Saturday, March 31, 2012

The double failure of "Double Fantasy"

A few weeks back, I snark-tweeted this: "The 'Double Fantasy' experience: listen, skip, listen, skip, listen, skip...." It drew more responses than any of my previous tweets, and all of them were positive. One might say it touched a chord. For those unfamiliar with Double Fantasy - the last album John Lennon released while he was alive - it's a chronicle of family life at the Dakota that's divided up between songs by John and songs by Yoko. I bet you can guess which half most people prefer.

Yet my tweet doesn't tell the whole story. The more uncomfortable truth about Double Fantasy is that, while John's half is certainly far better than Yoko's, it doesn't stand tall on its own. Coming after a five-year period of retirement that found John immersed in fatherhood, Double Fantasy shows the ex-Beatle like we'd rarely encountered him before: content, taking it easy, and basking in snug domesticity (see "Cleanup Time" and "Watching the Wheels"). We can be thankful that he obtained peace at the end of his life - it's the silver lining of the album's legacy - even while acknowledging that, for the purposes of songwriting, contentment doesn't suit John Lennon. With nothing to push back against - no defiance to express, no stinging self-criticism to let loose - John doesn't sound like himself. He sounds out of place, and he sounds bored. And it translates into an album of tuneful but bloodless, bland dad-rock. Because of the broader context of marital happiness, "I'm Losing You" has no teeth; "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" is more cute than genuinely affecting; and "Dear Yoko" feels redundant, with the similarly-themed (and much superior) "Woman" just two spots in front of it. Essentially, it's all downhill after the opener, "(Just Like) Starting Over," which is a joyous little bundle of jittery, throwback rock.

I feel bad voicing these negative opinions. For reasons that should be obvious, I want to like Double Fantasy. But one shouldn't let their view of the album be influenced by the circumstances under which it was made or by the tragic event that came on the heels of its release. This is clearly what happened with Rolling Stone (read: Jann Wenner), which has been sentimentalizing and defending Double Fantasy so unconvincingly for years. More subtly, one shouldn't mistake the relief they experience when getting passed Yoko's contributions (which range from silly to execrable) for actually hearing John in top form. Or even good form.

I'll close on a positive note: 2010's Double Fantasy Stripped Down (think Let It Be... Naked) is an improvement on the over-produced original.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Brian Wilson, "Rubber Soul," and the '60s

I listened to Rubber Soul, and I said how could they possibly make an album where the songs all sound like they come from the same place. I couldn't deal with it. It blew my mind. And I said, damn it, I've got to do that. I've got to try that with the boys. - Brian Wilson

This quote comes from The Beach Boys and the Satan, a weird, poorly-named, yet interesting documentary that I recently watched. The eye-catching title is meant to convey both the good and the bad of what California represented as a pop culture idea in the 1960s. It started on a positive note: the Beach Boys were avatars of California fun, exporting sunny, innocent West Coast pleasure to the world and becoming hugely popular in the process. But much of that innocence was gone by the end of the decade. The hippie movement, once a source of "good vibrations" (kind of... arguably... according to some), had devolved into drugged-out, violent disorder, with the Manson murders serving as the death knell.

It’s an intriguing premise, but the film doesn't flesh it out. With a running time of only 50-odd minutes, there isn’t enough space for a full, coherent narrative to emerge from the two strands. The part about Charles Manson feels shoehorned in. Yes, he was an acquaintance of Dennis Wilson’s, but that’s incidental.

More than anything, The Beach Boys and the Satan functions as a psychological profile of Brian Wilson. The interviews with him - to no surprise - are the real draw (along with other cool footage of the Beach Boys). He’s so sincere and forthcoming; memorable moments abound. He talks candidly about his abusive father and admits that writing songs was, in part, an attempt to compensate for the lack of love in his life. He also addresses his drug use, at one point saying that he sometimes didn’t know if he was in a dream, tripping on acid, or just listening to a Phil Spector record. Elsewhere, he confesses to having been painfully intimidated by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In general, Brian was (and likely remains) very insecure. Combined with his substance abuse, it led to crippling anxiety.

We should all be thankful that Brian’s anxiety didn’t overwhelm him before he could make Pet Sounds. As the quote above indicates, Brian was capable of using competition to push himself obsessively to greater heights. It's a critical part of the story with Pet Sounds.

Lastly, one other point about The Beatles and the Beach Boys. I can’t remember his name, but one musician interviewed in the documentary sets up an insightful contrast between the creative environments of the two bands. As he puts it, The Beatles had two pop geniuses who collaborated and fed off one another; a producer in George Martin who maximized their talent; and a record label that, more or less, gave them full support. In sharp distinction, Brian was the lone innovator in the Beach Boys; he doubled as their producer; and he was often discouraged by Capitol Records (and Mike Love) from writing the kind of personal and complex songs that ended up on Pet Sounds and Smile. How much more might Brian have accomplished had he enjoyed The Beatles’ advantages?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My favorite Beatles song right now

The honor goes to pleasant and perky, harmonica-driven "I Should Have Known Better," the second track off A Hard Day's Night. What elevates it from good to great is John's vocal on the bridge. In a Roy Orbison-like fashion, it seems to keep unfurling, never settling on a firm melody but always flowing smoothly. Moments like it were the small, unheralded building blocks of The Beatles' greatness.

"I Should Have Known Better":

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Great non-Beatles song...

... with a random Beatles reference. At least I think it's a Beatles reference. The lyric that David Bowie wrote for "Life on Mars?" is famously cryptic. As such, context doesn't help you determine whether he sings, "Lennon's on sale again" or "Lenin's on sale again." For the purposes of this post, we'll go with the former. And what a song "Life on Mars?" is. Anthemic, impassioned, and laced with obscurities ("Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow"), the Hunky Dory cut transports listeners to a far-off yet intimate place. As British pop critic Neil McCormick wrote when he declared "Life on Mars?" the greatest song of all time:

A quite gloriously strange anthem, where the combination of stirring, yearning melody and vivid, poetic imagery manage a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience. And, like all great songs, it's got a lovely tune.

"Life on Mars?":

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Paul on "Pet Sounds"

It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life ... I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it may be going overboard to say it's the classic of the century ... but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I've often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John [Lennon] so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines ... and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. "God Only Knows" is a big favourite of mine ... very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On "You Still Believe in Me", I love that melody - that kills me ... that's my favourite, I think ... it's so beautiful right at the end ... comes surging back in these multi-coloured harmonies ... sends shivers up my spine. (Wikipedia)

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Such magical sounds"

An album that was both inspired by Rubber Soul and part of the motivation for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is always going to be relevant on this blog. On a personal note, this same album is among my favorites. It's one of the few collections of pop music that I consider nourishing to the soul. Indeed, I usually don't go three or four months without dipping into Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' landmark psychedelic-pop release of 1966. I did so again last week with the intention of recording some thoughts and observations. Pet Sounds is an album one should not just know, but know intimately. It's a way of returning the favor to Brian Wilson for how revealing he is on these thirteen tracks.

A perfection-crazed auteur even at age 23 (23!) when he started the project, Brian has said that the music of Pet Sounds - marked by warm, wistful, whimsical soundscapes; the colorful and complex meeting point of Phil Spector, baroque, and found objects - is actually more personal than the lyrical content. Part of his ambition with the album was to almost make lyrics unnecessary. Using the studio as one of his exotic instruments, he wanted the music to be able to communicate on its own the outlines of his emotional existence. He dubbed it "feeling-music." This is one of the album's great triumphs: Through the sonics alone you encounter not only Brian the tortured sound architect, but also Brian the gentle dreamer, Brian the fragile soul, and Brian the earnest romantic. You could say that Pet Sounds is a musical portrait of Brian Wilson's inner life.

This portrait is fleshed out and made more immediate by the lyrics, which Brian mostly co-wrote with Tony Asher, an ad copywriter whom he barely knew before they collaborated. Asher has said he served as his counterpart's interpreter and helped give narrative life to the emotions conveyed by the music. What resulted was a moving and resonant account of human frailty. There's callow longing for adulthood ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"); strongly-implied boyish indiscretion ("You Still Believe in Me"); isolation ("I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"); and heartbreak ("Caroline, No"). All of it shows Brian, a man of deep vulnerability, struggling to retain what he considers his innocence. At times, he pines for a youth that he's doubtlessly romanticizing, and elsewhere he looks ahead to the future with both trepidation and excitement. He wants the comfort and stability of love without the inevitable complications. He may sound naive, but the spellbinding sincerity of his appeals is what matters. That voice could never tell a lie, right?

Brian's voice and those of the other Beach Boys made the band, and their vocal arrangements on Pet Sounds supply much of its beauty. The harmonies are exquisite; the way different parts weave in and out of each other - rising and falling, fading in and then dissolving - displays a beautiful kind of mathematical perfection; and the contrast between Brian's elegant higher pitch and Mike Love's nasal delivery works as well as it ever did. And then there's Carl Wilson's stirring, heaven-sent performance on "God Only Knows" (once Macca's choice for his favorite song of all time; not sure if this remains true). It was supposed to be Brian's vocal, but he eventually concluded that Carl's voice was better suited to the material. The decision, so unselfish, was handsomely rewarded.

Lastly, I can't resist highlighting some of my favorite moments from the album. There are many. I love the booming drumbeat that sets "Wouldn't It Be Nice" into motion; I love the way Brian sings "I kiss your lips when your face looks sad" on "I'm Waiting for the Day" - it's with such determined affection; I love the baritone saxophone that chugs through the end of "Sloop John B"; (And what's really happening in that song, anyway? Such a prosaic story - and the thematic outlier of the bunch - and yet so full of tension and urgency.) I love the line "I may not always love you" for what it really is: the biggest bluff in all of pop music; I love the weird instrumental break on "Here Today"; and I love everything about "Caroline, No," a song of dreamy, slow-moving heartbreak that should be a mainstream pop classic but isn't. It's the Beach Boys' "She's Leaving Home."

One hopes that Brian Wilson knows just how much Pet Sounds means to so many people. It's an album we love, and it seems to love us right back. Achieving a perfection of sound, it wasn't just a giant leap forward for the Beach Boys; it was a giant leap forward for all of pop music. Its influence is vast. Who knows: Without it, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may never have happened, and then where would pop music be today?

*The quote in the title comes from Elton John.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"...the problem with the Great American Songbook albums"

This Slate article is worth your time: "Why do Great American Songbook albums by pop artists so often disappoint?"

Kisses On The Bottom, like just about everything else Paul McCartney has ever done, is marked by a game, high-spirited optimism that's pretty hard to hate. A few of the songs on it—like his lilting and graceful "More I Cannot Wish You," from Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls—are truly beautiful, offering ample proof that Macca's own remarkable body of work is as firmly rooted in classic, pre-rock pop as it is in Little Richard and everything that came afterward. But even he can't escape the curse that befalls so many of these respectful, well-intentioned projects. It's the curse of pleasantness, of innocuousness, of valedictory tribute. It threatens to turn the best songs ever written into easily forgettable ditties. Thankfully, these songs are also the most durable—they're "standards," after all—and will always be a good deal stronger than their weakest renditions. They can't take that away from us.

Word of the day: prelapsarian ("characteristic of or belonging to the time or state before the fall of humankind").