Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

Jordy: Of all the great musical leaps forward in the 1960s, none is as beautiful or as much fun to listen to as Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys certainly did not have the sustained and focused creativity of Bob Dylan or the Beatles, but they were superior vocalists and more aggressive in exploring contemporary studio possibilities.  Consequently, Pet Sounds stands above any other album of that era, both technically and melodically.

Glenn: Let’s focus on the sonic aspect first. What I am continually amazed by with Pet Sounds is the harmonic complexity of its arrangements. The liner notes suggest that Brian Wilson sketched out “feels” on the piano (incidentally, I’d imagine this is where Animal Collective got the title for their best album) which were then transcribed to anything from traditional orchestral instruments (strings, oboe, and tympani, most memorably) to plunked water bottle to Coke-bottle-slide guitar. The result is that Pet Sounds has a sheen, a veneer, in which is sometimes impossible to pick out individual instruments. That sheen is responsible for much of the album’s emotional power.

Take my favorite song, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).” At first, the mix is dominated by an ear-encompassing organ, swirling strings, and a simple electric bass line (which the liner notes to my reissue suggest is the sound of Brian Wilson’s heartbeat). But, just before the “Listen, listen, listen” (circa 1:47), the organ drops out and the mix melts into rising strings with a lovely cello countermelody. The sound is full of yearning (and complex chord changes) but soon closes with a few simple tympani beats that return us to the sighing chorus. The record is full of magical moments like that. You really have to hear it to appreciate the subtlety and power behind these thoughtful arrangements.

Another area in which Pet Sounds excels pretty much all else in its broad appeal. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t (at least) like this record.

Adam: Pet Sounds is phenomenal.  It is a mammoth album, both sonically and in terms of its influence.  The Beatles said many times that Pet Sounds was a big influence on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, incidentally, is the only album that Rolling Stone ranked higher than Pet Sounds on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

I bought Pet Sounds about 4 years ago and was hooked almost instantly.  I was familiar with its most famous songs, but what really pulled me in were the deep cuts.  “That’s Not Me,” “I’m Waiting For The Day,” “Here Today,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” are my favorites, although really I could list just about every track on the album.  I don’t like the instrumentals so much, but they’re so short that I don’t really bother skipping them when I listen to the album.  Which brings me to another point.  Every song on this album is less than three and a half minutes long, and only three are over three minutes.  Very few artists are able to pack so much greatness into such a short album.

The album is both comforting in its empathy and dazzling in its complexity.  The lyrics are some of the most nakedly honest that I know, and as my fellow bloggers are well aware, I love stuff that is unabashedly honest and sincere.

Phil: I think the most essential thing about Pet Sounds is its influence, both for musicians in the studio and for, oh I don’t know, the entire country for decades. I grew up in the eighties and the nineties and this album is still ubiquitous; it’s in the water. And I think the reason it’s stuck around so long is what Glenn points out, it has a really gigantic appeal. The chord choices aren’t exactly garage rock or simple pop (see the end of “I’m Waiting For The Day,” before the drums come back in), but somehow the whole album is undeniable. It reminds me of Burt Bacharach with imagination and balls.

I think the issue I had with this album for so long was that veneer that Glenn’s talking about. While it polishes the whole album to a cohesion rarely achieved by even the finest studio musicians (except maybe Idaho‘s Jeff Martin or Albini, but he does it on purpose), that polish smooths everything to the same level, so I think it’s harder to pay attention to the really amazing parts. They just sort of poke out every now and then, and you say “Oh, there’s saxophones on this song?” It’s a trade-off, and I don’t think this album would be as timeless without the veneer, but I’d love to hear this album with a different mix, if only to satisfy my own curiosity.

Jeff (guest contribution): I actually bought this album on a trip to England with Jordy and Glenn in 2003 after having read about it for a couple years and was immediately struck by the opening track–the PERFECT description of most things I’ve felt that I called love and what I had thought would be perhaps the most audacious opening track on a mix for someone.  My God.  The next thing a lot of people notice about this album is the orchestration–which I think is complemented by something else Wilson nicked from Phil Spector: mono.  It definitely makes the instruments harder to pick out but I think both Spector and Wilson had this obsession with packing the mix to the point of confusion (the famed “wall of sound” which Spector was always on about).

The next thing is the harmonic structure of some of these fascinating songs (“Don’t Talk,” and especially “God Only Knows”)–this stuff is called “baroque pop” but people didn’t use those changes in the baroque era.  “God Only Knows” in particular with its finding-a-way-to-fit-pop-chords-into-a-chromatic-scale bassline, is really interesting.  If you look up the tab, it’s not a song many non-jazz-balladeers-who-studied-theory would have written.  Apart from that, the highlights for me are: “Here Today,” the snare rolls in the chorus of “I Know There’s An Answer” (and the general ornamental and classical feel of much of the snare, timpani, and electric bass parts–these guys are NOT playing rock’n’roll!), the a capella bar in “Sloop,” and the second vocal part in “I’m Waiting For the Day” (I kissed yo’ lips and when yo’ face!looked!sad!…), and “Wasn’t Made For These Times.”  Really the whole album except “That’s Not Me” and the instrumentals.

Also, if anyone has the older mono CD release there may be a fantastic “essay” by BW about dreaming of a halo over his head, believing himself to be the first person to put the word “God” in a rock song, praying for the album to give people “positive love vibes,” and calling the record a teenage symphony to God, etc.  Not a brilliant essayist or philosopher, but a helluva composer/orchestrator.  Also, this album is way the hell more interesting than that British-music-hall-revival-meets-Merseybeat album mentioned above.

Jordy: Well put, All.  And a special thanks to Jeff for punching this post up a peg or two.

Our consensus reflects the general good will towards this record as well as an admission of its vast influence.  I think the readers at markprindle.com shortchanged Pet Sounds by voting it only the tenth best of all time.  Abbey Road, I can see.  But Doolittle?!  Spiderland?!!  Bunch of idiots.

4 Essential Tracks:
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
“Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”
“I’m Waiting For The Day”

“Sloop John B”

If you already own it, buy one of the 57 special editions!

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23 Comments

Filed under 1960s, Pop, Rock

23 responses to “Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

  1. Spiderland is not a great album. It has maybe 2 excellent songs, but the rest….meh

  2. Phil

    Spiderland is for assholes.

  3. Jeff Wheeler

    I have Spiderland. I can’t imagine listening to it on purpose ever again–I just can’t bring myself to care about it at all. My relationship with the Pixies is the same as that of the 28-year-old girl who never saw Star Wars and never will (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDFlQINIgwk)

  4. Dave Keller

    I grew up in the same geographical environment as Brian Wilson and his brothers. A lot of the discussions about “Pet Sounds” and Brian’s other best works do analyze the experience of growing up in Hawthorne, Ca., and the surrounding environs. Of course, that’s not possible unless you grew up there. Consider that the McDonald brothers (Redd Kross), Darlene Love, Black Flag and Chris Montez grew up in the same environment. Though lesser talents than Brian, they were informed by the being raised in a suburban context in the heart of southern California.

    • Jordy

      Thanks for the insight, Dave. A lot of great music is of a place, so to speak. I’m glad you didn’t list the Eagles as SoCal representatives, much as they might claim to be.

      • Dave Keller

        You’re welcome, Jody. it was not intentionally. In retrospect, I wish it had been. Not that I have anything against the Eagles. I’m just not a fan Some of their (its?) songs are all right, inasmuch as the songs do represent a very specific mindset from a very specific era. Most of it, however, is either Flying Burrito Bros. wannabe nonsense or something less distilled. Besides, only one of the original members is from Southern California. As I mentioned in the first reply, I think the Beach Boys and, to a much lesser extent, come the closest to capturing the Southern California quintessence than the Eagles or anyone else.

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  20. What a poignantly written encomium to one of the most brilliant pop albums of the 20th century. I love the album, listening to it frequently–I actually used the title track in my spin class tonight–and marveling at its beauty, its complexity, its symphonic arrangements, and its heavy dirges. The emotion, both in voice and in instruments–you can hear the plaintive angst in “Don’t Talk’s” cello–draw me like the sirens draw the sailors to their singing. The album is inescapably good. Thanks for your thoughts

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