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John Munson: So much to love about ‘Pet Sounds’

by John Munson

October 02, 2016

There is something hopelessly square about The Beach Boys.  Even as a kid I recognized this.  The sort of chubby discomfort of dudes trying to look cool rather than actually being cool... and even doing that in a way that wasn't really fooling anyone.  The tight pants pulling in all the wrong places and stuff.  And there was a bit too much winning-ness in their smiles, wasn't there?

So as a kid, I didn't pay that much attention to them.  Because I was stupidly obsessed with macho posturing and what it meant to be a man who slung a guitar and wore dragon suits and stuff like that, (which may be a typical, but bizarre journey in its own way).  No time for Beach Boys at any rate.

Probably the moment that The Beach Boys leapt out at me was as I was studying pop music in the way that used to happen: scouring magazines like Creem, The Trouser Press, Guitar Player and Rolling Stone.  Pet Sounds, kept coming up as being hugely influential, and in fact serving as the model for concept albums generally and also one of my all-time favorite records (not alone in this assessment I guess!) specifically, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Some people probably figure that's where rock made a near fatal wrong turn, I suppose.  But for me, I loved to think that music could be a vehicle for large ideas, or at least larger ideas than the old favorites.

So fast forward, as CD re-issues and such began to become available I decided to tuck into Pet Sounds, forgiving the fashion faux pas.  

Why did I wait so long?!  

Maybe I just needed to grow up?  Or maybe I needed to be a little bit ruined to appreciate the outward expressions of elemental simplicity and purity of emotion in these songs, expressions which mask an underlying complexity that never stops rewarding close listens?  

I never tire of Pet Sounds.  If a song from this radio comes on the radio, I will always turn it up.  I love watching footage of its creation, and movies about its creator, Brian Wilson, the chubbiest and most uncomfortable of all those squares I dismissed as a kid. His creativity and imagination I now bow to.

Among the things that I love about Pet Sounds, which is damn near everything, but here is a short list:

• I love a great band of musicians, a band like The Wrecking Crew, being deployed in the way that they are on these recordings: completely unconventional.  Unconventional in ways that they must have been so surprised by.  I believe that you can hear the wonder of revelation in the performer's takes — they must have marveled at the inventiveness of the parts Brian was suggesting to them.

• The lushness of the vocal harmonies.  There is a beauty, seldom heard much these days on records, of voices blending together in a room before they are captured by a microphone.  These days you just overdub until you have it.  At the time they recorded Pet Sounds, the harmonies were worked out, perfected and then recorded. On Pet Sounds they really show the polish of a band that was at its absolute peak form, the blend and perfected by years of record making and performing and informed by a deep understanding of each voice's role in the whole.  AMAZING!  This is also true about the choices made for who should sing lead on various songs.  How great to have so many voices in one band who could carry a song and shine unique lights of tone on Brian's melodies and Tony Asher's lyrics.  

• And what melodies and lyrics! From the pure pop perfection of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the searching forlornness of “God Only Knows”... it’s just a complete, innocent,  pure expression of a record.

• And as a bass player, I have to say it: the amazing bass playing and note choices.  Whether it's Carol Kaye, or Chuck Berghofer the bass moves were transformational.  As a bass player you can just hear this record changing all the rules.  Even Paul McCartney's playing changed significantly after hearing Pet Sounds.  And with that, all the rest of everybody’s playing changed.  Melodiousness, tonal explorations... the bass players' world became a little less boring with this record.

I could go on.  But instead, why don’t you go and listen?  See if you can imagine much of the music you love best even being conceived without Pet Sounds.  I think I know the answer you’ll find.

John Munson is a bass player in many of your favorite Minnesota bands, including, but not limited to: The Twilight Hours, The New Standards, Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare.

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