Record #24: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

Were I given to brevity, this post would say one thing.

“This album is perfect.”

However, I am not given to brevity, so I will be expanding that review to varying degrees of verbosity.
This album is perfect because…

Having heard The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson quit touring with the rest of the group to focus on creating the greatest pop album ever. By all accounts, he succeeded. Pet Sounds so far surpasses the easy-going, vapid California-centric music the group had gotten famous for that it’s hard to understand that it’s the same five guys. While the lush harmonies are still present (What would the Beach Boys without their vocal interplay?), there’s less of the ba-bas and doo-wahs, with more emphasis placed on the small orchestra Brian Wilson hired to play on the tracks, to the point where there are two fully instrumental numbers (which are excellent, despite what anyone says).

And where their earlier material rode the waves of West-Coast beach culture and a nation’s desire to party, Pet Sounds finds them diving into personal waters for the first time. There’s a self-doubt that pervades Wilson’s lyrics, even on the love songs (“I may not always love you…” starts God Only Knows). While tracks like I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times and Don’t Talk (Lay Your Head On My Shoulder) are easily identified as sad songs, other, bouncier tracks are a bit more deceptive. Here Today, with its raucous orchestra and delayed bass solo, tricks you into letting the top down and singing along–until you realize he’s warning his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend about what a Jezebel she is. In fact, only Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the cover Sloop John B showcase purely optimistic lyrics; the rest of the songs are more complex, like the ballads You Still Believe In Me and I’m Waiting For The Day. Without exaggeration, this is the saddest happy record I have ever heard.

When all is said and done, The Beach Boys haven’t made too extravagant a statement. None of the songs last much longer than three minutes, nor is there any experimental tinkering in the studio (not to discount the round-about process Wilson used to actually record the album). They simply made a pop record with lush orchestration and wonderful songs. But, it was (and remains) the Greatest Pop Record. 

Record #21: Atlas Sound – Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel (2008)

Bradford Cox is, for lack of a better word, prolific. Not only does he manage to fill the role of primary frontman and guitarist in Deerhunter, he also maintains an equally impressive solo project at the same time.

Between his main band and his Atlas Sound moniker, Cox has released new material every year since 2007. 2008 saw four releases, with Deerhunter’s double-release of Microcastles and Weird Era, Cont., and this LP/EP set.  

​What’s even more remarkable than his great prolificacy is his consistency. Every album released in the past five years has been truly great, even as far as his musical center has traveled in those years. 

With this in mind, it’s just about impossible to talk about Atlas Sound without talking about Deerhunter. Unlike other main band/solo project relationships, there is a constant dialogue between Cox’s full-time job and his hobby.

This album, his first official solo release (he had recorded under this nom-de-plume since he was a teenager) finds him delving once more into the ambient meanderings of Deerhunter’s excellent Cryptograms. But, while that LP featured hazy atmospherics that would recede to punk-tinged pop songs, here those atmospheres serve as the basis of those songs instead of transitional pieces. It’s an incredibly laid back record. When necessary, tape loops and drum machines are called in to add a beat to swirling drone of heavily effected guitar and synth pads that serves as the focal point of most of the songs. 

Cox’s use of his voice supplements the haunting textures. Whether he’s singing single vowels or stretching his words across measures, he takes his time to say what he wants to say, which is unclear–the lyrics are ambiguous and the vocal track is drowned in the mix. Instead, the emphasis is on the wash of sound flowing out of the speakers, and it is an excellent wash of sound, to say the least. 

Another Bedroom EP, included on the vinyl version of the release, is very much in the same vein. However, this time around the wooshing guitars and ambient vocalizations are paired with softly played drums and the occasional acoustic guitar. Unlike most other EPs, the non-lead tracks don’t feel like filler. Rather they are all fully fleshed ideas that flourish in the same way as the single (even the loop-based Spring Break). 

Previous listens to this album (all digital, as I procured the physical copy less than an hour ago) rolled over me like a warm breeze; it was a pleasant experience, but I wasn’t left with too much of substance. This closer listen reveals much to latch onto. It’s a subtly wonderful record that exists in the realm of ambient without falling into the realm of boring. But what is important to remember is that this is primarily a bedroom record–Cox performed, sang, and recorded every sound here himself–and while it maintains certain elements of DIY, the record never forces you to listen through the limitations of the recording process. Instead, it is a beautiful and pleasing affair that I’m certain will become a frequent visitor of my turntable.

Record #19: The Ataris – Blue Skies, Broken Hearts…Next 12 Exits (1999)

​It’s the year 2001. I’m fourteen years old. I wear skating shoes, shorts so long they could be considered baggy capris (except capris haven’t come into fashion yet), and a ball chain choker necklace. My hair is spiked with Elmer’s glue mixed with water.

I’m learning to play the bass guitar, but I’m skateboarding too much to get any real practice in. I’m dating my first girlfriend, until she breaks up with me after five weeks for my best friend, who likes another, older girl what has her driver’s license and a Toyota Tercel.

I like her too.

The whole time, one CD is on repeat in my portable CD player, and my best friend’s boombox, and our older friend’s car stereo…

​Blue Skies and Broken Hearts… by The Ataris.  In a point in my life where all I was listening to was Christian rapcore and Weird Al, The Ataris were a revelation.

“You mean,” I said to myself, “there’s someone who’s felt exactly the same way as I do right now? And he’s in a band?” The marriage of happy pop-punk with adolescent problems written about in an adolescent language was something that the heavy handed wartime language of Christian nu-metal couldn’t offer me.

After buying Blue Skies, my tastes switched from POD and Project 86 to MxPx, Green Day, and, of course, Blink 182. But The Ataris was always the band that spoke to me the most. Kris Roe writes songs with morals. Not like the, “hey, don’t do drugs,” or “don’t make out with everyone you know” morality being spouted by the armies of Christian pop-punk outfits (I listened to most of them, too…Ghoti Hook, Hangnail, Sidewalk Slam…), but a nonreligious, common sense, post-teen-to-teen morality that reads like an older brother putting his arm around a little punk kid and saying things like, “Don’t ever compromise what you believe,” or, “the choices that we make may involve someone else,” or, more importantly in my own life (as I never listened to it until very late in my life, yet it was stuck in my brain), “If you think you found that one that you really love, make sure they love you back.”

Sentiment wins out over poetry, but there’s a real and legitimate pain there–22 at the time of recording, Roe had already broken up with the mother of his daughter, who lived in Indiana while he had moved to California. This experience wears on him, and despite his attempts to keep things teenaged, the pain of being an absent father rears its wounded head on a few of the tracks.

Musically, there’s nothing surprising here. Heavily distorted guitars, 8th note basslines, and a drummer hyped up on Mountain Dew pounding out 4/4 are all par for the course (barring one acoustic rehash of a song from an earlier album). It’s all a bit amateurish, although the lead guitarist flexes his riffwork during the instrumental passages, keeping the wordless moments interesting.

But what is punk if not amateur? Especially when the lyrics are likewise so unpolished. In the end, it’s the sentiments that run through the album, and the punk rock advice column Kris Roe seems to be writing for that gives this record its appeal to the teenage punk kid that still lives inside of me.

And it’s that teenage punk kid inside me that sang along with every. single. word on the first side of the album (the second half never grabbed me as much).

​And it’s the teenage punk kid inside me that made me track down a copy on vinyl as a college student, because every once in a while, you just need to let your inner punk kid have his way.