September 14, 2002

About a year and a half ago, a good friend gave me the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds Sessions box set as a gift, and to date it's one of the best and most keeps-on-givin' presents I've ever gotten. A lot of young ears have a hard time understanding why Pet Sounds is hailed as such a classic -- after all, it's so old-sounding, so cluttered, so lo-fi (that's a mono mix, not to mention it's an orchestra/band/vocal group sharing a limited number of tracks, and the miking isn't as close as on modern recordings), and it just plain sounds like dadrock and now that _____ have come along to make the same thing sound relevant and hip, why bother with this Beach Boys bullshit anymore? (By the way, FUCK YOU RYAN PITCHFORK.)

The box set explains why. If you're not terribly familiar with Pet Sounds, start with the mono version. If you know the mono version from back to front, start with the stereo version done for the box -- approved by Brian Wilson and allegedly up to three generations closer to the original tapes than the mono was. Certain sounds that were previously buried now leap out to the forefront -- there's an entire closing horn section in "I Know There's an Answer" that I'd never heard, because other instruments were more prominent. And this is not to say that the stereo mix is better, but it's nice that I'm finally hearing everything Brian Wilson had in mind for the record.

I think that the key to appreciating Pet Sounds as a contemporary listener is to take the whole goddamn thing apart and study each detail. Well, okay, that may be pretty didactic of me; I mean to say that if you dislike the album but you're willing to figure out what other people see in it beyond it just being "a classic," then this box set will offer a lot of insight about all the work, creativity, and singularity of vision that went into these recordings. Yes, Wilson's harmonies were derivative of barber-shop quartets and '50s harmony groups; the "wall of sound"-style drums and horns were obviously tributes to Spector; large assemblages of musicians such as Wilson's were hallmarks of '40s and '50s jazz-pop sessions (where all instruments were recorded in the same room in the same take).

As an arranger, Wilson was in the league of any of those cats, but being somewhat brain-damaged, he could take the flowery Nelson Riddle romanticism and add bits of plinky-plinky chamber baroque (the intro to "Wouldn't It Be Nice") and jarring expressionism (tubas that sounded like snoring elephants = "pet sounds"?) and have very adventurous and progressive chord charts and multipart harmonies that would look like spectacular mountain ranges if you mapped them out.

The vocals disc (which mutes the instrumental arrangements in favor of the breathtaking harmonies, and fades the players back in when the Beach Boys aren't singing) brings out a sort of churchy purity to the group's voices; they're no longer a silly cars 'n' girls boyband slumming in orkpopland, they're in Vienna singing HALLELUJAH HALLELUJAH HALLELUJAH. (Except they're not; they're in a California studio singing "Run run whee oooh.") Really, you don't expect the vocals disc to hit you with the impact that it does -- chances are good you already KNOW that the Beach Boys' bread and butter was harmony, maaan -- and then the attack of vocals-minus-musicians (it's that simple) leaves you slackjawed.

So it's not that you should abandon the idea of listening to Pet Sounds as a whole, self-contained work of art -- but after you've heard the box set a few times, you'll probably never hear the regular mono mix the same way again.

P.S. For kicks, I played "Don't Talk (Lay Your Head on My Shoulder)" backwards, and the instrumental break is eerily similar to the "normal" arrangement.