When Brian Wilson brought his ten-piece band and 55-piece orchestra to Sunrise October 18, the outstanding performance finally cashed Pet Sounds' postdated paycheck. Though the venue was only half full, the rapturous crowd was half in awe of Wilson, half afraid as he shambled on stage uncertainly like a doddering grandpa searching for his La-Z-Boy. But Wilson's often confused countenance, forced humor, and odd gestures quickly became far less interesting than the evening's blissful smorgasbord of sonics. It's been said that, although hardly anyone bought the Velvet Underground's records, those who did ended up being inspired to start their own bands. In the case of the Beach Boys' 1966 opus Pet Sounds, it's likely that each of its 13 songs inspired its own subset of pop offspring, young whelps whose profiles have never been higher than they are right now.
The 58-year-old Wilson is perched on a mighty high pedestal. Everyone from the Barenaked Ladies (whose song "Brian Wilson" prefaced the Pet Sounds evening) to Low (who had played a solemn, drawn-out "Little Surfer Girl" at its West Palm Beach concert four days earlier) is rushing to grab a bite of his legacy.
Penciling in the connections between Wilson's misunderstood genius and today's bounty of like-minded pop acts started on stage during this leg of the Pet Sounds tour. One of his handpicked band members was Midwesterner Paul Mertens, who shared center stage with Wilson, playing an arsenal of horns, including tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, alto flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet. On adroitly orchestrated passages, Mertens added ecclesiastical strains that more than mirrored the originals, they bettered them.
Mertens is also featured prominently on the new album from the Sea and Cake, a Chicago indie band that has produced five albums since 1994. The buttery-smooth Oui (Thrill Jockey Records) is a gentler, leaner, and mellower progression from early, tropical ventures like Nassau. The Sea and Cake has gradually become a complicated, cerebral pop group, prepared to usher in the odometer rollover of the new century. Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt's guitars are plainspoken and steeped in clarity, and Prekop's voice is billowy and relaxed; by allowing any friction or conflict in the music to evaporate gradually, the Sea and Cake is left with pure, distilled orchestral pop that would make Wilson proud.
Here's where the lineage gets complicated. The Sea and Cake shares a drummer with Tortoise, a jazz-inflected postrock outfit that frequently collaborates with the British experimental popsters of Stereolab. The 'Lab has toured and collaborated with cartoonish German electronic band Mouse on Mars, whose first album contained a heady blip-and-bleep track titled "Die Seele von Brian Wilson (The Soul of Brian Wilson)." And of course, Stereolab has been tapping Sean O'Hagan of England's High Llamas as an auxiliary member. O'Hagan has been adding strings and horns to Stereolab's records for the past several years now, most recently on The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra), where his arrangements often gravitate toward the skewedbossa nova end of the spectrum. (Imagine Milton Nascimento twiddling with the Aphex Twin, and you're not far off.)
But on the new High Llamas album, Buzzle Bee (Drag City), O'Hagan all but channels Wilson, as evinced in such intricately detailed, tiny hallmarks as picture-perfect harmonies on songs like "The Passing Bell," which is resplendent with shimmering xylophones, vibes, theremins, and odd noises floating in and out of the mix. O'Hagan is frequently compared to Wilson, so much so that he was even invited to hang out with the Beach Boys a few years ago in hopes of a possible collaboration.
"I didn't go out of my way to meet Brian, and I wouldn't have wanted to," O'Hagan recently told Bandwidth. "I'm happy enough to have been influenced by Brian Wilson and to still listen to and enjoy the music he made. Plus, Mike Love was pretty much an asshole to me."
O'Hagan opines that the Beach Boys never realized what they had in terms of talent and innovation and may not have understood Pet Sounds' significance until critics validated it for them.
"Europe's much more accepting of radical and experimental ideas. In this country, if you're going to step out of line, you have to really mean it. Mike Love was so absolutely hell-bent on maintaining this image of the Beach Boys -- the sound that was packaged on the radio -- and he was the strongest personality in the band.
"That's why America missed the fact that they were the greatest experimental pop group of all time."
Even greater than the Beatles?
"Yeah, I think so," O'Hagan continues. "John Lennon in the Beatles was totally overrated. I actually like some of McCartney's writing, but the problem is McCartney himself. He writes great tunes and then ruins them with terrible oversentimentality. And he's not weird enough for me."
Wilson comes with a tinge of the strange, but its sentimentality still makes his best work so weepily worthwhile. His performance of Pet Sounds' closing heartbreaker, "Caroline, No," went directly to the core of that tune's rumination of loss, and lumpy throats in Sunrise Musical Theatre were as ubiquitous as sticky floors at the cineplex.
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But of course there was time to frolic in the joyous, AM-radio manna of "Good Vibrations," "Surfin' USA," and the rest of the hit parade. That same fun sunniness can be heard streaming from the Apples in Stereo, a sparkling quintet from Denver whose newest album, The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (spinART Records) owes a huge debt to Wilson's work with Van Dyke Parks on the aborted Smile project. Even though the Apples adhere to a much more garage-bandish aesthetic and can actually come off as quite sloppy, leader Robert Schneider shares Wilson's radar-dish ear, capable of hearing a cluttered symphony in a battered, out-of-tune acoustic guitar. The Apples' sweet harmonies may not be as busily complicated as the Beach Boys', but Schneider is every bit as adept at placing melodica, giddily skipping flutes, cowbell, or trumpet fanfare into the mix as was Wilson.
The Apples are perhaps the most successful thoroughbred in the Elephant 6 stable -- the loose collective of indie-pop acts including Georgia's Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and Neutral Milk Hotel. But the Olivias' new Singles and Beyond (Emperor Norton) displays a passion for pop songcraft -- with a strong lysergic undertow -- that sounds much like what Wilson might be doing if he'd gotten on top of those damn drugs instead of the other way around. It's plenty trippy without losing ground to self-indulgence. Songs like "A Giant Day" showcase the effortlessly tuneful yet deftly warped compositions -- like those found on Pet Sounds.
Orbiting even farther out is Elf Power's newest, The Winter Is Coming (Sugar Free Records), which slides to the psychedelic side of the scale but still retains the carefully measured vocals and preciousness. The high, earnest vocals and patchwork of gorgeously forlorn horns that color the beautiful title track could come from some mythical Atlantis, submerged between Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds.
Just why did Pet Sounds take such a long time to be recognized for the classic piece of American art it is? There's no easy answer, given the album's undeniable emotional impact and crystalline perfection. But 34 years later, Wilson is lucky to be receiving his due before he's dead or forgotten, particularly given his reluctance to wear his gilded crown. In fact, during his recent performance, he acted as if this adulation is something undeserved that's just happening to him -- something he didn't earn. But the new pop crop, carrying on with felicity and grace, is making it harder and harder for him to forget how untrue that is.