50 years have passed since the original release of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, yet it still stands alone in the rock canon. The talents of Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston coalesced in one unforgettable place and time to create music’s most exquisite realization of both the exultant joy and beautiful melancholy of adolescence. It took until the compact disc era for Pet Sounds to be fully appreciated; the album wasn’t certified platinum until early 2000, and only rose as far as No. 10 on the Billboard chart at the time of its original release. As of 2016, Pet Sounds has seen over ten distinct CD and SACD reissues not to mention vinyl, DVD-Audio, and so on. The latest iteration has just arrived from Capitol Records and UMe in a variety of formats – most notably a 4-CD/1-Blu-ray box set. This compelling presentation simultaneously streamlines and expands 1996’s 4-CD The Pet Sounds Sessions to chronicle and explore Brian Wilson’s masterwork from its earliest stages to its afterlife.
What sets Pet Sounds apart? Though Wilson had hinted at its melodic intricacy and complex beauty on The Beach Boys Today! (“Please Let Me Wonder,” “She Knows Me Too Well”) and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) (“Let Him Run Wild,” “Summer Means New Love”), it was only on Pet Sounds that his ambitions entirely crystallized. His songs had naturally touched on teenage themes before, from romance to desire and even loneliness, but never with the newfound maturity provided by lyricist Tony Asher. With Asher and Wilson spurring each other to new heights, the result was an attractively unconventional song cycle of great sensitivity and bold emotion.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” asks The Beach Boys in Pet Sounds’ opening song, “if we were older? Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long/And wouldn’t it be nice to live together/In the kind of world where we belong?” In that brief stanza, Wilson and Asher capture the essence of youth on the cusp of change and adulthood, hoping that the promise of better days will come true: that they will marry and one day “belong.” It’s a desire that’s every bit as universal today, and not simply for the young, either. Wilson deployed imaginatively unusual instrumentation – including rock-and-roll accordions, a tack piano, bells and tympani – to support his melody which expresses the same feelings as the lyrics: the determined assertion of “You know it’s gonna make it that much better,” the sheer hope of “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true,” the simple, blithely heart-tugging “Oh, we could be married, and then we’d be happy….” And you believe they will. For three minutes, it’s sheer pop bliss.
By the end of the album, some 35 minutes or so later, Wilson and Asher – two twentysomethings – were elegizing innocence itself with the plaintive cry of “Caroline No.” Brian’s vocal is raw, unaccompanied by the lush harmonies of his brothers, cousin and friends, and nakedly emotional. It’s heady counterpoint to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but even more effective considering how Wilson had laid his soul bare in between. (Asher has commented that many of the song’s themes came directly from the composer, with his job to “translate” those thoughts into lyric form.) In the hands of lesser talents, the sentiments of “You Still Believe in Me” (“I want to cry…”) or “That’s Not Me” (“I’m a little bit scared…”) could have come across as maudlin. Instead, those lyrics are heartbreakingly honest and affecting. Those songs, as well as the ravishingly ethereal “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and “I’m Waiting for the Day” (with incisive lyrics by Mike Love) all address romantic conceits, but do so in a way that wasn’t only far-removed from The Beach Boys’ work, but from pop music as a whole. Each song looks at a different aspect of romantic love, including self-doubt, anxiety and even the need for a physical connection. “God Only Knows” might be the apotheosis of the love song yet begins with the statement “I may not always love you.” Pet Sounds quietly, delicately shattered expectations. Even the folk revival of “Sloop John B,” shoehorned onto the album by record company pressure, comfortably fits in with its refrain of “I wanna go home.” Brian’s vulnerable declaration “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” may be one of the truest statements on any record from any era, but in revealing so much of himself, and therefore all of us, Pet Sounds has been made for every time.
Styled in the format of a hardcover book, the new set features the original album remastered in both mono and stereo on its first disc. The stereo mix was created by producer Mark Linett under Brian Wilson’s aegis in 1996 while the mono version has been sourced from the 1972 Brother/Reprise reissue tape supervised by Carl Wilson. This marks the first time this tape has been used for a CD release, and it’s a highlight of the set. Devoted listeners might well notice variations in its sonics from past mono CD reissues.
At the heart of the new set is the material reprised from the 1997 Pet Sounds Sessions box. These tracks, presented on Discs Two and Three, offer a “you-are-there” experience as Wilson crafts his masterpiece with his bandmates and the veteran members of the Wrecking Crew including Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel, Steve Douglas, Julius Wechter, Lyle Ritz, Al DeLory, Billy Strange, Barney Kessel, Plas Johnson, Ray Pohlman, Don Randi, Tommy Tedesco, Jay Migliori and others. The session material, also wonderfully remastered, remains endlessly fascinating as an utterly-in-control Wilson assembles and adjusts his mini-symphonies from disparate pieces. (He would take this to the next level with the modular assembly of “Good Vibrations” and SMiLE. Highlights from the first tracking date of “GV” as well as its stereo backing track are both featured here, too.) The beautiful string arrangement of “Don’t Talk” is a thrill to dissect, as well as the rollicking parts of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Even without the vocal melodies and shimmering harmonies, these tracks spring to vibrant life thanks to the unparalleled musicianship and producer Wilson’s widescreen vision.
Happily, every track from The Pet Sounds Sessions is included here, so those who missed out on the original box aren’t lacking any music. Three additional, previously unreleased tracks (the vocal session and an alternate mix for “I Know There’s an Answer,” plus the sublime master track with partial vocal for “Good Vibrations”) debut here. However, about ten hours of material from the Pet Sounds sessions has circulated unofficially, so it remains surprising that Capitol hasn’t released this material in full as of yet. The curated approach makes for a more compelling listening experience, but an even more extravagant package in the style of Bob Dylan’s massive The Cutting Edge collection would surely have been a treat for diehards.
Disc Four boasts the impressive, intricate “Stack-o-Vocals” voice-only mixes, further putting into focus not only Wilson’s staggering harmonies, but the importance of every Beach Boy in giving Pet Sounds its luster. Their voices wash over the listener in these sparkling remixes. Ten previously unreleased concert tracks spanning 1966-1993 showcase how the live band’s presentation of the Pet Sounds songs has changed over the years, and adds a welcome new dimension to the box spotlighting how Mike, Carl, Al, Dennis and Bruce have carried the live torch. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows” are all first heard as recorded at a Michigan concert on October 22, 1966, just months after the arrival of Pet Sounds. (This concert has circulated before, but not in such pristine sound, and still awaits a complete official release.) The songs are still quite clearly fresh and blissfully unpolished; Carl’s hushed vocals on “God Only Knows” are strikingly tender, and intimacy imbues the close harmonies circling him.
Naturally, the three “main” Pet Sounds cuts above were, and are, staples of The Beach Boys’ setlists. “God” is heard four times, and “Sloop” and “Wouldn’t” each get two airings. The 1989 Universal City performance of “Sloop” is a treat, with Brian on energetic and engaged vocals. Most captivating are 1993 performances from New York’s Paramount of the rarely-performed “Caroline No” and “You Still Believe in Me.” The late Carl’s gorgeously yearning “Caroline” further attests to his memory as a vocalist nonpareil, and “You Still Believe in Me” is nearly as enchanting. Most of all, the ten live tracks whet one’s appetite for all of these concerts to be released in full.
The Blu-ray Pure Audio disc, exclusive to this edition, offers its riches in crisp high resolution. The disc has the original album sequence in 96/24 surround as well as the stereo, mono and instrumental mixes in 192/24, and all sound strikingly rich and vivid. (The mono here is also sourced from the 1972 master.) Six bonus session tracks are also included in surround and stereo.
The oversized hardcover book (with a tactile surprise on the front cover!) contains 48 pages including an introductory essay by David Fricke, numerous photographs and tape box images, lyrics for each song, and a sessionography with musician and vocalist credits/commentary for each track. The presentation is classy and attractive, if clearly designed in less of a collectors’ vein than The Pet Sounds Sessions. That box included two text-heavy booklets: one with 36 pages and one with 128 pages. The new set is an upgrade in sound and content, but fans should hold onto Sessions for its wealth of written information.
Pet Sounds is also available as a new 2-CD edition (featuring the mono and stereo albums plus the instrumental mix on CD, whereas it’s on Blu-ray in the box, and the live tracks) and on mono and stereo vinyl. “Popular music – in the form of Top 40 – has to expand and has to gain much more widespread respect as a result of someone making an art out of that kind of music. There are enough elements to work with now,” Brian Wilson opined in an April, 1966 KRLA Beat interview republished in the 4-CD/1-BD box set. As this set definitively proves, he and his family of collaborators marshaled those elements and turned pop into not only art, but art that has endured for 50 years now. Listen…listen…listen…
Pet Sounds is available now in a variety of formats:
4-CD/1-BD Deluxe Edition: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2-CD Deluxe Edition (CD 1 + highlights from 4-CD set): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Mono 180-Gram Vinyl Edition: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Stereo 180-Gram Vinyl Edition: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada