Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Beach Boys, Then and Now

In 1967, Brian Wilson drove himself into a nervous breakdown trying to complete an album for the Beach Boys called Smile. Stepping away from the simple surfing and puppy love songs the Boys were known for, and feeling like they were in a contest with the Beatles for the next Giant Step Forward (after Rubber Soul and Revolver) this was going to be an Important Statement. "Good Vibrations" came out as a single and was indeed a huge smash and a Step Forward, but the album was never completed; had it been finished and released on time, in January of 67, it certainly would have been acclaimed as the 1st psychedelic masterpiece of the year--that summer would see the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper, perhaps the biggest single Giant Step Forward in all of pop music. Instead, it came out in the fall as a cobbled-together collection of songs called Smiley Smile.  Most of the songs meant for the original Smile were eventually released piecemeal on various albums over the years, and in 2002, Brian Wilson recorded an all-new version of the original Smile material. It was interesting  and weird and fun, though Wilson's voice wasn't at its peak, and as much as I love the Wondermints, the band that Wilson was recording with, the lack of Beach Boys harmonies hurt the album.

Last year, Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions, a newly edited compilation of original Smile material, put together following the order that Wilson established on his re-recording, and it's a revelation, even after hearing the 2002 version. Had this come out in 1967, it surely would have been a critical hit, and possibly a commercial one too, if it had been accepted as an album meant to be listened to all the way through in one sitting. There aren't many actual songs here, by which I mean songs of 2 or 3 minutes with a verse-chorus-verse structure. There are 19 tracks and only 11 of them are over 2:30 in length. 5 are a minute or less, just fragments or extended segues. Aside from "Heroes and Villains," "Good Vibrations," and maybe "Surf's Up" (all of which are songs made up of distinct sections or fragments) none of these pieces will stick in my mind as songs. But as a 50-minute album, it's a wonderful listen.

What will make me return to this album are the heavenly harmonies, the gorgeous arrangements (lots of tinkly keyboards), and the flow of the fragments as they've been pieced together. Apparently, Wilson (pictured above) says that this still isn't really Smile as he would have released it in 1967, but it sounds right. Unfortunately, the lyrics by Van Dyke Parks are a major sticking point. The Beach Boys went, perhaps too quickly, from surf, sun, and the girl next door to artsy avant-garde lyrics which make no narrative sense. Even "Heroes and Villains," which was a top 20 hit in 1967, isn't a straightforward lyric sequence. The songs give the impression of being about American history and Americana: "Rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over"; "Have you seen the grand coolie workin' on the railroad?"; "The Spanish and Indian home of the heroes and villains." There are references to barnyards, vegetables, Auld Lang Syne, and "home on the range," and "You Are My Sunshine" is directly quoted. Frustratingly, for those pop fans like me who read lyric sheets, there are damn few places where the words do more than just create an impressionistic haze--hence the psychedelic reputation. But if you turn off (or down) your left brain, it's a great pleasure to just let this album wash over you, beginning with the utterly beautiful wordless acapella chant, "Our Prayer," and ending with the sublime "Good Vibrations" in a version with a different last half than the one everyone knows.

The Boys have regrouped recently for a 50th anniversary album and tour, and it's nice to report that the new album, That's Why God Made the Radio, is a good one. Four of the guys who were on Smile (Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston) handle most of the vocals and they still sound fine. Once again, lyrics can be a problem: "Spring vacation/Good vibrations/Summer weather/We're back together," in a song called "Spring Vacation." But at least the songs make sense, and the subjects are familiar Beach Boys touchstones: radio, summertime, romance, beaches, and good times. The lyrics of the last half of the album are of the sadder but wiser variety: "Summer's gone/It's finally sinking in." One of the prettiest songs, "Daybreak Over the Ocean," is essentially a Mike Love solo cut that he sings with his family. And, a bit like Smile, the album works well consumed in one sitting. Even better, they don't sound like a bunch of old guys making one last stab at working together. They sound like a fully functioning, fully engaged pop band.

Monday, June 4, 2012


I loved comic books and science fiction in my youth, but in my middle age, I am generally not a fan of recent movies of these genres. 2001: A Space Odyssey is sci-fi's cinematic zenith and will never be bested. Comic book movies, which used to be low-budget serials and B-films, now have huge budgets so they can be fully realized on the big screen, but I find them mostly to be a lot of sound and fury over very little--oddly, perhaps, my favorite superhero films are the "dumb" ones, like Green Lantern and the Fantastic Four movies, which concentrate more on cosmic bad-guy bashing and less on personal angst and darkness. Having said that, it comes as no surprise that I'm not a fan of two big, recent examples of these genres, The Avengers and John Carter.

The most interesting thing about the Avengers movie is that the build-up to it was skillfully orchestrated, with entire movies featuring Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor seeming to exist primarily as feature-length appetizers for this main course. In a nutshell, a group of superheroes who don't exactly play well together are asked to band together to battle the evil Norse god Loki (introduced in last year's Thor movie) when he tries to take over the world. Generally, personality problems are downplayed here in favor of action.  But the action scenes are all terribly long and exhausting and incoherent in the way that most comic book movie action scenes are. At almost 2 1/2 hours, it could easily be cut to about 100 minutes, most of the loss coming from the battle scenes--especially the scenes in the middle that feature the heroes fighting among themselves, which really bog down the movie. I enjoyed some of the acting. Robert Downey Jr. continues to impress with his light touch as Iron Man/Tony Stark, and Jeremy Renner (pictured below) is nicely subdued as the archer Hawkeye. I also liked Scarlett Johansson, who I usually dislike, as Black Widow. But despite everything being done in supersized doses of action (and an unimpressive use of 3D), this one won't lose much at home on DVD.

The Avengers, distributed by Disney, has become a blockbuster, but Disney's other recent big action film, John Carter, bombed at the box office, at least relative to its cost.  A lot of people went to see it, but word of mouth was not good and there was not the repeat business it would have needed to make back its $250 million dollar budget. I was actually looking forward to this since in my youth, I was a fan of the John Carter of Mars pulp sci-fi books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sadly, this film, the first live-action work from Pixar director Andrew Stanton, appears to have killed off the franchise already.  A low-budget, direct-to-video version appeared a couple of years ago, and though it's cheap and poorly acted (see my review here), it's about as enjoyable as this bloated, convoluted film.

John Carter, a Civil War veteran, is wounded on Earth, stumbles into a cave, and finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants) where he winds up in the middle of a Barsoomian civil war between different races of creatures. He falls in love with a princess (the original novel, the first of several, is called A Princess of Mars) and helps her side in the planet-wide battle. To do Carter right, spectacular special effects are called for (Carter can leap huge distances, one race of beings is green and has 4 arms) and generally, this movie gets the look and feel of Barsoom right.  Below is one of the best effects, the lobster-like airship.

The convoluted pulp plot isn't handled very well, but that alone is not fatal--as long as we know the good guys from the bad, we can muddle through. But I failed to feel engaged with any character (except maybe for the giant cute alien dog that bounds after Carter throughout) and again, action scene overkill dully hammers out any enthusiasm I had worked up for the movie. Here, acting is not much of a  consolation: Taylor Kitsch is terrible and isn't muscled enough for the part, and the few actors who are good (Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, and Dominic West) don't get much screen time. Lynn Collins as the Princess Dejah Thoris is OK but she's not enough to make this movie interesting. Potential for a good series is wasted due to a bloated budget, unclear narrative, and an uninspiring lead actor.