Autobiographical Order No. 257: Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

I don’t cry when I see live music. I don’t really cry much in general—it’s not that I’m emotionally unaffected by performances or art. Quite the contrary. But in the setting of a live performance, I’m more likely to be caught up by the adrenaline, or just rocking out or something—most of the bands I see are pretty loud, so that has a lot to do with it. But there have been two moments in recent history where I could feel the lump in my throat growing. One was Neutral Milk Hotel, which caught me a little off guard, admittedly. And the other was Brian Wilson, performing Pet Sounds.

I have a long history with Pet Sounds, and while at some point in my youth I might have underrated the album to a naive, contrarian degree, I’m here to say it’s a masterpiece. It’s worth all of the acclaim—all of it. Because it’s a simply breathtaking and emotionally vulnerable piece of music that somehow still perfects the pop song. In fact, while I’ll readily admit that The Beatles’ catalog is stronger on the whole than the Beach Boys’, I like Pet Sounds more than any Beatles album. (I know I’ve said something to this effect before, but with Pet Sounds it goes well beyond mere hyperbole or mood-based preference.)

I first got into Pet Sounds in college. The album was almost a soundtrack of sorts to my college years, simply because it was a source of bonding between me and many of my friends. When I was assistant arts editor at the Daily Aztec, we took a field trip to recreate the cover photo at the San Diego Zoo (which is where it was originally taken, btw). We had debates over the best song on the album, which is a debate that I continue to have with people (from a place of love of the album, naturally). I’m generally of the opinion that people who think “Sloop John B” is the worst song don’t know what they’re talking about, but everything here is perfect, so it doesn’t matter.

My own personal favorite is “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” because it’s just gorgeous, and every time I listen to it, I hear something new. It was also featured in an episode of Mad Men that might be my favorite use of pop music in a TV show. Roger Stirling takes acid and the sequence that follows is a beautifully shot piece of surrealism that lines up perfectly with the song.

But there are so many other songs that resonate with me. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” is such a tender song that it gives me goosebumps. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was my favorite for a long time because it’s such a perfectly bittersweet pop song. It sounds so hopeful, but there’s more than a twinge of hopelessness to it. “You Still Believe In Me” is another that balances sweetness with despair, and it’s a song I admit to relating to more than I’m comfortable with. I’m not someone that struggles with depression or anxiety to the degree that it prevents me from being able to function, but I have my moments of self-doubt, insecurity and sadness—one just a couple nights ago that kind of sent me to a bad place. In fact, I went out to see a show that night and it was weird, since I was feeling so antisocial—to the point I didn’t actually talk to some of my friends who were there, but you know, sometimes you just need your space. But I hear Brian Wilson express these feelings, and it makes me feel more human. Here’s this musical genius, someone who changed the course of musical history, and he struggled with mental health issues (which were sadly taken advantage of by predatory people in his life). Much like Wilson expresses in the song, though, I have a supportive and patient partner in my life who keeps me from feeling that way for long. (Side note: Back around 2000 or so, Q Magazine put this on a list of essential “male angst” albums, which…UGH, c’mon.)

And then there’s “God Only Knows.” When Wilson performed this song on his Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour in 2016, I almost couldn’t hold back the waterworks. Even listening to it on vinyl gives me a lump in my throat. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

There’s a stereotype of Pet Sounds as the sort of quintessential critics’ record, and there’s a funny anecdote from college that kind of reminds me of why that is. In Economics class (in which I fared pretty poorly), there was a guy in his forties seated behind a doofy frat boy, and for some reason they got to talking about music. The older guy was talking about how he loved the Stooges and Iggy Pop and Bowie and T. Rex and all manner of essential rock stuff from the ’70s. In other words, he had good taste. So the frat boy says “Do you like the Beach Boys?”, to which the other guy says “Oh yeah! Pet Sounds is one of my all-time favorite albums!” And the frat kid says “Never heard of it.” Then an awkward silence.

Pet Sounds isn’t necessarily like The Bodyguard Soundtrack—it’s not in everyone’s collection. But its reputation is a large one. In fact, I only bought this on vinyl a couple years ago, and a friend of mine, who is a musician for what it’s worth, said “Even *I* have that one.” I do, too. Perhaps a bit later than it should have been. But it’s one whose music is a part of my life, whether it’s in every format I need it to be or not.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great


Autobiographical Order No. 256: Real Estate – Atlas

I don’t know if I’m typical, but I find I tend to go through small personal changes on a pretty rapid basis. My tastes are constantly evolving, and I sometimes find myself in a very different place a couple years later. In 2014, for instance, I seem to have been in a position where I needed to consume more indie pop than usual. I don’t know why—I have a pretty low threshold for indie pop and most of the time I get super bored with it. But whatever the reason, that’s where I was personally, and had to get a couple of Real Estate albums on vinyl.

Don’t get me wrong, Real Estate have some really good albums, and I enjoy listening to them. But I probably wouldn’t be in any rush to go out and get them if I didn’t already have them . Particularly Atlas, which was just out when I picked it up. It’s a lovely album, of course, with lots of shimmering, easy to love guitar work. And again, I do very much like this album. But it’s also not one that’s easy to get really excited about. Maybe it’s because I saw them live at FYF Fest in 2014 and they were sorta boring. Or maybe it’s because former member Matt Mondanile turned out to be a major creep. But whatever the case, I definitely don’t have the same craving for Real Estate’s music that I once did.

And that’s fine. When I put it on, I still enjoy it. That’s all that matters.

Autobiographical Order No. 255: Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers

In my many years of having drunken talks with people about music, there have been a few artists that people just won’t shut up about, for better or for worse. One is Pearl Jam, which I just don’t get—they’re an OK rock band, but that’s as far as I get. Another is Tool, and boy do those people not take “meh” for an answer. Another is Kanye West, who I kind of love and hate in equal measure (I’m still going on record as saying Yeezus is a mediocre album with some flashy tricks—and if anyone else made the same record, everyone would agree with me). But the band that seems to bring about the most intense levels of fawning adoration and obsession, it’s the Rolling Stones.

I’ll just go ahead and say this: They earned it. The Rolling Stones are one of the most important bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so hey, I get that people have some intense feelings about them. (And Aftermath was one of the first records I ever bought.) That being said, I’ve been in conversations about the band that I wanted to end sooner than they did. There was one instance in which the husband of my wife’s former co-worker spent an entire three-hour dinner mansplaining the band to me, which got old super fast. I can hang with someone who’s just straight-up enthusiastic about something, because I’m the same way. But he said everything as if it was objective truth, and whether or not I had anything to say about the matter wasn’t of any consequence.

Another instance occurred with a former boss of mine who seemed to want to steer my editorial decisions toward covering the Rolling Stones in some way, which also seemed odd to me. Though admittedly, I listened to a good chunk of the show at Petco Park from the adjacent balcony bar Fairweather, and it was pretty fun! One of the songs they played was “Bitch,” one of ten perfect tracks on their all-time classic album Sticky Fingers.

Everyone’s got their favorite Stones album, and this one is mine. It’s not necessarily their most experimental, nor their most P.C. (a song like “Brown Sugar” was probably pretty controversial in its day, but would be today as well for entirely different reasons). But damned if it’s not loaded with classics. “Sister Morphine,” “Moonlight Mile,” and by god, “Wild Horses,” a song that always gets me feeling some feelings. (Some of that could also be due to hearing the Sundays’ cover of the song on the prom episode of Buffy and… you know what? I’ll stop here.)

So look, I totally get why people won’t shut up about The Rolling Stones, even if their catalog is neither perfect nor much to write home about after the ’70s or so. They made rock ‘n’ roll what it is, and that’s also why I didn’t hesitate to pick up this used copy I found at M Theory. So go ahead and talk to me about the Rolling Stones, but for god’s sake don’t be obnoxious about it.

(Bonus: My copy has one of the working zippers — I know millions of those exist, but still, nifty!)

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 254: Prince – 1999

“Mommy…why’s everybody got a bomb?”

Back when I was in high school, I must have heard “1999” about a thousand times. Why? Because I went to high school in 1999, obviously. So naturally it was played at dances and pep rallies and whatever else. And you probably did to. It’s kind of a gimme.

But it also took on a sort of sinister tone, as there was some pre-millennium anxiety running rampant, what with the Y2K scare and doomsday predictions coming out of the woodwork. And, naturally, “1999” is about the end of the world. It’s the funkiest, sexiest song about doomsday ever written, but still, it’s about the endtimes.

Listening to it today, I get a sense of comfort, in a way. Released in 1982, “1999” reflected anxieties about a nuclear holocaust brought about through Cold War conflicts between the U.S. and the then-USSR. And this wasn’t the first time Prince alluded to the Cold War. 1981’s Controversy had a song called “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” And Dirty Mind, from a year before, ended with a song called “Partyup” in which Prince chants, “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war/ ‘Cause we don’t wanna fight no more.” So, clearly this was something that was on his mind a lot.

It’s kind of on all of our minds right now, since our president is an irresponsible man-child with no impulse control and a penchant for baiting nuclear-armed countries into Twitter battles. It’s…unsettling. But hey, it’s also not the first time we’ve been in this weird position, even if before the situation was a bit different.

Prince’s solution, naturally, is to say “hey, we’re gonna die, might as well party.” And 1999 is equal parts party and mortality. It’s in a sense where the whole complex Prince figure comes together into one cohesive whole. There’s a lot of sex. To the contrary, some religion too. And there’s a lot of doomsday anxiety. Most of all, though, there’s a lot of funk. Synth-heavy funk at that. If you can’t dance to these songs, you are definitely doing it wrong. In fact, “DMSR” (which stands for Dance Music Sex Romance) is one of my favorite songs to play when I DJ. So. Damn. Funky.

In fact, pretty much every song here is outstanding. The whole first side—”1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious”—is all hits. So yeah, there are worse ways to spend the endtimes than listening to 1999.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 253: Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model

I’m not a drummer, but one of the things that really makes or breaks an album is the drums. They don’t necessarily have to be live drums—a really good break in a hip-hop track or the incessant pounding of Roland on Big Black albums will do just fine. But if the drums don’t hook me, then I probably won’t be won over as easily (notable exception being ambient or acoustic records). For instance: In a highly unpopular opinion, I tend to like the Cobra Verde period of Guided by Voices better than the early lo-fi stuff, because they sound like a real rock band rather than a set of demos. Because drums (and guitar solos, but you know, that’s just icing on the cake).

One of my all-time favorite albums for drums is Elvis Costello’s sophomore album, This Year’s Model. I know I’m supposed to talk about Costello’s lyrics (which are great) or the whole angry-young-man thing or whatever, but I’m mostly stoked on this album because of how hard it hits. It’s a punk album, even more than Costello’s excellent debut album, My Aim Is True (which my dude Paul wrote a really good thing about here), and that has a lot to do with the band, The Attractions, who make their first appearance here.

Pete Thomas, the Attractions’ drummer, is a monster. The man has 17 limbs and just bashes the shit out of his drums, and does so with both speed and intensity—and precision too, for that matter. On the leadoff track, “No Action,” he’s essentially playing a long string of fills. It’s just one moment of showmanship after another, and I cling to every last beat.

The songwriting is, of course, fantastic. This is a 10 out of 10 album (see below) and there’s no song that isn’t excellent, really. But weirdly enough I have the U.S. tracklist version of the album. I’ve written about this before, how certain albums once upon a time were released in somewhat different form in different countries. My version has 11 tracks instead of the original 12. The closing track, “Night Rally,” is removed, possibly because of its imagery that compares a popular British political movement at the time to Nazis. That could also be because U.S. audiences might not necessarily have gotten it, so to speak. It’s replaced with “Radio, Radio,” a classic non-album single that he wasn’t supposed to play on SNL. It’s a fair trade.

The one song missing that does bum me out a little is “(I Don’t Want To Go to) Chelsea,” which ALSO has some kickass Pete Thomas drums—which is interesting because there’s a sort of reggae rhythm behind it, a style of music that doesn’t lend itself well to rampaging punk drums. But then again, Thomas finds a way. I recommend the next time anyone listens to this record to just focus on what’s happening rhythmically. Puts the album in a whole new light.

(Side note: Album purchased at Record City for $6, which seems surprisingly low, though the sleeve is fairly worn. Still, didn’t think twice about it.)

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 252: The Cure – Happily Ever After

The Cure is one of the greatest bands of all-time. This isn’t an opinion, it’s indisputable fact. They’re amazing, and there’s really no acceptable retort. Other than that maybe they haven’t released a good album in 18 years, but to be fair, they’ve only released two since 2000’s Bloodflowers.

If I’m being totally honest, though, I owe much of my Cure fandom to my wife. When I met her, we were teenagers, and like any good goth teenager, she was a massive Cure fan. Still is, of course, two decades later. And while I, to some degree, liked The Cure when we met, thanks to my siblings introducing me to them long ago (I had a mixtape with “Close to Me” on it, most definitely), I don’t think I really realized how innovative and versatile a band they were until she introduced me to some of their early material. She made me a cassette of their first three albums when we were, I wanna say, 17? And it was eye-opening. Both albums are so starkly produced, so cold, so dark and isolated sounding. But they’re also so fucking cool. Faith is one of the most goth albums of all time. It has a song called “All Cats Are Grey”! (!!!) But it also has “Primary,” which is simply one of the most badass post-punk songs I know. Seventeen Seconds, meanwhile, is half mood pieces and half proto-goth jams, like “A Forest”— a strong contender for The Cure’s best song.

There aren’t really any bad albums between Three Imaginary Boys and Wish, though The Top is kind of weird. But good weird. (Here’s my write-up on that from way back—and yeah, the LP was my wife’s before we combined our collections.) However, the era of the band that I usually gravitate toward is their earlier post-punk material. Seventeen Seconds and Faith aren’t generally named as anyone’s absolute favorite Cure album, since Pornography and Disintegration exist (which are both perfect—perfect!). But these are damn close, to the point that I’d say they’re criminally underrated. As much as can be said of one of the most iconic bands of the past 40 years.

Now, sometime in early 2014 I started participating in those social media record-a-day challenges, in which one day was dedicated to a single artist’s collection. Naturally, I went with The Cure, since my wife had so many weird rare 12-inches and such, in addition to a handful of full-length albums. But it occurred to me that there were so many other albums we needed to fill out the collection with, so I started mining Discogs and used bins for other albums. This interesting Cure-iosity (groan) was a must-buy, partially because it was less expensive than buying both Faith and Seventeen Seconds separately. See, in 1982, A&M Records compiled the two albums together in one two-LP set for American release, as they hadn’t been issued in the U.S. before that, for reasons I’m not totally clear on. Possibly because of not having a U.S. distribution deal until then, though who even knows. The industry is strange.

No new copies of Happily Ever After exist—also, by the way, ironic name for a Cure release, no?—but it was an interesting compilation while it was being released. Both albums are must-hear LPs, and they’ve been reissued in the past couple years, so if you see this, pick it up, but if you see the studio albums on their own, definitely get them. They’re a couple of my favorites, and it’s all thanks to a cool girl I met in high school.

Rating: 9.3 (Seventeen Seconds)/ 9.6 (Faith)

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 251: Bill Callahan – Dream River

It took me a while to get Bill Callahan. My introduction to the singer/songwriter (once known as Smog) was through Cat Power, whose cover of “Bathysphere” is a great example of how to do a cover right. (Cat Power has a lot of those.) But when I listened to Smog’s Julius Caesar, it was hard to wrap my head around it. The album was weird and disjointed, lo-fi and all over the place. I could definitely hear something very cool in it, but it was still somewhat elusive.

It wasn’t until I ended up hearing 1999’s Knock Knock that I fully got Smog, and that was sometime around 2008. That album, however, was more accessible, more hi-fi, more “pop,” you could say. Eventually, Callahan began recording under his own name, and things changed a little. His songs didn’t lose their sense of unpredictability or playfulness, or even weirdness. But he sort of evolved into a kind of classic American songwriting ideal, like Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen (who is Canadian, but that’s still North America). His 2011 album America caught my interest, but it wasn’t until 2013’s Dream River that I began to regard Callahan as the kind of songwriter who frankly belonged in a similar category as those legends. (Bold claim, I know, but this album is amazing.)

Granted, I had conversations with a few people who thought this album was a little weird because it had so much flute on it. But that’s not really an issue. These are richly detailed songs with stunning arrangements, and they’re among the best Callahan’s written.

“Summer Painter,” however, is my favorite. It’s a dark and stormy song—literally. Focusing on a narrative about taking a summer job painting boats, it delves into questions of wealth while giving a vivid account of a peculiar drifter whose wisdom seems to contradict his status as an outcast. It’s great storytelling. Some of the best of his career, certainly, but some of the best I’ve heard in pop music in years.

The rest of it is great, too. But if that song doesn’t convert you, then maybe Callahan isn’t for you.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great