lennon because all he wanted to do was sleep or is the song really about drugs (like most things)? It’s difficult to say. During this period Lennon did reportedly enjoy getting high and staying in bed, but I’ve also read that McCartney had to frequently rouse his writing partner from bed before working on their songs. Also worth noting, the interview Lennon gave around this time in which he famously declared The Beatles “bigger than Jesus” was part of an article that contains a quote from a friend of Lennon’s who declared him the “laziest man in England.” So perhaps “I’m Only Sleeping” really is just about napping in bed. Either way, the song’s inventive use of studio trickery was foreshadowing to surreal sounds the band would capture later on REVOLVER (and in their subsequent albums).

“Love You To” is Harrison’s best song on REVOLVER and one of the most daring songs the band ever produced. Though he’d used the sitar on RUBBER SOUL, to great effect on “Norwegian Wood,” it was this track where Harrison truly brought Indian music to the band’s sound. Using a sitar, a tabla (hand drum), tanpura (a special rhythm instrument), and Harrison created a sound that no doubt sounded otherworldly to the majority of Western listeners of the time. Besides launching a whole new phase of the band’s creative life, “Love You To” single-handedly popularized the genre of World Music. A mix of philosophical noodling and romantic love, the track was the undoubtedly the most sexual song the band had recorded up to that point. Harrison repeatedly states “I’ll make love to you/if you want me to” in the chorus of the song.

Another key influence on The Beatles was Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who’s ghost is all over McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere.” The most obvious Wilson-trademark found in the song are the ethereal backing vocals. But the core of the song, being in love and having that love make you a better person is almost a reflection of the themes found in Wilson’s own “God Only Knows.” Though the songs were written and recorded around the same time, this can’t be accidental, can it? A more nuanced and mature love song, “Here, There and Everywhere” takes a larger view of the impact of romantic love beyond the early pleasures of love’s first blush (like most early Beatles love songs). The track is less about how love makes one feel and more about the impact love has on one’s outlook. I think that this song is probably a better example of The Beatles doing a Beach Boys-esque song than “Back in the USSR,” which is just straight parody. The song is nothing but further proof that the band didn’t exist in a vacuum and took cues from the work their peers (besides Dylan).

I can’t tell you how crushed I was when I first learned that “Yellow Submarine” wasn’t actually written by Ringo. The rule for 99.999% of Beatles songs is that whoever is singing lead wrote the track. Sadly, Ringo only wrote two songs during his time with The Beatles, “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden.” The song is a fanciful kiddie track that began life as McCartney trying to write both a song for Ringo to sing and a Donovan-esque number. To McCartney’s credit, even though the song is pretty much nonsense, it works wonderfully with Ringo at the helm (pun intended). That this song would later go on to inspire a super-trippy animated film is just icing on the cake. I’d like to hear McCartney sing this one, though I have a hard time imagining what that would be like. It’s odd that two of Ringo’s best known Beatles songs involve the ocean, but then again England is an island and Liverpool is a port city so I suppose it’s not so odd that the boys would have a healthy interest in the sea. I love the song’s goofy little extras, like the crashing wave sound and the ringing bell. Ringo play-acting as a sailor in between verses is also a really nice touch that adds to the song’s theatrical, almost pop-up book-like quality. The Beatles dabbled in so many genres that I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that they ventured into kids music.

“She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are both ostensibly a dialogue taking place between a man (Lennon) and a woman. “She Said She Said” has a real druggy (acid?) feel to it in which neither party can properly connect or articulate a feeling that they are having. Though the “I know what it’s like to be dead” is definitely the proclamation of chemically altered mind, “I know what it is to be sad” is very real thought/feeling. The juxtaposition between the two has always fascinated me. Is the communication breakdown between the two parties the result of drugs or gender? Who can say? Further complicating matters are the fact that the song was inspired by Henry Fonda, who famously told Lennon at a party “I know what it’s like to be dead.” The song pairs nicely with “And Your Bird Can Sing” which is an indictment against materialism over a personal connection. Both songs share an awesome, iconic opening guitar riff (though “And Your Bird Can Sing” edges out “She Said She Said” in this department). In his book All We Are Saying, author David Sheff quotes Lennon as being dismissive of the song, essentially calling it all style and no substance. I disagree and think Lennon was doing what Lennon often did and disparaged his older work in favor of whatever thing he was doing at the time. The I’ve always really enjoyed the line “You say you’ve seen Seven Wonders/and your bird is green.” That image always stuck with me and I picked up on that line again when I re-listened to the record.

Similarly, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” are very similar McCartney tracks that feel almost like throwbacks to a quainter, simpler time. “Good Day Sunshine” has a very old-timey feel to it, both in its simplicity and with it’s twinkling piano and optimism. In fact, the track wouldn’t be entirely out of place on The Kinks magnum opus VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY. The shining horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” has a similar effect, though “Got to Get You Into My Life” features a much rougher-sounding vocal performance from McCartney. It’s almost an R&B song and was famously covered by Earth, Wind, & Fire in 1978, so apparently I’m not the only one to pick up on this fact. Paul McCartney has gone on the record to state that “Got to Get You Into My Life” is about marijuana, which I find both perplexing and oddly satisfying. Both tracks share a youthful optimism and exuberance that an older version of the band probably couldn’t pull off. McCartney would later revisit this type of old-fashioned/throwback on The White Album (“Martha My Dear” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) with diminished results.

“For No One” is one of the band’s most poignant and bare-bones songs. Detailing the end of a relationship, Paul McCartney’s song perfectly captures the sadness one feels when you realize the love is gone. Tastefully understated, the song is memorable for its achingly sad french horn solo near the end. The line “a love that should have lasted years” sounds less accusatory the older I get, which I get is an outside quality that I am bringing to the song. And yet, part of me can’t help but think that McCartney’s choice of words aid this phenomenon by being just a touch vague enough to avoid implying fault on either party. Even Lennon, who could be McCartney’s toughest critic, was a fan of “For No One.” Again, this is another track that lives in the shadow of “Yesterday,” even though I think it does essentially the same thing but better.

Much like “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the song “Dr. Robert” was about drugs. Though the latter was more obviously about drugs than the former, it’s still a bit of a secret drug song. A bit cornball in comparison to many of the band’s other drug songs, “Dr. Robert” is important because it’s ostensibly about the doctor that supplied the band with their first acid trip (a dentist who laced the band’s coffee with the drug after dinner one evening). This track is most notable (in my opinion) for the almost hypnotic quality applied to the lyrics”well, well well you’re feeling fine.” Despite not being as colorful as the band’s later substance songs, this one key feature of the song puts above most other songs of a similar theme recorded by other artists at the time.

The last Harrison-penned song on REVOLVER, “I Want To Tell You” is almost a rallying cry for his creativity. While not exactly stifled, Harrison also didn’t receive the full support of McCartney and Lennon when it came to his songs. “I Want To Tell You” is all about having a tremendous torrent of things to say and the struggle with which Harrison (and really all of us) have trying to express ourselves. There’s a dash of mysticism running through the song, no doubt an influence from his intense studying of all things Eastern. “I Want To Tell You” is a great song because even though it covers a very heady, intellectual topic, the song is still very humble in its presentation (almost low-key in many respects). While not Harrison’s best song, I’d say it was the most emblematic of who he was as an artist and as an individual: highly intellectual with a down-to-earth quality, mystical with an aura of practicality.

The final track on the album is also the best. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a tour de force and easily in my top 5 of all-time Beatles songs. Everything about this song is crafted perfectly, from the odd effect place on Lennon’s vocals to the Indian-influenced drum pattern that Ringo uses. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is probably the first truly great studio track from a band that would soon go on to do nothing but fantastic studio-driven tracks. Using looping tape, The Beatles create an otherworldly soundscape that must have scared the crap out of all the kids tripping on acid the first time they put REVOLVER on. That this is the track to close the album makes the songs feel like an odd, beautiful sunset. The strange, mystical poetry of Lennon’s lyrics are as just a good as anything the man ever wrote. I’m sure this song is highly regarded, but I feel like his later works like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are more lauded. And I find that sad in a way, because “Tomorrow Never Knows” is easily the equal of both of those tracks.

Perhaps I don’t run in the right crowds, but I feel like REVOLVER is almost a forgotten masterpiece by The Beatles. RUBBER SOUL is usually the transitional Beatles record that gets the most attention, which is a shame because I think REVOLVER is the superior album. Straddling the line perfectly between both periods of the band’s creative life, REVOLVER has everything one thinks of when they think of The Beatles.

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GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees

Can somebody please tell me when it was that nostalgia became such a huge commodity? I don’t remember there being so much reverence for the past when I was a wee lad. Sometime in the 1990’s when they started adapting shows like The Brady Bunch and Lost in Space into feature films is when I became aware of nostalgia for the first time. I used to think it was kinda sad/lame, but now that I’m turning into an old fart I’m beginning to see the appeal. Anyway, I bring all this up because when I first heard that The Monkees were going to put out a new album in 2016, I was pretty much nonplussed but I could smell the nostalgia in the air. These long lost reunions never yield anything close to good, so I wrote the whole concept of a new Monkees album off.

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The Monkees were never really my thing. Besides being too young to watch their television show, I was born in an era where they were considered a joke. A sad, pale corporate imitation of The Beatles. Growing up I was a Beatle-fan and had no time for The Monkees and their less-than serious 60’s shtick. It wasn’t until I got much older that I learned that while The Monkees weren’t exactly serious musicians, they had a ton of real talent backing them up. People like Carole King and Harry Nilsson were penning songs for the imaginary TV-band. It was around the time that Gorillaz came out that my attitude towards The Monkees started to change. Perhaps I’d judged them too harshly. Less of a band and more of a cultural happening, The Monkees occupy a very strange (very meta) part of 1960’s culture.

So what about this new 2016 album, GOOD TIMES? Well, I got interested in it a bit once I found out that Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne was going to produce the record. Then I found out The Monkees were tapping Andy Partridge of XTC and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer to write songs. Then I heard the album would feature new covers of Harry Nilsson and Carole King songs–and the deal was sealed for me: I had to hear this record. It’s a strange thing to log into your Spotify account and boot up a new album from The Monkees. But that’s the world that we live in now, so that’s what I did a few weeks ago when the album was released. To my shock, GOOD TIMES! is a fantastic pop album that’s a ton of fun to listen to. Is this groundbreaking, earth-shattering music? No. Is GOOD TIMES! a soul-lifting, life-inspiring album that reaffirmed my love of music? Not quite. Is it the best Monkees album of all time? Yeah, it is.

I realize that statement, “best Monkees album of all time,” might seem like faint praise…because it is…but remember this is band that put out “Last Train to Clarksville.” While not the greatest song of all time, “Last Train To Clarksville” is a one of the better bubblegum pop songs from any decade, not just the decade when Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were at their pop zenith.

GOOD TIMES! opens with Nilsson’s “Good Time,” a soulful, sweaty party song. Lead singer Davy Jones has sadly left us, so Micky Dolenz does most of the singing (though Jones does appear posthumously on one track, the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love”).

“You Bring the Summer” is a lovely, charming pop ditty that recalls the quaint, innocent teenybopper party songs of the early 1960’s (read: before the drugs really hit). Written by Andy Partridge, the track sounds like it’d belong on the gentler-side of one of his Dukes of Stratosphere recordings. There are a couple of odd British phrases (i.e. “sun cream” rather than “sun screen”) that add a glaze of weirdness to an otherwise basic (albeit very proficient) pop song. Rivers Cuomo’s song “She Makes Me Laugh” is easily the best song on the album, a sunny song of love and devotion. The track artfully blends Beatle-esque rock with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. This is the sort of song you hear and when you get to the end you hit “repeat” so you can go again. The only part of “She Makes Me Laugh” that bums me out is the fact that Rivers isn’t able to conjure up a song like this for Weezer. Whatever happened to Mr. Cuomo and Co. can’t be blamed on a lack of talent–Cuomo can still write a really great song. I guess there’s always the next Weezer album, but I digress…

Another really great track is “Me & Magdalena,” a soft ballad written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The song has a dreamy, twilight feel that’s very comforting…it took me a few listens before I picked up on the fact that the song is ostensibly about death/dying. It’s not the buzzkill that you’d think and is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material on the album (i.e. it’s more than just a fun pop song). This song is so good, in fact, it’s got me thinking I need to revisit Death Cab (a band that I never really gave a fair shake to if I’m being honest).

“Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” the strangest track on the record, has the most interesting pedigree. Written by Oasis founder Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller of The Jam, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is weird. There are weird vocal effects and the song yo-yos between faux-psychedelia and campfire sing-a-long. The first time I heard it I was convince that it was the worst song on the record. Then I saw that it was written by two to of the best British songwriters of the last 30 years, so I gave the track another chance. Then I gave it another chance. And another. Eventually the song wove it’s magic on me and it’s one of my favorites on the record. But like “Me & Magdalena” it doesn’t feel like a Monkees track, it’s a bit of an outlier. But that’s a good thing.

“Wasn’t Born To Follow”is a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was most famously covered by The Byrds. The song has a pastoral, Kinks-like quality that I really dig. Like the Harry Nilsson track that opens the album, this older song is less bubblegum than those written by the youngbloods. It would have been interesting to hear an album of just these type of songs. I found the tonal shifting with these more meaningful songs and the new bubblegum was a bit dizzying. GOOD TIMES! is front-loaded with new, sugary songs and ends on decidedly more adult fare.

Overall, GOOD TIMES! is…well…a really good time! A handful of these songs will probably haunt my playlists for years to come. I wouldn’t call this an all-timer by any means, but for a 2016 Monkees album, GOOD TIMES! is pretty outstanding. Worth noting, there a bunch of non-album tracks that one can hear depending on the venue by which they consume the record. On Spotify/digital streaming services, the bonus tracks are “Terrifying” written by Zach Rogue of Rouge Wave and an electric uptempo version of “Me & Magdalena.” I’m not a fan of the latter, but “Terrifying” is damn good and probably should have been included on the album proper. I’m half tempted to seek out the other bonus tracks just to see what other fantastic nuggets were omitted.

Put aside your preconceived notions and give GOOD TIMES! a shot if you’re a fan of any of the songwriters mentioned above and/or if you’re a fan of old-fashioned pop music.

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The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I love Kanye West. Both the music and the man. This is a rock blog but over the past 10 years or so I’ve warmed to hip-hop, thanks largely in part to the works of Mr. West. I totally get why most people don’t like the persona of Kanye West: he’s brash, arrogant, and sexist. Defending Axl Rose has never been about Axl Rose, but instead about the artists like Rose who operate on a completely different level than 99.999% of the rest of us. These exceptional artists have a vision and spend their lives struggling to bring that vision in its pure, uncompromised, form to the masses. They push boundaries in genre and offer us a window into both the artist and ourselves. Kanye West is a genius on the same level as Brian Wilson. Do I cringe when he belittles Taylor Swift or goes on Twitter and proclaims Bill Cosby “innocent”? Hell yes I do. But Kanye doesn’t really hurt anyone but himself so I forgive him. The music is so good I can overlook his faults.

THE LIFE OF PABLO has been on my must-listen list back when it was called SWISH and WAVES.  When it came out last month, on the Jay-Z backed music streaming service Tidal, I downloaded the Tidal app and contemplated canceling my beloved Spotify subscription just so I could hear the record. I waited, with bated-fanboy breath, for Yeezus to announce when the non-Tidal world would get an opportunity to hear his latest masterpiece. Then the confusion began: the album’s physical sale was delayed and then it was scrapped. West proclaimed his album would never be fore sale on Twitter, despite the fact that he’d already given it away sort of by issuing download codes to the people who attended his NYC fashion show where the album debuted. Now there’s word that Kanye is still editing/changing the album, thus making THE LIFE OF PABLO the Star Wars of rap albums (Kanye = George Lucas).

This review has two paragraphs defending the man and giving context to the release of the album because that’s the only way to interface with Kanye’s music. One can’t like or dislike these tracks without taking the performance art piece that is Kanye West in as a whole. He’s worked (famously) with Paul McCartney and no doubt sees himself as a modern-day John Lennon, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Kanye West is really the modern-day Yoko Ono (Ono the artist not the Beatle girlfriend).

THE LIFE OF PABLO opens with gospel “Ultralight Beam.” An epic, beautiful track that begins with West’s 4 year old daughter praising Jesus and then builds to a rapturous choir. This song, about as unconventional as a pop song could be, works on a pure emotional level. I’m 100% agnostic but by the time Chance the Rapper comes in near the end I feel like a true Believer. The album descends from the opener’s lofty heights rollercoasting up and down a few times and bottoms out on “FML.” Here is what all the Kanye haters seem to miss about him: he’s not only his own worst enemy, he’s also his biggest critic. “FML” is about how he fucks up his own life. The song is about West’s troubles with infidelity, which is also touched on in “30 Hours” where West feels jealous because he finds himself on the wrong end of an open-relationship (one that he admits he insisted on having). “Real Friends” continues the tradition of “Runaway” and paints West as a workaholic loner who lives in a cold, friendless world. “Wolves” is another somber track where West gives insight into what it’s like to be a solitary figure against the whole of the world. You can’t help but feel sorry for they guy, even when later he compares himself and Kim to Mary and Joseph (yes, that Mary and Joseph).

Of course no review of THE LIFE OF PABLO would be complete without discussing “Famous,” the song where he throws gasoline on his feud with Taylor Swift. I don’t believe Kanye’s assertion that he “made that bitch famous,” but I do think that Swift has greatly benefited from her association with West. Just like Batman needs the Joker, Swift provides the perfect heroic foil to West’s exaggerated douchebag persona. That West has chosen to rag on America’s sweetheart and the music world’s biggest, most popular modern artist isn’t surprising. He’s jealous of her and like the third grade boy tugging his classmates ponytails; he’s picking on her because he likes her. It’s a shame West mars an otherwise perfect song with such a cringeworthy verse. Rihanna and the Sister Nancy sample are such a killer combo and balance West’s tough guy rapping.

My current favorite track, however, is probably the most-Kanye track of all-time. Title “I Love Kanye,” the song is a 43 second song that is just West with no musical accompaniment. The lyrics speak for themselves:

“I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”

The track ends with West laughing, and it’s a pretty good punchline, but there’s a lot of naked, personal honesty in this song. I don’t see Kanye as the arrogant asshole he’d like us to believe he his. Nor do I view him as the villain his detractors make him out to be. For me, Kanye West is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. If he was an oblvious asshole even his biggest fans couldn’t forgive him (myself included). But Kanye is acutely aware of his failings and I think would genuinely like to be the good guy.

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There are no big radio-friendly tracks on THE LIFE OF PABLO. There is no “Gold Digger” or “Touch the Sky” on this record. Even if you hate Kanye and despise rap if you’re a music fan you have to respect that he’s one of the only (if not the only) mainstream artist who make albums. The album as a cohesive, artistic whole has been absent from the modern music scene for nearly 10 years (give or take). But the fact that Kanye agonizes over things like track sequences on his records makes this music fan happy. Don’t listen haphazardly to THE LIFE OF PABLO, instead take it track by track as God…I mean Kanye intended. Then when you’re done go online and seek out the endless stream of “I Love Kanye” remixes that have mushroomed all over the Internet.

I had to torrent this album, which is a real bummer. Hopefully something will change and THE LIFE OF PABLO will become commercially available in a wider-release. Though his mental state may be deteriorating, West’s ability to create intricate, interesting music is only getting stronger.

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Everybody Drowns Sad And Lonely: I *Heart* Beulah

Other than Nirvana, I can’t think of another band besides Beulah that makes being depressed sound like so much fun. The sunny, wistful sound Beulah made in their very short life as a band still haunts me to this day. I discovered Beulah back in early 2002 while on a lunch break. The band had released their album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR in September 2001 (yes, it came out on 9/11) and the music magazine I was reading had the album prominently placed on several of the staff’s best of the year lists.

At the time, I was really into The Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, bands who had formed this weird collective called The Elephant 6 Recording Company. This collective was really just a group of music nerds that revered pop music of the 1960s, specifically The Beach Boys. The whole thing was out of Denver, Colorado, which I find a bit amusing, as this is where I now live.

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Anyway, The Elephant 6 Recording Company had a lot of mystical sway with my early 20-something mind. When I saw Beulah’s album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR show up on a bunch of “Best of 2001” lists I was mildly curious. When a more than one review mentioned the Beatles/Beach Boys-like quality to their songs, I was intrigued. But when I found out that they were part of the Elephant 6 I knew I had no choice but to get their album.

It wasn’t just me that took notice of the band, THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is/was the band’s biggest album. This is thanks to the album’s slicker, more refined production and an abnormal (for modern indie pop) use of horns. Ah, the horns. The horns add an extra layer of sweet icing to songs laced with bile and bitterness.

Beulah, at first blush, lulls the listener with golden harmonies and the sunny melodies. But all that sweet sound belies the dark, murky complexity of singer-songwriter Mike Kurosky’s lyrics. Rife with Brian Wilsonian-angst and anxiety, Kuroksy always seems to be on the verge of cutting the poetic bullshit and telling us how he really feels. But he never really does. Instead, we get gorgeous hook-filled pop gems. Gorgeous pop gems that raise an eyebrow and give the listener pause as they wonder: is this song really about…that? Holy shit, that’s kinda fucked up. The best part is that these bright, shining songs with such dark undertones also stick inside your head for weeks upon end.

When I get to California  Gonna write my name in the sand  I'm gonna lay this body down  And watch the waves roll in

When I get to California
Gonna write my name in the sand
I’m gonna lay this body down
And watch the waves roll in

Of course THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR’S most well known song is the most straightforward: “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.” You’ve heard it, even if you’re not aware that you’ve heard it. About a year after THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR was released the song was ubiquitous, appearing on the soundtracks of many sappy TV shows and in at least one car commercial. I often wonder how many of those ad/TV executives took the time to really listen to the lyrics. There is a lot of dark shit in “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.”

Such as:

 “Just because he loves you too

He would never take a bullet for you

Don’t believe a word he says

He would never cut his heart out for you”

 THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR can only be described as a sublime musical experience. I still get goose bumps when listening to “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” The song compares a slide into inevitable depression to the end of summer vacation. All the drugs, all the women, all the smiles don’t mean anything once the darkness comes. Kurosky is telling this to someone but the uncomfortable reality is that he’s telling this to himself. He’s telling this to us:

“Will you be alright when you’re in the shade?

Tell me tell me you’ll be alright

When you start to fade

Have you heard?

The days are getting shorter

And what will you do when your suntan is fading and the summer’s gone?

Do you feel afraid?”

My favorite track on the album is the staggeringly awesome “Gene Autry.” An epic, rambling song, “Gene Autry” is both about the legendary singing cowboy and also about the ugly beauty and promise that is California. A land of milk and honey, but also one full of loneliness and hopelessness. The chorus of this song is: “That the city spreads out, just like a cut vein, everybody drowns, sad and lonely.” Every time I hear “Gene Autry” the song punches me in the guts. I’m amazed that something so unbearably sad can make me feel so exhilaratingly happy.

I like to think that my feelings of despair are driven away by the fact that I recognize a lot of my own personal hang-ups and sorrow in Beulah’s music. The band doesn’t sing about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they are Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! But the more likely source of my euphoria is really just the result of the band’s upbeat delivery and extreme musical craftsmanship. Oppressive sadness extends into Beulah’s other albums, but it’s never quite as bright and shiny as it is on THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR. And while it’s not my favorite album of theirs (that would be YOKO, the 2003 album that broke them up), THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is my favorite Beulah album to be sad with.

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ROCK ‘N READ: THE WRECKING CREW

Kent Hartman’s book The Wrecking Crew is one of those books I’d heard a lot about and had been meaning to read for a long time.  Well, I finally got off my duff and read it, and I’m glad I did.  The book is about the dirty little secret of 1960’s music industry wherein a group of ultra-talent studio musicians secretly played on a great majority of rock ‘n roll records.  This group, known as The Wrecking Crew, was not credited on the liner notes of the records they played. Thus, the public was none the wiser that it wasn’t their favorite band playing on their records.

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The Monkees are a well-known example of a band that used The Wrecking Crew.  People perhaps unfairly give The Monkees a hard time because they weren’t playing their own instruments.  Well it turns out, there was a lot of that going around in the 1960’s.   Bands you might not expect, like The Byrds, used The Wrecking Crew.  Record labels had two motivations for using The Wrecking Crew over the actual bands, although really both reasons just come down to money.

The first reason a separate band was used due to simple logistics.  Bands out on tour would have to stop touring in order to venture back into the studio and record.  The Wrecking Crew acted as the recording band, while the band the band’s public face remained on the road.  Secondly, The Wrecking Crew, and musicians like them, were used because a majority of rockers couldn’t play their instruments very well.  At the time, record companies looked down on rock music, and didn’t understand it.  They treated rock recordings like they did jazz or classical music and thought the recordings should be perfect.  Hence, The Wrecking Crew was brought in.

Hartman’s book focuses on a handful of Wrecking Crew musicians, chiefly the more famous members like drummer Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell.  I was really surprised to find out that Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell was a highly respected guitarist prior to hitting it big with his solo career.  I knew he’d essentially joined The Beach Boys touring band, but I had no idea he played on most of the top hits for the 1960’s.  The Wrecking Crew were all over the radio, playing on hits by diverse acts such as The Mamas & The Papas, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.

It’s unnerving how the Wrecking Crew, while highly paid, weren’t credited for playing on the records they worked on.  Had I been writing about music at the time (as a fan), I would have foolishly thought The Monkees were playing their own instruments.  As I read the book, I kept waiting for the public to find out and become outraged, but that never happened.  Instead, what ended up happening was that as rock evolved a more authentic, rough sound was prized making the technically superior Wrecking Crew unneeded.   The Beatles also had something to do with the demise of the practice of studio musicians subbing for the actual band.  After the Fab Four hit it big, most bands wanted to write and play your own instruments.

The Wrecking Crew is an interesting read but I found the structure of the book somewhat clumsy. Rather use a straight chronological framework Hartman jumps back and forth through time.  The chapters themselves follow a chronology, but within each one Hartman tends of pick a player and give us his back story, which often gives us information we either already know or will be told again in another chapter.  It’s a little nit-pick, but I guess I would have preferred one chapter where we just got everyone’s backstory out-of-the-way, then moved on with the various recordings.  Also, the Wrecking Crew was a pretty large group of people, but the book really only focuses on a few, which was a little disappointing.  I realize not everyone is going to be as interested in the Wrecking Crew’s trumpet players than say, their drummers, but I would have liked a little more diversity in the band members as the book is mainly about guitarists and drummers.

I found it interesting how collaborative the recording process was as time and again members of the Wrecking Crew wound up actually contributing to the writing of songs as well as playing.  I was really surprised when this happened in the chapter devoted to the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album.  I still can’t believe that such talented, famous artists would allow regular working-musicians to tinker with their albums.  But time and again Hartman shows us that The Wrecking Crew were more than just musicians, they were the best hired guns in the business.

The book recounts some really interesting nuggets of rock trivia, and is chock-full of juicy insider tidbits.  Most of the really interesting chapters revolve around producer Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, two titans of the studio who really used The Wrecking Crew to their full potential.  The Wrecking Crew is brimming with really interesting anecdotes.  Some of my favorite from the book are:

  • Leon Russell getting pulled over in his new Cadillac by the LAPD and being told to get a “real” job (he was making way more than the cop).
  • Phil Spector’s bodyguards using hand signals to let an angry musician know that Phil had a gun in the studio.                                                                    
  • Unsure how to end “Layla” Eric Clapton overheard drummer Jim Gordon noodling on the piano and decided to use the drummer’s mini-composition to close out the song.  Gordon later when nuts and murdered his mom—that’s write, the guy playing piano at the end of “Layla” stabbed his mother to death.

I highly recommend The Wrecking Crew to anyone with even a passing interest in early rock music and the music business of the 1960’s. The book’s a nice, quick read and would make a great gift for any music fan.

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New Album Round-Up #2: CENTIPEDE HZ by Animal Collective

Keeping the manic-album reviewing train-a-rolling, here is New Album Round-Up #2!!!

CENTIPEDE HZ by Animal Collective:  Animal Collective are awesome for many reasons, but the biggest reason I love them is this–with each new album the band’s popularity grows and yet, they refuse to pander to dumb their music down.  Unlike say, Kings of Leon, who have opted to make shit-loads of money buy churning out Mom Rock, Animal Collective say “fuck it” and keep making the records they want to make.  I get the feeling that mainstream success never factored into their goals as a band.  Upon a brief, initial listen, I was pretty unimpressed with CENTIPEDE HZ.  I found it very dense and a bit uninviting.  Then I spent more time with it, and my appreciation has really grown for this record.

Great tunes. Terrible fucking album cover.

The songs are long and defy the conventional pop sensibility.  CENTIPEDE HZ is bright and busy, each song’s every nook and cranny is filled to the brim.  Standout tracks include “Applesauce” and “Today’s Supernatural.”  I’d like to say that the former is the closest thing to a single on the record, but I’m not going to kid you–none of these songs are singles.  Animal Collective’s music is so far removed from things like singles that it makes it really hard to talk (or write) about it.  It’s better to not think and let the freaky music wash-over you.

In many ways, CENTIPEDE HZ confirms what I’ve long-maintained: Animal Collective are the heir apparent to Brian Wilson.  Beach Boy fans who plug into CENTIPEDE HZ might not immediately understand, but think about it: this  type of sunny, long-form freakout married with intricate layers studio trickery screams B. Wilson.  Listen to the electro-Caribbean groove of “Father Time” if you need proof.  This is daring, inventive music that demands repeat listens for full appreciation.

My only complaint is that album cover.  I know that in 2012 album covers aren’t a big deal…but what the fuck?  Hands-down CENTIPEDE HZ has the worst album cover of the year, it’s super-ugly.

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Your Next Favorite Band: Jellyfish

They say that stars that burn twice as bright burn half as long.  I want to introduce you to a really amazing power-pop band from the 1990’s, but before I do I must warn you: they only put out two records.  If you’re the kind of person that obsesses over really awesome shit that never got its proper due, maybe you should sit this one out.  Jellyfish was a band that I grew up with and to this day I still love them and smile whenever I hear one of their songs.  I’ve met precious few people who’ve even heard of them (or can remember them) and that’s a real shame because they put out two damn near perfect records.

A word about “power-pop.”  I really feel stupid using that term and not just because it sounds like a super-caffeinated soft drink.  In general, I really dislike the concept of “genre.” But I must admit that it does serve as a nice bit of short-hand when you’re trying to talk to people so I’m going to use the term “power-pop.”  Power-pop is basically rock music that features strong lyrical hooks and big guitar riffs.  Melodies and harmonies are also really important in power-pop.  A lot of the British invasion-era rock could be considered power-pop, but for the most part the term is applied to bands that came after/were influenced by those bands.  So The Beatles are not considered power-pop but Badfinger (who came later and are basically the same band) are power-pop.

BELLYBUTTON-era Jellyfish. Awesome musicians with terrible fashion sense.

Jellyfish was formed in 1989 in San Francisco, California. The band had several members over the years but the foundation of the band was two super-talented, multi-instrumentalists: Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.*  Andy was primarily the drummer and Roger played keyboards.   For their first album, Roger and Andy were joined by bassist Chris Manning a duty that was also shared by Steven Shane McDonald (of Redd Kross-fame, another great power-pop band from this era) and guitarist Jason Falkner.  To say that these  lads had talent is the worst kind of understatement–there really were four geniuses in the band. And while that helped make the first Jellyfish album, BELLYBUTTON, an instant-classic…it also lead to a lot of tension.

BELLYBUTTON came out in 1990 and was met with moderate success.  The album spawned three singles, “The King Is Half-Undressed,” “That Is Why,” and “Baby’s Coming Back.”   Some quirky music videos and a funky day-glo image helped get people’s attention, though the band was never a true household name.  BELLYBUTTON’s sound is one of lush harmonies and catchy-as-hell choruses.  The Beatles and Beach Boys are all over this record (they even mention The Beatles by name in  “All I Want Is Everything”). And while the band doesn’t ever quite go full-on psychedelic, they get close.  It’s a bit difficult to say “this is what Jellyfish sounds like” because like late-period Beatles (and super-druggy Brian Wilson), Jellyfish experiment with different sounds and instruments.

Among the kaleidoscope of 1960’s-ish sounds there are are two really nice ballads, “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Calling Sarah.”  “I Wanna Stay Home” in particular almost sounds like it belongs on a totally different record.  It’s a very sincere song that’s about having to go even though you just want to say home.  The very next song “She Still Loves Him” is a haunting tale about an abusive relationship, it’s a great song, with some really sharp lyrics and an awesome guitar solo…but it also feels very odd after “I Wanna Stay Home.”  BELLYBUTTON, while a fantastic record, is not a unified work of art.  Instead it’s more of an awesome Frankenstein’s Monster of a record, with a bunch of really awesome bits sown together.   There are a ton of really nice little details that really don’t appreciate on the first few listens.  Some of my favorites include: the nice trumpet part at the beginning of “Bedspring Kiss”, the faux-live effect/crowd sound on the Cheap Trick-like “All I Want Is Everything”**, and the dreamy piano noodling that plays before “She Still Loves Him.”

In 1993 the band put out their second album SPILT MILK.  This album sadly did not feature most of the band from the first record–gone was everyone but Sturmer and Manning Jr.  A new bassist, Tim Smith, was added to the mix along with a few session guitarists.  Despite the change in personnel, I actually prefer SPILT MILK and think it’s the stronger of the two records.  SPILT MILK is interesting because Jellyfish takes the 1960’s British-Pop aesthetics of BELLYBUTTON and apply a thick coating of Glam Rock.  What you get is something that sounds like Queen-by-way-of-The Beatles.  Oddly enough, despite losing their guitarists, SPILT MILK also has way better guitar parts/solos, though Roger Manning’s keyboards do wind up taking a more prominent role.  SPILT MILK is full of such dualities: it’s a keyboard album with awesome guitars, dark and angry but has a playful song about masturbation (“He’s My Best Friend”).

The album opens with the quiet, lullaby-like “Hush” which ironically leads into the explosive “Joining A Fanclub.” I can’t say enough about how awesome “Joining A Fanclub” is.  Ostensibly about the dangers of stardom and hero worship, the songs is a really headbangger.  It’s the kind of song you hear while driving and it causes you to get a speeding ticket.  Every time I hear it I think about Robert Downey Jr. (who at the time this song was written was constantly getting into trouble with the law).  I also really love “New Mistake” with it’s twisty-lyrics about an “oops” pregnancy–the best part? At the end the baby grows up and marries a pop singer (because it’s time for her to make her “first mistake.”).  This is the kind of song that keep me up at night it’s so awesome.  I almost don’t believe it was crafted by mere mortals.  I also can’t help but marvel at “The Ghost Of Number One” which seems to poke fun at the fact that the band knew that they weren’t going to reach the level of success that they deserved.

Like BELLYBUTTON, Jellyfish’s second record also features some interesting experimentation. I’m confident that I’d never been exposed to Klezmer music*** before I heard “Bye Bye Bye.”  That song alone is worth the purchase price of the album, it’s simply a stunningly awesome song, and was definitely not something you heard on the radio in 1993 (or hell today for that matter).  The album ends with the magnificent, circus-themed “Brighter Day.” The song is a fantastic way to close the record and unfortunately the recording career of Jellyfish.  And when it ends all you want to do is start the whole thing over again. 

So what happened? Well a lack of success and bruised egos led Jellyfish to die an unglamorous death, alone and relatively unmourned.  Jason Falkner and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. both have had relatively successful solo-careers (Falkner in particular has recorded some amazing records).  Lead-singer Andy Sturmer gave up being in bands and is how a producer.  Over the years the band has developed a somewhat cult-following online.  I wrote my one and only Wikipedia entry in 2006 when a greatest-hits compilation called BEST! was released.  It’s not a very long article, more like an album stub but for some reason I felt compelled to write it.  Jellyfish is one of those bands I simply can’t imagine living without and it bums me out that so few people are aware of them.  I highly, highly recommend Jellyfish. 

 

ENDNOTES:

*Fun fact, the “Jr.” had to be added to Roger’s professional name because it turned out there already WAS a semi-not-really famous musician named Roger Joseph Manning.  What are the chances of such a thing?  Now go win that super-obscure power-pop bar-trivia.

 

**It sounds like LIVE AT BUDOKAN, get it?

 

***Jewish Eastern European music. It’s as awesome as it sounds. 

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Why PET SOUNDS Means So Much To Me

For the past few years I’ve wanted to write an epic, all-encompassing essay about The Beach Boys’ classic album PET SOUNDS.  I’ve sat down on at least two occasions and actually started, only to give up in disgust.  It seems like everything that could be said about has been said, by people far more knowledgable than myself, so why bother? Because I can’t stop listening and thinking about PET SOUNDS.  My adoration for this record has long since moved past obsession and I guess I want to try to make sense of how that happened.

Like all good art, PET SOUNDS is best described as a reflecting pool–esthetically beautiful and mirror-like in that we can see some of ourselves within it.  Sorting fact from legend in regards to it’s creation/recording is almost beyond impossible at this point.  It’s all too easy to say that PET SOUNDS is the singular work of one brilliant, tragic genius.  As an American, the notion that a complex, challenging piece of work springing from one rebellious individual is both romantic and affirming of our continental-myth of the “lone cowboy.”  On the other hand, the years have been kind to PET SOUNDS, much kinder than many of the people involved in creating it could have ever imagined, as a result many people have stepped up and claimed credit for an album they openly ridiculed during it’s inception.

Such a lovely album...such a terrible album cover.

PET SOUNDS is sort of the bastard son few people wanted to acknowledge at it’s birth–but later, as it matured and did good by itself–well, then many were practically falling over themselves to establish themselves as it’s parent. Does it matter that Al Jardine may or may not have insisted The Beach Boys include “Sloop John B” on the record? Or that he (or Carl) may have been solely responsible for it’s amazing arrangement?  At this stage in my life, my appreciation for PET SOUNDS, I don’t care about these matters.  All that is important for me is that PET SOUNDS exists, vacuum sealed from time and the bitter in-fighting of songwriters, musicians, arrangers, producers, studio technicians, and hangers-on.

Released in May of 1966, PET SOUNDS did not exist for me until the early 2000’s when I happened upon it in my Uncle’s CD collection.  I was in Nashville, trying figure out (among other things) who I was and what the hell I was doing.  I gave it a brief listen, made myself a copy, and promptly forgot all about it.  I’ve always been a “Beatles person.”  Growing up, The Beach Boys were that lame, striped-shirt-wearing novelty band that briefly styled themselves as “The American Beatles.”  People (mostly rock critics from Rolling Stone magazine) would, from time to time, blow my mind by placing PET SOUNDS near the top of many “Best Albums” lists, but otherwise–The Beach Boys had little credibility.  The only place I ever heard them was on the local golden-oldies radio station, placed strategically between Herman’s Hermits and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.

I still cannot recall exactly what compelled me to dust-off my copy of PET SOUNDS, but around 2008 I did.   Almost everything stupid (for lack of a better word) about The Beach Boys is missing from this record.  There are no dated, lame-ass novelty songs about surfing or hot-rodding.  No, PET SOUNDS is 13 songs about love, the confusion of youth, self-doubt, self-realization, loneliness, and also “Sloop John B” is tacked on (thanks Al/Carl).  The music is lush, full of complex and achingly beautiful arrangements.  Lyrically, the PET SOUNDS is almost the exact opposite of the music–the lyrics are so simple they sometimes strike me as slightly moronic.  I mean that in the best way possible, sort of like how people always remark how many startling truisms spring from the mouths of very young children.  The lyrical content of PET SOUNDS is simple but never basic, the observations aren’t plain and vanilla–but shockingly universal.

And that, I think, is why I’ve been obsessing about it these past few years (and why older people have been obsessing about it for decades).

The album-opener, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is probably the most recognized track, and a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  The song is about first-love, not silly puppy love, but actual honest-to-god love.  Anyone that’s ever felt that for the first time can completely understand the song, which is about the yearning to essentially always feel that feeling by being able to spend every minute of every hour with your lover.  This song encapsulates a very real feeling I think just about everyone has had.  And even though the sentiment may not be smart or realistic, that’s not the point–“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is an explanation for every stupid teenager who’s ever run off an gotten married.  Still, an album filled with this sort of idealized romantic love wouldn’t be emotionally satisfying or realistic.  PET SOUNDS takes things further than 99% of pop albums (up to that time and since) with the very next song “You Still Believe In Me.”

“You Still Believe In Me.”opens with a confession that the song’s narrator has completely fucked up–and yet she still loves him.  Here, the wonder is not in the bliss of love but the endurance of love.  He tries, promises, and fails…and yet she still believes in him. “That’s Not Me” is another song about failure, this time the song’s narrator has decided to give up chasing foolish, impulse (saying “That’s not me”).  More than just a song of redemption, what impresses me the most about “That’s Not Me” is the self-realization that one’s dreams (and their pursuit) can not only be harmful but also maybe the opposite of what we really want. Stoned or sober that’s a mind-blowing realization.

This is what self-realization looks like, kids.

And then there is “God Only Knows.”  Not only is it hauntingly beautiful musically, but the it’s astonishingly rational while still being romantic at the same time.  Unlike a traditional pop-love song where the singer expounds about how he can’t live without the love of his life, “God Only Knows” acknowledges the fact that both he and the world would go on spinning without her, but he’s eternally grateful that he doesn’t have to be without her (because God only know where he’d be without her). I can live without you, but I don’t want to is infinitely more romantic than the foolish adolescent declaration of “I can’t live, if living is without you” (sorry Badfinger).  And you know, if PET SOUNDS was just about the complexities of love it would still be a damn good album–but it’s the introspective stuff that really pushes the album from “good” to “masterpiece.”

“I Know There’s An Answer” is about the search for the meaning of both life and self.  It’s about all those Nowhere Men sitting in their Nowhere Land, and how we ‘re all lost and adrift in lives.  There is no magic bullet answer that’s going to fix everything and make us happy, we have to save ourselves with our own answer.  Also, there’s no way of helping all the lonely people of the world without first helping yourself.

And much like “You Still Believe in Me” responds to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” responds to “I Know There’s An Answer.”   “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” isn’t just my favorite song on PET SOUNDS, it’s also my all-time favorite Beach Boys song.  “I Know There’s An Answer” affirms that yes, there is an answer for all of us, but “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is about what happens when we can’t find that answer.  It’s about failure and self-doubt.  It’s about feeling absolutely stuck–as an artist, lover, liver of life.  It’s about the profound sadness and dissatisfaction that stalk all of us throughout our lives.  And mostly, it’s about that feeling we all have at least once in our lives, that we don’t fit in or belong anywhere.  If you’re the least bit human you will find yourself relating to this song.  And while the song is, on the surface very sad, I find it one of the most comforting pieces of music ever written.  Not just in the misery-loves-company sort of way (though I suppose there is a great deal of that), no–“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is like a music hug for me because it let’s me know that I’m not alone in feeling lost and sad.

Lastly, there is the bittersweetness of “Caroline No.”  It’s the final track on the album, and it’s all about the terrible way time strips us of the things we cherish the most.   It’s heartbreakingly sad and every time I go back to my hometown I’m reminded of Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  Again, it’s the comforting universality of the song’s sentiment that gives the song it’s power.  Rather than struggle for a cheesy  redemptive silver-lining, the “Caroline No” does us the public service of letting the listener know that that’s just how life/the human condition is.  Rarely does commercial art, let alone pop music, deal with just weighty (and frankly unpleasant) topics without resorting to some kind of cliched “happy ending.”  What do unrealistic portrayals of life and love really give us, beyond a fleeting bit of pleasure?  They doom us to even greater sorrow, hoisted up by a Hollywood endings none of us are going to get.  The braver thing, I think, is to stare at both our souls and our sorrow right in the face.  So in that respect, PET SOUNDS is probably the only mirror I’ll ever need.

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Rock ‘n Read: Catch A Wave

I’ve been interested in Brian Wilson every since I snagged a copy of PET SOUNDS from my uncle in Tennessee about 10 years ago.  I’d always been of the mind that The Beach Boys were the lame-American answer to The Beatles.  And while 90% of the Beach Boys music is cringe-worthy and almost embarrassingly bad at times…there was a period in the early 1960s when Brian Wilson was the greatest songwriter on Earth.

PET SOUNDS is one of my all-time favorite records, and it’s always on my iPod.  That record speaks to me in so many ways and on so many different levels.  The next Beach Boys album after PET SOUNDS was going to be even better.  It was going to be stupendous and change rock music forever.  And then–?–something happened and he became a complete nutcase.

What happened after PET SOUNDS became the stuff of legend, however, but not the way Brian Wilson, or anyone for that matter, would have wanted. Rather than recording a masterpiece he lost his shit and the entire album was shelved after being hyped by the record label for over a year.  That mythic, lost album was SMILE.  The Beach Boys next album would ultimately be SMILEY-SMILE, a watered-down version of what many claimed was the Holy Grail of ’60s rock.

Drugs, psychosis, greed, selling-out, and not measuring up to one’s potential.  Did I leave anything out? The story of Brian Wilson has always fascinated me.  So I picked up Peter Ames Carlin’s book CATCH A WAVE: THE RISE, FALL, & REDEMPTION OF THE BEACH BOYS’ BRIAN WILSON even though I’d just read a book last year covering The Beach Boys.  I didn’t really learn anything new, other than a few nasty tidbits about Brian’s cruel father Murray (this book alleges that Murray’s abuse cost young Brian his hearing which is not the story I heard in the other book I read last year).

CATCH A WAVE goes in chronological order and paints a pretty good portrait of Brian Wilson’s early life and initial success.  The book gets a little boring when it’s subject loses his mind and stops working.  You would think that writing about a rock ‘n roll lunatic would be an instant grandslam–but reading about a guy getting fat and growing a beard ain’t all that interesting.  For that reason the middle of the book becomes less about Brian and more about The Beach Boys artistic and commercial success-post Brian (or rather, the lack of that success).  I guess the author had no choice but to reduce Brian’s presence in the book near the middle when Brian reduced his presence from reality.  I do wish the author would have talked a bit more about the Brian’s shelving of SMILE, specifically his belief that his song “Fire” was causing fires to break out across LA.  I also would have like for him to go into more detail about the Brian Wilson/Charles Manson connection.

The book, which is fairly recent, covers the re-recording of SMILE Wilson did a few years ago.  The author raised a few good points about whether this new SMILE should have been released at all, and what (if anything) this recording of SMILE might have done to the “legend” of SMILE.  I found that last part of the book to be really interesting and thought-provoking. As a metaphor, the album’s release totally kills SMILE.  That bummed me out.  I’m ashamed to say that it bummed me out more than reading about Brian’s abuse as a child or even the decades he wasted sitting around the house doing nothing.

Overall, I would recommend you read this book if you are interested in reading about Brian Wilson or if you don’t feel like you hate Mike Love enough.  Seriously, that guy comes off as a total asshole.  My favorite part was when he was bad-mouthing PET SOUNDS when Brian was trying to get the band to record it…only to back peddle years later and claim the entire thing was his idea, Mike Love comes off as Rock’s biggest asshole.  And you thought you had bad cousins.

CATCH A WAVE gets 3 out of 5 kicks of Mike Love’s balls. 

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