Sunday, September 19, 2004

 

Vamos A La Playa

A guest editorial in the Sulzberger Entity deigns to opine on Brian Wilson's upcoming Smile release. The writer makes a very valid point in that the original songs were written for the Beach Boys' voices, an instrument as unique and distinct as Hal Blaine's drums or Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker, and that it is somehow sacrilegious to hear Smile finally voiced by others. Interesting thought, in that we've actually heard a lot of Smile already, not just Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains, but the more obscure stuff like Vegetables and Cabinessence is out there. Cabinessence is a particularly interesting track (I've also seen it titled as Cabin Essence), with a wildly alternating theme that runs the gamut from a plinky, rubato bluegrassy part to a ghostly chanting chorus, with an oddball rideout with lyrics about the Grand Coulee Dam (Van Dyke Parks had an oddball sense of humor). The chanting chorus part is a wonderful showcase of the Beach Boys vocal prowess, yet it's one of the least commercial tracks ever released by them; it's almost creepy in its provenance.

It's interesting to compare Cabinessence with the Beach Boys other more commercial tracks of the time frame. The Beach Boys were an unbelievable live band in the late 60s and early 70s (check out Live In London and the 1973 In Concert sets for great examples) with really cool uptempo stuff like Break Away, Aren't You Glad and I Can Hear Music (one of my favorite Carl vocals), incidentally) for the pop side, and great rockers like Sail On Sailor. Brian didn't really lose his commercial touch, but a lot of the studio tracks of the time have instrumentation that's for want of a better word, rinky dink. For instance, the piano on a lot of those records has the sound of an out-of-tune upright that's been sitting in a spinster's living room, and the guitars have no oomph whatsover. The latter observation is something that plagued the Beach Boys records pretty much since the beginning. Dick Dale was getting a much fuller guitar sound with the exact same setup that the Beach Boys and their studio musicians were using. The guitars on the Beach Boys' records are always thin and unsatisfying, although on the two live sets previously mentioned they've got some really great tone (Carl, may he rest in peace, was a great live player, and Al could always get a good tone live out of his white Stratocaster).

Brian's recent live sets have been very joyous performances, even allowing for the limitations of his voice (The Wondermints covered nicely for him, and Jeffrey Foskett leads a first rate band; I was very pleased with the quality of the Pet Sounds live set and amazed at how they really nailed the instrumentals). The problem of course is that these records aren't the Beach Boys doing those songs, and what passes for the Beach Boys nowadays is an insult to their legacy and importance. I remember seeing them Christmastime 1972, and even without Brian, you sensed an unbelievably special quality of the performance. The mix of songs was so eclectic, yet you knew they would finish up with a killer combination of Good Vibrations, Surfing USA, Barbara Ann and Fun Fun Fun and leave the hall dancing. The last time I saw the Beach Boys (around 1992) the show was far less joyous. There was little eye contact and interaction amongst the band. Even Carl, who held the band together, couldn't be bothered with the effort to pretend that it was anything more than an oldies show. Mike Love just hogged the show, and overpowered any sense of community. We left with a bad taste in our mouths. Funny enough, I picked up a CD of Al Jardine's current band (which included Brian's daughters and Al's sons), and it felt much more like a real Beach Boys show than that travesty I saw in the Meadowlands.

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