Hear the Beach Boys’ Angelic Vocal Harmonies in Four Isolated Tracks from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” & “Good Vibrations”

I didn’t get the Beach Boys for a while. They had pro­vid­ed the sound­track to an alien world, one I knew most­ly from chew­ing gum com­mer­cials. They were “uncool—cornball,” writes Ben Ratliff, “unen­light­ened” pur­vey­ors of “beach priv­i­lege.” The “nar­ra­tors of Beach Boys songs used their time as they liked: amuse­ment parks, surf­ing, drag rac­ing, dat­ing, sit­ting in their rooms.” They had no cares, no real bur­dens, just shal­low sum­mer loves and heartaches. They came off as some of the bland­est, safest-sound­ing peo­ple on earth.

Then, in a puz­zling turn in the nineties, indie artists like Neu­tral Milk Hotel, Jim O’Rourke, and The Sea and Cake began exper­i­ment­ing with the com­plex arrange­ments, odd instru­men­ta­tion, and sun­ny melodies of 60s pop artists like The Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach.

This is music that can seduce us into think­ing it is sim­plis­tic, child­ish, unin­spired vanil­la. Its use as back­ground muzak in super­mar­kets and shop­ping malls con­firms the impres­sion. But crit­i­cal lis­ten­ing explodes it. (Dig the phras­ing in the oth­er­wise sil­ly, Bacharach/Hal David-com­posed “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”)

Yes, it took a retro-hip return to ’60s lounge music, bossa nova, and surf pop for many peo­ple to recon­sid­er the Beach Boys as seri­ous artists. And while the trend became a lit­tle cloy­ing, once I put on the head­phones and gave the rad­i­cal Pet Sounds a few dozen spins, as so many song­writ­ers I admired had gushed about doing, I got it. Of course. Yes. The arrange­ments, and those har­monies…. It isn’t only the tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry, though there’s that. It’s how thor­ough­ly weird those clas­si­cal­ly-inspired arrange­ments are. Per­haps a bet­ter way to put it would be, total­ly coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

What near­ly any oth­er pop arranger would nat­u­ral­ly do with a har­mo­ny or rhythm part—just to get the house in order and show­case more impor­tant “lead” parts—Brian Wil­son almost nev­er does. As the min­i­mal­ist com­pos­er John Adams put it, “more than any oth­er song­writer of that era, Bri­an Wil­son under­stood the val­ue of har­mon­ic sur­prise.” At least in Pet Sounds and the long-unfin­ished “labyrinth of melody” SMiLE, each part of the song sus­tains its own indi­vid­ual inter­est with­out break­ing away from the minia­ture sym­phon­ic whole.

Even with­in the har­monies, there is a strange ten­sion, an off-kil­ter wob­bling as in a machine whose gears are all just a bit off-cen­ter. Instru­ments and voic­es go in and out of key, tem­pos slow and quick­en. The vocal har­monies are angel­ic, but trou­bled, uncer­tain, maudlin, and under­lined with unex­pect­ed inten­si­ty giv­en the innocu­ous­ness of their lyrics. In the iso­lat­ed vocal tracks here for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” and “Good Vibra­tions,” you may catch it, or not. It isn’t fore­bod­ing, exact­ly, but a kind of uneasy recog­ni­tion that the plea­sures these songs cel­e­brate will soon pass away. An Arca­di­an theme in the Cal­i­for­nia pas­toral.

The ten­sion is there in Wilson’s idol Phil Spector’s com­posi­tons as well, but the con­trast is remark­ably greater in Pet Sounds, of long­ing, nos­tal­gia, and youth at its peak. The utopia they imag­ine may only appeal to a spe­cif­ic sub­set of boomer Amer­i­cans, but their intri­cate, melod­i­cal­ly com­plex, yet har­mo­nious­ly appeal­ing sound­world belongs to every­one. As Zack Schon­feld observed in a sad­ly prophet­ic review of Wilson’s Pet Sounds per­for­mance in Brook­lyn last sum­mer, “it is hard to imag­ine mod­ern indie or indie-pop—or pop in general—without Pet Sounds.” (That includes, of course The Bea­t­les, who answered with Sgt. Pep­pers.) “A world with­out Pet Sounds is a fright­en­ing dystopia,” he writes, “like imag­in­ing a world with­out beach­es or one in which Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent.” Maybe as you sit back and lis­ten to the oth­er­world­ly beau­ty of these naked har­monies, think of all those love­ly beach­es we still have left.

via Twist­ed Sifter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter Bri­an Wilson’s Cre­ative Process While Mak­ing The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds 50 Years Ago: A Fly-on-the Wall View

The Mak­ing (and Remak­ing) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Great­est Rock Album of All Time

89 Essen­tial Songs from The Sum­mer of Love: A 50th Anniver­sary Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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