Tag Archives: PET SOUNDS

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.

Elephant_6_Recording_Co_logo

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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Aping The Beach Boys

 

Last month, Ben Folds Five released their first new studio album since 1999.   After reading a few favorable-to-glowing reviews, I decided to check out the new album despite being a casual fan of the group.  To my great joy, THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND is a really fantastic album that’s chock full of really good pop songs, I encourage you to seek it out.

The opposite of “Rire and Rain” but not PET SOUNDS.

One song, though, really stood out to me: the second track “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.”  The song, which begins with drums and very familiar-sounding vocal harmonies instantly made me think of Jellyfish.  Particularly their second album SPILT MILK which my mom got me into durin the 1990’s.  Hypnotized, I found myself listening to the song over and over.

Then, around the 30th listen or so, I had a realization: The Beach Boys.  In this modern age, where artists are paying homage to other artists who were paying tribute to other artists, it can be tricky to trace the musical genealogy of a group or song .  Now that I’ve thought abou it, it’s obvious to me that on “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”  the band is clearly doing something that goes back to the 1960’s: they’re aping The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys, as I’m fond of reminding you all, were pioneers in rock music and highly influential.  The band has a stuffy/boring reputation among many young people today, but nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve written before about my deep love of PET SOUNDS, but beyond that monumental album, the band’s influence can be felt today.  Being such a cultural-touchstone, other bands have been making sly (and sometimes not so sly) references to The Beach Boys in their work.  That this has been going on literally since they achieved their initial popularity in the 1960’s only serves to underscore just how damn important they were/are as a band.

We don’t know how lucky we are, boys.

The first time I can remember thinking “this band is making fun/referencing The Beach Boys” was when I heard The Beatles self-titled double album THE BEATLES (also known as the “White Album”).  The first song of the first album is “Back in the USS,” which is a direct parody of “California Girls.”  The Beach Boy-esque backing vocals are a perfect copy of The Beach Boys, but more than that The Beatles also poke fun at the band’s Apple-Pie/Baseball American-ness with their song’s Soviet Union-theme.  The Beatles were not the first, and they were not the last to ape The Beach Boys however.

Growing up, another band that I was exposed via my parents was REM.  I remember to practically wearing out their cassette of OUT OF TIME when it came out in 1991.  I had no idea what any of the songs were about, but I really liked them all, in particular the fourth track “Near Wild Heaven.”  The song, co-written and sung by bassist Mike Mills, is pretty much a spot-on WILD HONEY-era Beach Boys song.  And like “Back in the USSR,” it’s not the just vocal arrangement that’s referential to the Beach Boys, the lyrics and chords are also reminiscent of the band.  Looking back on it now, I think it’s weird that one of my all-time favorite REM songs is really just them riffing ironically on The Beach Boys. 

Not near enough…

English rockers XTC recorded a series of albums as their alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear and recorded “Pale and Precious,” a song that channels Wilson’s PET SOUNDS and SMILE-era lush production so well it borderlines on plagiarism. I feel weird mentioning the song because The Dukes were sort of a jokey-novelty, but “Pale and Precious” is too good to ignore.  Many people think these over-the-top homages are cheap, easy ripoffs but the amount of detail and knowledge required to create what essentially amounts to a “lost” Beach Boys song is incredible.  Anyone who willing to disregard the artistic merits of “Pale and Precious” can should try their hand at writing such a loving tribute–I have a feeling it’s harder than Andy Partridge makes it look.

Alt-rockers Everclear started their third album, SO MUCH FOR THE AFTERGLOW, with a massive Beach Boys nod on the album’s title track “So Much For The Afterglow.”  The song has an opening so Beach Boy-esque that when it comes on when I shuffle my iTunes I always mistake it for an actual Beach Boys song.  Jellyfish likewise opened their second album, the before-mentioned SPILT MILK, with “Hush” a lovely lullaby that exists thanks to The Beach Boys.

Sounds like The Beach Boys drunk on everclear.

Much like there are for The Beatles, there are a large contingent of modern bands who’s primary influence is The Beach Boys.  I vividly recall when California rockers Rooney broke onto the scene and were hailed by (the then-still somewhat musical) MTV as the “modern Beach Boys.”  The comparison wasn’t completely off-base, though I don’t think Rooney is as strongly connected to The Beach Boys as say,  South Carolina rockers The Explorers Club.   The Explorer’s Club have managed to cultivate a small, but growing fanbase with their supremely Beach Boys-like pop sound.  I  particularly enjoy their song “Run Run Run” of their most recent album GRAND HOTEL, which sounds like an eerily like an early 1970’s Beach Boy number.

This is a fantastic album, you should check it out.

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Brian Wilson & Company must feel very flattered indeed.  It’s one thing to write a good song, it’s another thing to invent a unique style that others copy and build upon.  Below is a Spotify-playlist I’ve started for this interesting sub-sub-sub-genre of music, if you are a Spotify user please feel free to add songs you think fit into the category of Aping The Beach Boys. I’d be interested to see how massive the list can get.

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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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