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Fifty Years on, Pet Sounds Arranges to Endure

by Jordan Lawrence

Fifty Years on, Pet Sounds Arranges to Endure

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Picture by Forbes

September 21, 2016

Throughout much of the Monday performance of Pet Sounds by Brian Wilson and his band, I felt conflicted.

That’s not to say that the experience at Charlotte’s Belk Theater was bad. The arrangements were stellar, with a band that peaked at 12 members perfectly delivering every reverb-laden wood block, every random bicycle bell, every intricately placed sound that gave the landmark 1966 album its title and set it apart as an early studio masterpiece.

The 74-year-old Wilson—clearly feeling his age, tinkling occasionally on a baby grand piano, but mostly just sitting behind it—couldn’t hit the high notes, but it hardly mattered. The Beach Boys bassist and the wizardly producer and arranger who spearheaded Pet Sounds, the group’s most renowned and influential work, delivered his relatable evocations of youthful angst with the same downtrodden conviction that made the studio versions stick. Matt Jardine—son of fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine, who was also on hand—swooped in to ace the high harmonies, delivering the lines with similarly powerful feeling.

You see, I wasn’t conflicted because Wilson and his backers messed up Pet Sounds at this stop on a tour celebrating the album’s 50th anniversary. I was conflicted because they nailed it.

Like many essential LPs, Pet Sounds can be appreciated in different ways, but in the case of these 13 unimpeachable pop songs, those outlooks are remarkably divergent.

On one hand, Pet Sounds can be seen as an album—perhaps the album—that helped elevate studio recording to a true art form. The arrangements are so vivid, pushing the limits of what a studio was then capable of, layering together various parts and overdubs, fleshing out the songs to the point that they are nearly symphonic. Wilson did the same thing with The Beach Boys’ famous harmonies, reportedly teaching each singer their parts individually at a piano, pushing the group’s already sparking vocals to become even more full and immersive.

Fifty years on, even as it’s inspired countless bands to try and capture part of its magic, it remains one of rock’s most sonically striking records.

In preparation for my night enjoying a live rendition of the album, I reached out on Facebook and Twitter for perspective: “If you love Pet Sounds, why do you love it? What makes it so special?”

Wilson, during the making of Pet SoundsAnd sure enough, many of the responses I received focused on the record’s sonic breakthroughs.

“The sound design is bonkers,” responded Raleigh’s Grant Golden, a music journalist and advocate who has contributed to Paste, “both with the use of non-traditional or 'experimental' sounds and also how they utilize their harmonies to make the vocals sound much bigger.”

“Brian is playing the studio as an instrument and using each musician as if they were an individual key on a piano,” offered Paul Bodamer, a producer based in Columbia, South Carolina, who operates the boutique label and recording spot Jangly Records. “It's a matter of tasteful indulgence and one of the high points of pop music arrangement. As most musicians would agree, a great arrangement is a damn sexy thing.” 

But Pet Sounds is more than just a seminal studio achievement. It also set a new standard for how emotionally resonant an album could be, stepping past the majority of the LPs released at the time—often a ploy to sell hit singles at a higher price point than that of a 45—to craft an LP that surges and sways in service of a distinctly melancholic mood, sustaining that feeling from beginning to end. Wilson was inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, a record he saw as having no filler tracks, but his own opus far outstrips that effort in terms of its emotive power.

From the young love anxiety of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the lonely desperation that lingers behind the bounding melodies of “Sloop John B”; from the yearning, unguarded affection expressed by “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and “Caroline No” to the existential crises that unravel during “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”—the songs on Pet Sounds unite a series of emotional breakdowns, a fitting reflection of Wilson’s then fractured state. (His deteriorating mental health would go on to stall production of his intended grande follow-up, Smile, and limit his contributions to the band as they pushed into the ’70s.)

Several responses to my online query focused on this depth of feeling as Pet Sounds’ true strength.

“You grow up hearing ‘Surfer Girl’ or ’Surfin' Safari’ on the radio and think, ‘These are good musicians who kind of wasted their talent on this whole surfing/cars/beach schtick,’” noted Shayne Miel, leader of the sporadically active Durham acoustic-rock band The Future Kings of Nowhere. “Then you hear Pet Sounds and realize just how talented Brian Wilson is, and maybe it comes to you at the same time as learning about his struggles with depression and whatnot, and you get to reinterpret all of those old songs through the lens of this new appreciation for him and them as a group. That's what makes that album special for me—its quality is magnified by how it transforms all of the songs that came before it.”

“It showed a 12-year-old rock fan that music was more than songs about surf and cars,” offered longstanding Columbia musician Bentz Kirby, remembering hearing the record as a kid when it came out. “The Beatles had opened the door with Rubber Soul, but Pet Sounds raised the bar. Songs like ‘God Only Knows,’ ‘Wouldn't It Be Nice,’ ‘Carolina No’ and the arrangement of the cover ‘Sloop John B’ showed that Brian had a vision which still spoke to us pre-teens, but also spoke to adults.”

On Monday, the true nature of Pet Sounds’ enduring appeal came through during “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” one of the album’s two excellent instrumentals. Swirling around amid the delicate but expansive strings (synthesized on keys at this performance) and horns is a melody that sums up, without a single word, the instantly identifiable feeling that powers Pet Sounds—part wistful, part regretful, the aural pangs of a confused but determined heart.

Wilson didn’t play during “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.” He sat with his head bowed and took in the band’s hypnotic rendition. And it was at that moment that my conflict lifted, that I stopped oscillating between appreciating either the intricate arrangements or the aching emotions.

We can argue endlessly over whether it’s the studio majesty or the plaintive songwriting that makes Pet Sounds essential. But it’s the way those two strengths combine to create such a fully realized evocation of an intensely relatable mood that make the LP so vital, an enduring document that redefined both the sonic and the sentimental possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll.

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Tags: Pet Sounds, Rubber Soul, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Smile, Blumenthal, Beatles, arrangements

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