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Pet Sounds and High Llamas.

By Mac Randall

APRIL 6, 1998:  There can't be many classic rock albums that rock less than the Beach Boys' 1966 opus Pet Sounds. The fruity orchestral arrangements are about as unhip as you can get, dangerously close to Mantovani. Yet the album itself rises far above the level of elevator music, and it has remained one of the influential rock texts of its era. Countless performers in the last 30 years have genuflected before the exhilarating melodies and instrumental details Brian Wilson brought to Pet Sounds, adopting the Wilsonian approach in their own music.

The most recent noteworthy example of Wilson worship is the British band the High Llamas (who come to Bill's Bar this Wednesday). Led by Irish-born auteur (and recent Stereolab collaborator) Sean O'Hagan, the Llamas demonstrate once again on their third CD, Cold and Bouncy (V2), their mastery of the Pet Sounds sound: the instrumentation (lotsa vibes, marimba, banjo, and cheesy organ) is perfect, as are the witty lyrics (shades of Van Dyke Parks's collaborations with Wilson in the Smile era), and the seemingly random progressions where the bass note isn't the root of the chord (a Beach Boys trademark). The prominent blurps and bleeps of analog synthesizers and the occasional jungle-ish drum loop aren't out of place either -- Brian Wilson loved wacky sounds too. Just think of the theremin line on "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" or the bass-harmonica solo on "I Know There's an Answer."

Or turn to The Pet Sounds Sessions (Capitol), a four-CD set released late last year that combines a remastered version of the album's original mono mix with its first true stereo mix ever, plus selections from the recording sessions for each song, including complete backing tracks (without vocals) and vocal tracks (without instruments). Before I put The Pet Sounds Sessions on, even I, a major Brian Wilson fan, thought devoting so much space to one album's worth of material was a bit silly. (Maybe Capitol also had cold feet about this; that could explain why the box's release was delayed for a year and a half.) But approximately 10 seconds into disc one, after the first few stereo notes of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," my skepticism evaporated, replaced by a thralldom that persisted through every rehearsal, breakdown, and alternate take.

How can the same songs repeated over and over again maintain interest? Details. Both the all-instrumental and the all-vocal tracks reveal nuances I'd never noticed before: the nearly subsonic trombones on "Here Today"; the third distinct vocal melody (with its own words) in the chorus of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"; the way the chords on "Wouldn't It Be Nice" are played by two (!) accordions. These tracks also create the illusion that you're in on the music's creation as Wilson coaches his team of session players from the control booth, reshuffling arrangements and instrumentation until he settles on a final mix. Some ideas are kept (the staccato bridge of "God Only Knows"), others discarded (the rich bed of backing vocals on "Don't Talk"). Through it all Brian emerges as a sonic mastermind, whether he's telling a trumpeter to turn away from the mike at a specific moment or singing the exact inflection of a part meant for an old-fashioned bicycle horn.

As for the stereo mix (which Wilson approved but didn't execute), it's astounding. Although the authors of the set's two detailed booklets claim that this mix is no better than the original, "just different," I disagree: the extra clarity of stereo separation improves the music drastically. There are several legitimate reasons why Brian didn't mix Pet Sounds in stereo (his deafness in one ear being the biggest one), but there's also no question that detail-heavy music like this demands something subtler than a dense, muddy, wall-of-sound mix.

Not even the enviable aural craftsmanship of a band like the High Llamas can match the splendor of Pet Sounds in stereo. The 16 tracks on Cold and Bouncy tend to blur together, largely because the pace never deviates from a steady mid-tempo tick-tock. The melodies lack that sense of unfolding complexity that marks the best Brian Wilson compositions. And the singing's weak -- there isn't a single High Llama who could compete with any of the three Wilson brothers, especially not with the recently deceased Carl.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare a contemporary group as obviously inspired as the High Llamas with the Pet Sounds Beach Boys. But it's a comparison the High Llamas bring on themselves by appropriating such a distinct style. And as much fun as it may be to listen to a loving, well-crafted homage, the original -- Pet Sounds -- still stands alone.


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