Sunday, June 30, 2013

Smile - The Beach Boys

Smile  [The Smile Sessions]
The Beach Boys
Capitol T 2580   [Capitol T-27658]
1967  [2011]

For many years my most treasured CD has been a bootleg reconstruction of the lost 1967 Beach Boys album, "Smile."  Like many Beach Boys fans, I've been fascinated by this album ever since I first learned of its existence.  I'm not going to go into the background of this album because it is way too complex and mysterious for my humble blog (there is an excellent book about it by Domenic Priore if you are interested.)  Nonetheless I think it is the most crucial event in the Beach Boys' long, turbulent history and I've longed for it to come out on a legitimate release on vinyl.  Of course much of it was on the Beach Boys" "Good Vibrations" CD box set and various tracks were reworked for some of the Beach Boys albums that followed its non-release (most notably on "Smiley Smile") but that is not the same as a unified album.  Then Brian Wilson decided to release his own version of "Smile" re-recorded by his new band and as much as I enjoyed that album, it also made me unhappy because I figured that now he would never sanction a release of the original recording.  But then to my amazement and joy, this album was announced and I happily bought it the day it was released.  I knock Capitol Records often, but this one they got right.  It is in mono just as Brian intended and even has the original catalog number assigned to it back in 1967 as well as a 1960s rainbow inner label.  The album itself is gorgeous.  Frank Holmes original artwork was retained for the cover and the booklet inside the gatefold cover.  It has a facsimile of the original back cover intended for the 1967 release and a back cover that shows the true running order of the album with the additional tracks added to the album for its modern release.  There is some question of what the original track sequence for "Smile" was supposed to be, but there is universal agreement that "Our Prayer" is the proper opening track.  It is a gorgeous a cappella song with wordless vocalizing from the group that segues into an excerpt of the old doo-wop song "Gee."  It is followed by the masterful "Heroes and Villains" which shows Wilson at the height of his creative powers.  He takes his catchy riff through numerous permutations in a tour de force of arranging and marries it to brilliant lyrics from Van Dyke Parks evoking the myths of the old west.  It is among the greatest of all Beach Boys songs.  It leads into the oddly titled "Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)" which features more impressive arranging from Wilson including a reprise of the riff of "Heroes and Villains" along with Hawaiian themes and enigmatic lyrics that refer to Native Americans.  "I'm In Great Shape" is barely even a fragment of a song lasting less than 30 seconds as it describes farm life.  "Barnyard" expands on the farm theme complete with animal sound effects.  "My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine" offers slow string driven fragments of the two old pop songs mentioned in the title.)  "Cabin Essence" features amazing lyrics from Parks describing growing wheat on the Great Plains and building the transcontinental railway.  This was apparently one of the songs that the other band members objected to as being too obscure to understand but it seems pretty clear to me.  Musically it is very strong, alternating between bucolic countryish segments and a harder section driving the line "Who ran the iron horse."  This ends side one and the first movement which depicts American history and life on the American heartland.  Side two opens with the chamber pop song "Wonderful" which is beautifully sung by Brian.  In a delicate and poetic manner it describes a girl losing her virginity and growing up.  "Look (Song For Children)" consists solely of the word "child" (with an occasional "the" added) paired with a bouncy tune with carnival elements to it.  "Child is Father of the Man" expands on this adding the phrase "father of the man" to the "child" chant.  These two songs go on for over 4 minutes combined but are never boring thanks to Brian's arranging skills.  The side concludes with the magnificent "Surf's Up."  I first heard the song on the Beach Boy's 1971 album of the same name which I picked up as a teenager.  It blew me away and was the genesis of my interest in the lost album it was intended for and gave me a life long respect for Brian Wilson's musical genius.  This is another one of the songs that the other band members ridiculed for being incomprehensible.  I beg to differ.  In stunningly poetic language Parks describes upper class emptiness and a night out at the theater which ends with the song's unhappy hero finding redemption in the magic of a child's song which reprises the musical theme from "Child is Father of the Man."  The song is blessed with more arranging wizardry from Brian as well as a moving, heartfelt vocal from him (joined by Al Jardine for the concluding polyphonic finale.)  I consider the song a pinnacle in pop music art, a triumph in every aspect of songwriting.  Brian would never write a better song than this.  It ends the second movement which deals with childhood.  The third movement on side three explores the theme of the elements of the planet: wind, water, fire and earth.  It opens with "I Wanna Be Around/Workshop" which links a jazzy instrumental version of the Johnny Mercer song with the sounds of tools in a workshop.  It is followed by the childlike "Vega-Tables."  I have to admit that the first time I heard the song (on "Smiley Smile") I disliked it, but now I find it completely charming.  The song may seem silly but there is some clever wordplay from Parks and it is lavishly arranged by Brian with complex vocal harmonies supporting Jardine's lead vocal as well as Sir Paul McCartney loudly chomping celery in the background.  "Holidays" is a simple bouncy instrumental that also has a childlike flavor to it.  It leads into the gorgeous melody of "Wind Chimes" which is beautifully sung by Carl Wilson.  The first part of the song is played on a marimba or vibraphone type instrument which replicates the sound of a wind chime and then there is a more elaborate instrumental passage with multi-part vocal harmonies and a full band.  "The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow)" is often cited as evidence of Brian's mental deterioration since he apparently came to believe that performing the song led to actual fires breaking out in Los Angeles.  The song does sound kind of sinister, probably the creepiest thing Wilson has ever written.  It is a swirling instrumental driven by a propulsive siren-like musical pattern.  The session excerpts from this song (not included on the record) are quite astonishing and well worth seeking out.  "Love To Say Dada" is a return to a childlike tune with the repeated refrain of "water" and "wah wah" delivered over an exotica style melody.  There is a brief reprise of "Our Prayer" and then the side concludes with the band's immortal "Good Vibrations" arguably the greatest single of all time.  The album version is basically the same as the single until towards the end of the song where a tropical vocal passage (sounds like they are singing "hum de dum") is inserted and there is a different, prolonged outro as well.  This is the end of the reconstructed "Smile" album.  Side 4 features assorted bonus tracks beginning with "You're Welcome" which was recorded during the "Smile" sessions and originally appeared as the b-side of the "Heroes and Villains" single.  Many "Smile" fans feel like this was meant to bookend "Our Prayer" on the album, presumably slotting near the end as it does on some "Smile" bootlegs.  It resembles "Our Prayer" vocally and is largely percussion driven.  It is followed by stereo mixes for "Vega-Tables" and "Wind Chimes" which sound terrific.  There is a five minute plus track of session highlights and a stereo backing track for "Cabin Essence."  It is interesting to hear the way the song was put together and to get a clearer idea of all that is going on beneath the vocal.  The side concludes with a brief session excerpt and a beautiful stereo mix for "Surf's Up."  I'm happy to hear it again, I never get tired of it but I would have preferred to have Brian's demo version which I really love and don't have on vinyl.  I'm thrilled that this album has finally come out, but I'm not pleased with the sequencing.  The potential track order of "Smile" is something fans like to speculate about, Brian Wilson has maintained that there wasn't a definitive order when he abandoned the record.  This album follows the sequencing that Wilson and Van Dyke Parks came up with for Wilson's re-recorded version of the album which comprises three movements.  It is hard to argue with the creators' wishes, but like a lot of "Smile" fans, I think the album was originally designed for just two movements.  One side for the Americana songs and one side for the elements songs.  The second movement is so slight (barely 10 minutes long) it could easily be folded into the other two.  The problem with the second movement is that it moves "Surf's Up" into the middle of the album, whereas it ought to be the concluding song, it sums up all the themes of the record and its majestic melody makes it an ideal concluding number.  Even with the questionable sequencing, this is still a magnificent record, it amazes me that Brian chose to shelve it after all that work.  Reportedly the release of "Sgt Pepper" caused him to think that "Smile" would be overshadowed by its success.  I suppose that is true, "Sgt. Pepper" was more in touch with the zeitgeist of the era and would have inevitably had a bigger cultural impact, but artistically I think this album is equally strong.  1967 saw a lot of great albums released, but I think only "Sgt. Pepper" and Love's "Forever Changes" can approach this in songcraft, originality and artistic vision.  It holds up amazingly well, a timeless masterpiece.  Its boldness and inventiveness take my breath away and I'm so happy that it has finally come out.  Recommended to people whose favorite Beach Boys' album is "Pet Sounds."  That used to be mine too, but now it is this.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bradley's Barn - The Beau Brummels

Bradley's Barn
The Beau Brummels
Warner Bros.  WS 1760

The end of the line for the first incarnation of the Beau Brummels (although they would reunite periodically beginning in the mid 1970s and even record a few more albums.)  They had started out as a quintet on Autumn Records back in 1964 but had been reduced to just Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott by the time they recorded this in 1968 supported by a bunch of Nashville studio pros in Owen Bradley's Tennessee recording studio which gives the album its title.  It was a long way from their San Francisco home geographically but musically it doesn't stray too far.  It does have a countryish sound but most of the songs would not sound out of place amongst the arty folk rock songs on their preceding album, "Triangle."  The album begins with one of my all-time favorite Beau Brummels songs, "Turn Around" penned by Elliott and his usual writing partner Bob Durand.  This sparkling evocation of youthful romance was also a highlight on the Everly Brothers' "Roots" which Elliott helped arrange and which was recorded around the same time as this album and which it resembles somewhat.  The jangly guitars and Valentino's soulful vocal really send me.  Valentino sweetly drawls the love song "An Added Attraction (Come and See Me)" which he also wrote.  It is the most country-flavored tune on the album.  Elliott and Valentino co-wrote "Deep Water" which is one of the strongest songs on the record.  It has more jangly guitars and an urgent vocal from Valentino as he delivers the anxiety-laden lyrics.  Elliott's "Long Walking Down To Misery" is a folk rock song given the country treatment with another fine Valentino vocal describing how he lost his girlfriend.  Elliott's "Little Bird" is a pretty ballad loaded with symbolism.  The first side concludes with Elliott and Durand's rocking "Cherokee Girl" which paints a portrait of the title character using imagery of Native American folklore.  The song features a soaring vocal from Valentino and is given extra oomph from tasteful string overdubs.  It is another one of my favorite songs on the album.  Side two opens with the easy going "I'm A Sleeper" by Elliott and Valentino which features Valentino drawling from the perspective of a wishing well.  Elliott's "The Loneliest Man In Town" is one of the few songs on the album you can actually imagine a traditional country singer like Porter Wagoner covering.  It features the familiar down-on-his-luck theme so popular in country music and it sounds very country as well.  In contrast "Love Can Fall a Long Way Down" by Elliott and Durand is pure folk rock and one of the most impressive songs on the album.  It is dynamic and highly propulsive with some baroque rock overtones in the keyboards.  Valentino passionately delivers lyrics examining a deteriorating relationship in the wake of a bad party.  "Jessica" by Elliott and Valentino goes country rock for a song about heartbreak.  Randy Newman's "Bless You California" is the only non-original song on the album.  It is a rollicking, humorous song about aimlessness and manipulation with a sarcastic edge that stands out from the earnestness of the rest of the record.  It gives the finish of the album a bit of a bite to it.  This is my favorite Beau Brummels album, the songwriting is so strong and Valentino's vocals are so warm and powerful, the album really stands out as something sincere and original in a year full of self-indulgence and excess.  It is a shame that the record did not get the attention or sales it deserved and that the band broke up after its release.  It is about as good as country rock gets.  Recommended for people who prefer "Nashville Skyline" over "Wheels of Fire." 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Love at the Bottom of the Sea - The Magnetic Fields

Love at the Bottom of the Sea
The Magnetic Fields
Merge MRG439

I had tickets to see the Magnetic Fields show at the Orpheum in support of this album last year.  At the last minute my wife stood me up, so I took my son instead.  I had some trepidation about this, his taste runs more toward Incubus and Linkin Park but he was willing to go (I think he liked the band's name) even though he'd never heard them.  I expected some configuration of the band like on the album with electric instruments, synthesizers and percussion.  Instead it was an unplugged show driven by piano, cello, acoustic guitar and harmonium.  I figured my kid would hate it, but to my relief he liked it quite a bit.  There is just no denying the immense pop craft Stephin Merritt brings to his music.  He appeals to me, he appeals to my teenage son and he'd probably appeal to my mom.  His lyrics are clever and charming, loaded with originality, insight and word play, his tunes are full of hooks and strong melodies.  I adore him and all his records, he is one of my favorite artists and I had a great time at the show.  This is the tenth full length album from the Magnetic Fields and it is typically excellent.  The band shows no sign of decline or staleness.  It opens with "God Wants Us To Wait" which is about a girl who wants to put off intercourse because of her religious convictions.  I love the line "you might like to kiss the dew on my hem" which surely must be a reference to Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy."  It manages to be erotic and humorous simultaneously.  The song has an 80s synth pop feel to it with heavy reverb and a mechanical vocal from Claudia Gonson that perhaps symbolizes the robotic nature of some fundamentalists.  "Andrew in Drag" is classic Merritt and my favorite song on the album.  It is about a rich, straight kid who falls hopelessly in love with his straight friend Andrew after seeing him in drag on stage.  It is a poppy song effectively crooned by Merritt in his low key baritone voice.  "Your Girlfriend's Face" is about a spurned lover who hires a hit man to mutilate her rival's face and kill her ex-boyfriend.  It is another synth heavy song with the light, bouncy tune providing an ironic counterpoint to the dark, nasty lyrics that are sweetly sung by Shirley Simms.  "Born For Love" is a seduction song.  It is a slow, wheezy song with a lugubrious vocal from Merritt.  Poppiness returns for the bouncy "I'd Go Anywhere with Hugh" which is about an unrequited love triangle, the singer loves Hugh who loves the person who loves the singer but none of the loves are reciprocated.  Since the singer is a woman, it makes for some complicated gender issues in the triangle.  "Infatuation (With Your Gyration)" describes how Merritt likes watching his lover dance.  It sounds very 80s synth pop with an appropriately dance oriented rhythm track and an ensemble vocal on the chorus.  In "The Only Boy in Town" the singer wishes that there were no other boys around to tempt her to be unfaithful to her lover.  Who else but Merritt would rhyme "nonce" with "France", heck who besides him would even use a word like "nonce" in a pop song?  The lyrics are humorous but the music is plaintive and lovely, suitable for a romantic teen ballad.  In "The Machine in Your Hand" Merritt wishes he was his lover's cell phone so he'd be closer to that person.  It is more synth pop with a punchy beat.  Side two opens with "Goin' Back to the Country" which is about a gal who's fed up with the city and wants to live the simple country life.  The song mixes country music and synth pop with predictably awkward results.  You'd never expect Merritt to wander into Incredible String Band territory but in "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies" he sings of leaving the mortal world because of an unhappy love affair to enter the magical world of fairies even though they mock him just as his former lover did.  If you think "fairies" is a double entendre here, you are more cynical than me although you may very well be right.  With a noisy synth pop backing track and a sincere vocal from Merritt it is a surprisingly effective song.  Gonson sings "The Horrible Party" which is about a rich girl who is desperate to leave a decadent party where people are taking drugs, having sex and "using the slang they picked up from the proles."  It is a rollicking waltz with another cacophonous backing track.  Gonson also sings the venemous "My Husband's Pied-a-Terre" which describes a love nest where "a minx gets minks to wear" from the singer's very unfaithful husband.  Outside of France what other rock songwriter would rhyme "derriere" with "pied-a-terre"?  It starts out slow and gloomy driven by mournful cello lines and then shifts gears as the synth pop kicks in for an upbeat finale.  In "I Don't Like Your Tone" Merritt sings that he likes the words his lover says, but not the tone in which they are delivered.  It is a slow synth laden tune which Merritt croons with relish.  In "Quick!" Simms advises her lover to think of something to make her stay because she is ready to walk out on their relationship because she is tired of being attacked which inspires the classic Merritt couplet "between your outrageous remarks, like the mating calls of sarcastic sharks."  It is has a terrific hook and has lots of pop appeal.  This is my other favorite song on the album.  The album concludes with "All She Cares About is Mariachi" which seems to be written just so Merritt can come up with rhymes for "mariachi" including "hibachi," "Liberace" and "Saatchi & Saatchi."  It is a very slight but funny song about a girl who'd rather dance than make love.  It has a dolorous vocal from Merritt backed up by choppy synth pop with a slight Latin flavor.  Just your typical Magnetic Fields record.  People sometimes complain about Merritt repeating himself, but I prefer to think of it as consistency and besides no one else makes records like this.  The guy is a true original with his own instantly recognizable style.  I admire that.  Merritt is also criticized for the impersonal nature of his music.  I can relate to this, most of the artists I most admire write deeply personal music like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon or Neil Young to name a few.  Slick impersonal music usually bores me.  Merritt is so gifted, so entertaining that I don't have a problem with him.  The guy is a great storyteller, his songs are so original and charming that they win me over despite their lack of depth.  Aside from Sir Paul McCartney I can't think of another rock songwriter who has such a knack for knocking out silly love songs and what's wrong with that?  Recommended to New Order fans who dig Cole Porter.