Category Archives: Album Reviews
Here’s another blast from the past… this review appeared in L.A. RECORD in 2011. Here it is, again, a little cleaned up for a summer camp class I’m going to be helping out with.
BEACH BOYS – THE SMILE SESSIONS BOX SET
In 1966, in the wake of the critical acclaim from the masterpiece Pet Sounds, and coasting on the fame and fortune he’d earned for single-handedly competing with the entire nation of England for two whole years, Brian Wilson boasted to the press that the next Beach Boys album would be better still, grandiose beyond reckoning, as evolved from Pet Sounds as Pet Sounds had been from its predecessor, the goofy Beach Boys Party! album.
Finally on November 1, 2011, we’ll be getting the official, Capitol Records, Mike-and-Al-sanctioned confirmation that he was absolutely right. While Pet Sounds gets the accolades, consistently coming up number one in lists of the greatest albums of all time (Rolling Stone placed it as number 2, below onlySgt. Pepper), it’s now crystal clear that Pet Sounds was supposed to be just the wedge end of a growing block of masterful songwriting and recording genius—yes, the title “genius” is correct, despite what the elder Brian himself claims. Furthermore, it’s obvious from this box set (you can also get the gist of things in a two CD or two album set, though we know our readers will go the full monty on the big version with all the trimmings) that the Smile sessions were NOT written, arranged, and recorded by a paranoid recluse whose mental illness had clouded his judgment—that would come later for Brian. Here, the only thing crazy is how intricate and beautiful the music is. Not only the songs themselves, but the meticulous false starts, the outtakes, the bonus ditties, and even the lighthearted banter with session drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye all show that Brian Wilson was in complete control of a masterful vision from start to near-finish. Done right, Smile could have tossed Pet Sounds around like a tidal wave, and maybe even made the Beatles yearn for yesterday. Though we’ll never know the answer to the mystery of what might have been, this collection gives us our best guess, while at the same time shattering any myths about what was assumed never could be.
You, fair reader, probably know those myths and never believed them, though it’s hard to avoid romancing the Smile saga. To rehash a tale that’s been told to death (and which is covered far better in the box set’s liner notes), Smilemissed its historical moment, big time. Planned to be released after the Beatles’ Revolver and to make good on the promise of the “Good Vibrations” single, Smile instead became unwound and frazzled, hemorrhaging songs and lyric writers and well-wishers as its completion date got pushed further and further into 1967 (lyricist Van Dyke Parks famously amscrayed after one too many terse arguments with Mike Love, a major skeptic of Smile who likely hastened its destruction). When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, an album made by Beach Boys fans that was nonetheless far more abrasive than what the Wilson brothers were working on, it basically beat them to the punch.
And Brian effectively threw in the towel, scrapping all his hard work and instead gathering the Beach Boys together at his house to hastily bang out cheapo versions of the songs meant for Smile (the only true Smile session survivor being “Heroes and Villains”). The results, mostly recorded on the Capitol album Smiley Smile with just a few instruments and carrot-crunches, have their own oddball charm but did nothing to alert the world of Brian’s genius—instead, they seemed to confirm the rumors of Brian’s madness, and stand even now as perhaps the most goofy sounding of all Beach Boys songs (and that’s saying something–these are guys who cut their teeth writing love songs about cars!).
But those who paid attention knew that Brian was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to that unfinished gem of Smile. On record after subsequent record throughout the late 60s and early 70s, some of the best Beach Boys songs lifted their lyrics from Smile snippets (“Mama Says” on Wild Honey) or were outright pieced together from Smile sessions (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” on 20/20, “Surf’s Up” on Surf’s Up). These gave the few remaining Beach Boys fans a taste of the masterpiece that somehow slipped through everybody’s fingers. In the CD era, we got even more treats as bonus tracks and box set extras, with great bootlegs such as the Sea of Tunes Unsurpassed Masters series filling in the rest. Finally, in 2004, a newly refurbished Brian Wilson with a new wife, new band, and new meds got his ass up on stage and took Smile on tour, culminating things with the release of Brian Wilson Presents Smile, its recorded anew in the studio with Wilson’s touring band (mostly made up of the Wondermints) and an assist from Van Dyke Parks himself.
But what about the other Beach Boys? Hearing a finalized running order forSmile was great (it certainly settled a lot of long-standing bets). And the songs were recorded well—in fact, Wilson got the Best Rock Instrumental Grammy that year for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” But the Brian of 2004 was no match for the Brian of old; nor could the Wondermints surpass the original Wilson brothers’ harmonies—not even with an Idol-worthy female singer hitting Carl’s high notes. The original Beach Boys’ vocals, the harmonies that were supposed to guide us through Smile, the kind you can ONLY get from a group of siblings (think of the Bee Gees, or the Chapin Sisters, or the Chambers Brothers, or the Carter Family) were still sitting in the vaults at Capitol. We fans could splice together our own Smiles from those CD bonus tracks and a few brave Pro Tools edits, but Brian had denied us access to the rest, going so far as to say that the original “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” was terrible and would NEVER be unearthed, and might even be destroyed.
Thank GOD that’s not true, and thank GOD for this final mix, which sends the bootleggers running to the hills with crisp and clear recordings that provide plenty of surprises, at least compared to the Smile detritus we’ve heard in the past. The running order is largely the same as what Wilson gave us in 2004, but many of the details are different than what was presented then, including the song titles, which go by the names fashioned by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the get-go rather than what they became after Parks’ renewed participation more recently. And perhaps due to limitations in what the young Beach Boys had laid down on those Capitol sessions (there’s no cheating or re-dos, like Carl Wilson used on the 70s’ “Surf’s Up”), you’ll also hear some Parks lyrics that are different here than on the 2004 version. We’re missing a few good words, such as the megaphone bit on “Holidays,” or the “Maybe not one/maybe you too” lyrics that tied “Wonderful” to “Song for Children” on the 2004 Smile.
Actually, that’s probably my biggest complaint about the “final” Smile, mild as it is: the slightly clumsier connection between songs than what I’m used to in earlier trial mixes of Smile. I’m sure this, too, was a limitation in resources, since in a finished Smile, the piecing-together process would have happened last, and it’s far too late to get the Wrecking Crew back together for a final run-through of the xylophone intro to “Wind Chimes.” But one of the many, many ways that Smile would have been ahead of its time (or at least contemporary with Zappa), and one of the things that was to make it truly symphonic, was the fact that it was more than a collection of songs—it was supposed to be a woven tapestry, where one song became the next gradually. And I can’t help but think that some of this version’s fade-outs and decaying bass lines prevent the full cohesion of the cloth.
But a lack in connections is more than made up for by all the new revelations! Oh my god! In some places, it’s subtle, like in the extra minute of “ba de ba” meat slapping in “Vega-Tables,” or the ridiculously satiating bits of “Cool Cool Water” that show up in the background of “Love to Say Dada.” Other songs, like “Child Is Father of the Man,” contain brand new delicate vocal and instrumental arrangements that almost nobody has ever heard before. If you just put this on in the background while washing dishes and aren’t paying attention to the differences, you might just break a plate at the beauty of the sudden piano break in the middle of “Holiday,” which makes the instrumental sessions from the Pet Sounds era sound like immature stumbles by comparison.
The other four discs of the box set make this comparison even more blunt, proving how much more complex Brian’s arrangements had grown, even when compared to similar session tracks from the Pet Sounds box set. There, though the songs were heartfelt and wistful, many of the arrangements were still largely verse-chorus, the kind like “God Only Knows” that could be recreated in a live setting with minimal changes—just get a concertina player on stage with a banjoist, and let Mike shake a tambourine.
We’re far, far further through the looking glass with Smile! So much is crammed into each song, yet they feel so light! And on some of these sessions, you see that Brian had been even further out there than on the more “finished” tracks, especially on the sessions recorded while the other Beach Boys were still deep into their English tour England in 1966. Some versions of “Vega-Tables” have laughter all the way through them, like a madhouse. And one version of “Heroes and Villains” (track 22 on the first disc, if you want to check it out) is so psychedelic, you’ll drool—certainly this could have made “Tomorrow Never Knows” look like “Yesterday Already Did” if it hadn’t been usurped by the Brit guitar gods, then by Hendrix and the hard rock gang that followed to delegate vocal music to the sidelines.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Smile without some humor. Perhaps my favorite parts of the whole collection are the goofy bits between songs, when Brian and friends pretend that he’s stuck in a microphone or piano, or when you hear Brian in the recording sessions chiding his players into slapping actual chains at just the right velocity to get the desired percussion he needs for a song snippet. Actually, the goofiest part of all is the box set packaging! As though the music and all those sessions wasn’t enough, this gigantic… thing comes with a book, a bunch of photos (er, I mean “lithographs”), and the piece de resistance, a re-rendered Smile “shop” cover that lights up and is in 3D! I guess these are the features that will make the box sex $140 instead of $80? Well, as long as I get my vinyl singles, my vinyl albums, AND my CDs AND all this stuff, I’ll accept the frills and chills as part of the package, like a cigarette after sex.
Too often, history has treated Smile like the fire that Brian Wilson’s bad behavior kicked over, causing the Beach Boys careers to burn out and fade away. So perhaps it’s in some ways fitting that this Smile is the first attempt in a long time to patch things up between the existing Beach Boys—instead of suing each other, as they’ve done so often in the past, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, and Al Jardine came together on this and actually agreed to release this box set of their most celebrated unreleased songs. Maybe they knew it was too important to wait. Despite all the tacky turbans and cynical business decisions Mike Love has used to keep the Beach Boys machine afloat through the years, it’s his gentle voice that makes so many of these songs great: and yes, the final song on here is his “Good Vibrations” with Mike Love vocals and lyrics, and not the original Tony Asher ones as sung by Brian in 2004.
A collection of so many things—themes of Americana, minor key standards, English and Hawaiian languages, the four elements—this final Smile is also a collection that brings the past and present together and makes some sense out of them, somehow. Here’s to not making us wait another ten years—and here’s to the thousand times I’ll be listening to this album, and smiling, in the next month.
Did you know that sometimes I teach kids how to write about music?
It’s true. And the below is a very CLEAN version of a review that originally appeared in L.A. RECORD a few months back. Hope the kids like it!
Dâm-Funk and Snoopzilla
7 Days of Funk
Chuck D once told me, in an interview, that he envied rock ‘n’ roll for allowing artists to become established over time. “In rock and roll, there’s such a thing as classic rock. Bruce Springsteen just performed at the Super Bowl.” Whereas hip-hop has so often been about killing your father, or at least lobbing disses at him, and to the detriment of artists’ long-term popularity. Run DMC, the “Beatles of hip-hop,” built their careers on differentiating themselves from the flashy, Jheri curled party rappers who preceded them. But they no longer sell out arenas: their Def Jam style in turn was eclipsed by Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Miami Bass, New Jack Swing, Gangsta Rap, and on and on, with few artists capable of making the transition from one new trend to the next. With all the riches-to-rags transitions in hip hop’s present-focused past, it’s no wonder Hollywood has become a refuge, almost a retirement home, for people named “Ice” and “LL.”
Snoop Dogg, whose Dre-produced G-funk opuses of the 90s made him the most popular artist in the world and a game-changer in hip-hop’s sound, has never entirely gone away—he’s had Top Ten albums all the way through the 2000s. But he’s struggled to make his gin and juice, Colt 45 everyman’s hip-hop relevant in a world where Jay Z and Kanye drink Patron and donate money to hurricane relief. This album has come on the heels of some fantastic triumphs (e.g. his Coachella appearance with Dre was great fun, regardless of holograms) and the misstep (or glorious Neil Young-style triumph, depending on your view) of his Snoop Lion reggae album. At its best, 7 Days of Funk combines the creative joy of the latter with the smarts of the former.
I think it might actually have been at Coachella that Snoop, now “Snoopzilla,” was first sighted in a Dâm-Funk audience, taking in the latter’s keytar-clad boogie rock performance wide-eyed as tens of thousands of scantily-clad rock and rollers embraced the boogie. Really no one, not even Peanut Butter Wolf, has done as much to evangelize the history of obscure flavors of funk as has Dâm-Funk. It’s smart of Snoop to recognize that in Dâm-Funk, he could have a potentially powerful ally like no other, someone both cutting-edge and funky as hell, with indie cred and a foot in a whole new scene that could lend Snoop some much-needed hipness points. And it’s magnanimous of Dâm to put his own thing aside and really engage with a project to help make one of the greatest rap artists of our lifetimes blossom with a newfound vivaciousness.
Snoop has said that he considers 7 Days of Funk itself to be a group, and not a Snoop solo album. But Dâm-Funk plays it like a producer. Rather than make Snoopzilla into a boogie funk monster pastiched from all Dâm’s favorite eras of funky music, he does what Rick Rubin might do to Johnny Cash or Donovan: he adds some amazingness, but generally plays to Snoop’s strengths, bringing freshness to a sound that people who are already fans might recognize and enjoy.
In Snoop’s case, that means G-Funk, which basically means P-Funk, including an appearance by Bootsy Collins himself on the first track. But listen closely and you’ll hear that the funk is a little more robotized than what we might have heard in the 90s, a little more Uncle Jam than Mothership, with some bonus whiffs of Zapp or Cameo or Rick James. Some critics have already been attacking Dâm-Funk’s thin synth chords here and there, as if they are somehow indicative of “cheap production.” But those who know the funk can recognize authenticity when they hear it! This is not only the keyboard sound of classic 80s R&B, but the sound of now, of Thundercat and Flying Lotus and, heck, any one of dozens of indie rock bands who now brandish the keytar unironically. When Dâm-Funk pairs that key sound with the occasional Prince-y, almost Robert Fripp-esque guitar explosion in the background, you get a friction that’s sensual with a hint of sleaze. I’m sure Dâm-Funk has hundreds of records he’s actually referencing, but it makes me think of the sexy ballads by electro innovators Egyptian Lover, Cybotron, or more recently, Squarepusher’s amazing Shobaleader One project.
But again, that’s not to say that this album feels like a grand experiment for Snoop, at least not musically: his seemingly effortless but complex rhymes, and the deep gangsta bass, if anything, hearken back more to his classic 90s works than some of his late 2000s albums. And of course, Tha Dogg Pound jumps in here and there. Kurupt seems a little confused on “Ride,” where he pops in with a bizarre four-line ramble only to have Snoop swoop down and crush him with one hand tied behind his back. But the combo is perfect on the bonus track “Systematic,” which showcases them rhyming like old friends over a heavily synthed-out tune that feels more “Dâm-Funk” than the regular album tracks.
The album is so deliciously funky that it took me a whole listen before I realized that “holy crap, Snoop is really singing on this thing!” Again, theoretically that’s not a radical departure for Snoop, who has always thrown in some soulful falsetto right into his rhymes: just think of how he lamented about other rappers stealing his flow in “Doggy Dogg World.” But on songs like “Let It Go,” Snoop’s really going for it, with not a hint of irony, just a little personal naked beauty in amongst the grooves.
Again, some of my fellow critics have lambasted him for exceeding his voice’s grasp, and he definitely is not belting it out like Smokey or Curtis Mayfield. But some of the most soulful singers of the 70s and 80s had limited ranges that they did a lot with, from Gil Scott-Heron and Shuggie Otis to Vanity and Janet Jackson, and when Snoop croons in conjunction with Dâm’s amazing production (sure, there’s pitch correction, but it sounds awesome, like a Vocoder), I find it charming rather than cloying. Like Stephen Colbert’s sing-alongs on the Colbert Report, at least Snoop is bringing ringers like Steve Arrington of Slave to join him. And unlike Colbert, he knows to turn himself down and turn them up when it’s their turn to shine.
If you’re more of a Dâm-Funk fan than a Snoop fan, and were hoping for a little more Dâm-Funk flavor than is present here, you should definitely check out the collaboration between Arrington and Dâm-Funk that came out on Stones Throw half a year ago. In a way, that one shows more love on the tracks than here, where Dâm is showing a little more restraint. But Arrington’s appearance here, on the track “1Question?” is not to be missed: it’s a joyous opportunity for Snoop to come full circle and celebrate Arrington’s music on its own terms, not folding Arrington’s samples into his own G-Funk as he did so often back in the day, but kind of meeting Arrington on his own terms, or at least the neutral turf of Dâm-Funk’s production.
Actually, I’ve just got “1Question?” to ask Snoop, which is, how do you think your audience is going to respond to this album? Let’s talk units. Will this track “bang in the club,” as you rhyme in “Do My Thang,” shortly before the alien voice comes in to deliver a Parliament-esque message of positive affirmation about being yourself during the bridge?
The album, at seven-eight songs depending on which packaging you go for, is pretty short, well under 40 minutes. Snoop has said in interviews that this was to make us “want more.” And I do. But I worry. A part of me thinks, hopes, expects that modern audiences will see this for the funky, laid-back jam that it is and that it’ll be another game-changer as big as Doggystyle, and that once promotion and word of mouth and distribution kick in, it’ll eventually go Platinum. But the cynical part of me, the part of me that watched Run DMC fade away to obscurity, worries that this original collaboration with a unique producer on an independent label might not sit as well with the same Snoop Dogg fan base that cheered him on for dancing around with the ghost of Tupac Shakur as he and Dre did quick medleys of all their hits on the Coachella stage.
Then again, that same Coachella audience also went crazy for Dâm-Funk, and that was less than a year ago—surely those tens of thousands of fans wouldn’t want to miss out on seeing both their heroes together? No matter how the album is received, Snoop, Snoopzilla, hear me out: I implore you, don’t give up on this personal and very funky reinvention. I have a feeling that both Dâm-Funk and you have a lot more ideas and concepts up their sleeves, and this record, as good and fun as it is, doesn’t even scratch the surface of what you’re capable of together.
Maybe Chuck D was right. Maybe there’s no way for rappers to grow old gracefully, like the rockers of old. But why try to be Crosby, Stills, and Nash? With 7 Days of Funk, you’re well on your way to being rap’s Neil Young.
Check out my reviews of the Groms and Dum Dum Girls and the Snoop Dog/Dâm-Funk collaboration known as 7 Days of Funk.
It’s a good album! Check it out here.
I’m an old-school fan of punk rock. Like, Lenny Kaye/Lester Bangs “punk.” The Troggs. The Seeds. Big-browed, primitive caveman ugga-bugga rock.
So guys (and I’m talking to you, Mountain Cult), when I say the word “retarded,” I mean it with the utmost praise. I love it. The album. I love the album. And also retardation.
There are many quality album reviewers on L.A. RECORD, not just me, and you should check them all out here.
Of the ones I wrote recently, I’m particularly proud of Normandie Wilson, Restavrant, C.R.A.S.H., and the Quick. Michelle Suarez of C.R.A.S.H. once complimented me on my review of Mika Miko’s album when she was still in that band, saying something to the effect of “This is the one I’m going to show my grandkids!” I’m still chasing that kind of praise for my work today.