Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Picking Up Good Vibrations

Artists: The Beach Boys; Brian Wilson
Albums: Pet Sounds (BB), Good Vibrations (BB); Smile (BW)
Source: Bought new (PS, Smile); Gift (GV)

Over the holidays, my parents mentioned that they got a kick out of the entry where I somewhat-gently put them down for the near-total lack of musical guidance they provided to me as a child. And they weren't mad - both Mom & Dad agreed that their Phoebe Snow LPs really hadn't given me a leg up in my quest to...well, whatever it is record nerds are after.

But just a few entries later I find myself needing to slightly amend my criticism of their musical parenting. For all their failings in providing me with the essentially useless information I came to crave, my folks did hoist the first sails on a voyage into the estimable canon of The Beach Boys. "They wrote about nothing but girls, cars and surfing," said my parents, and they were at least half right; the young me liked the simple, sunny sing-a-longs of girls/cars/surfing tunes like "Barbara Ann," "Little Deuce Coup" and "Surfin' U.S.A," but my older self has come to hear that Brian Wilson was using that deceptively simple trinity to sneak in creations that were really about a terrifyingly deep kind of love and a staggeringly wide kind of world.

It wasn't always so obvious, though. In the mid-90s, after grunge had fractured and crumbled under the weight of too many signing bonuses and one self-inflicted gunshot wound, the rock underground did what a lot of us do when the going gets tough: took a trip to warmer, sunnier climes. Stereolab, The High Lamas and pretty much the entire Elephant Six collective cracked open their copies of Pet Sounds to see what made it tick. Like the Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath of years previous, Wilson became the influence du jour, and soon everyone was seeing how many layers deep they could pile on the vocal harmonies.

The Wilson Ascendancy may have been brief and a little too slavishly worshipful, but it did the trick: I went back and gave the Boys a listen through my grown-up ears. To say that I fell a little in love with what I heard would be an understatement - was this really the same group I'd heard through the stereo in my parents' station wagon? The songs, the sounds, the whole was easy to hear what Wilson meant by the phrase "teenage symphony to God." This was church music, deeply felt and reverent, that had been pumped full of sunlight, strapped to a surfboard and let loose in the oceanic heavens. Eileen melts a little when "God Only Knows" comes on, and on this musical topic we're in perfect sync.

SISOSIG? There's no need to discuss whether Pet Sounds stays or goes; with it's depth of quality, ease of enjoyment and Eileen-friendliness, it's practically the prototype for a "keeper." The Good Vibrations box set has a lot of fluff and excess baggage (I don't know that I've ever actually listened to discs 4 or 5), but it's also got all the important stuff. Since the early Beach Boys were first and foremost a singles band of uncommon power, I don't think there's much need to collect all the early albums when the important singles are all right here in one handy package - this is one of the rare instances where I can honestly say I've got all I'll ever need.

Finally, I've grouped Brian Wilson's latter-day completion of his abandoned Smile project here, though I don't really think of it as being of a piece with his Beach Boys work, nor does it really measure up in a lot of ways. But I'd argue that one shouldn't approach it that way: give Smile a listen as a piece of modern, cracked Americana alongside Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Neutral Milk Hotel and it's an entirely modern marvel, different from the classics from Wilson's past but a keeper for today.


  • Keep in mind that Brian Wilson may have spent a considerable amount of time in touch with other worldly muses that guided his evolution as a musician.

    By the way, I'd bet your parents had a few Beatles albums and might have occasionally played a Simon & Garfunkle LP. Not necessarily hip, but both have stood the test of time (and the Beatles even invented some next level stuff of their own while in the embrace of other worlds).

    By Anonymous Gil Hodges, at 11:50 AM  

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