Donald Fagen – The Nightfly (1982)

Warner Bros. Records ■ 23696-1

Released October 29, 1982

Engineered by Roger Nichols (Chief), Daniel Lazerus (Overdubs)
Assistant Engineering by Wayne Yurgelun, Mike Morongell, Cheryl Smith, Robin Lane
Mastered by Bob Ludwig

“Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

D.F.”


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I.G.Y.
  2. Green Flower Street
  3. Ruby Baby
  4. Maxine
  1. New Frontier
  2. The Nightfly
  3. The Goodbye Look
  4. Walk Between Raindrops

While I definitively eschew any such categorizations as best I possibly can, I remain fascinated with the lines that are drawn around any work or artist to render it “untouchable” by certain groups. A work or an artist may be unmentionable to fit comfortably under the umbrella of “serious music fan” or “metalhead” or any of the other myriad communities associated with music–some very carefully defined, and others so loose as to be questionably meaningful. I like a lot of artists that cross those lines quite heavily–the first albums I ever owned mystify people to this day, and the first mix-tape I ever had made for me (by my father, partly from my requests, and partly from his own insertions) was a slew of Dr. Demento tracks from various decades and styles (“The Martian Hop”, “The Cockroach That ate Cincinnatti”, etc) mixed with Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Cherokee Nation”), the Coasters (“Poison Ivy”, “Mother in Law”, “Yakety Yak”), Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crimson & Clover”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”), and a few odd other tracks I’ll occasionally recall out of the blue.

For a time in and around middle school, my taste remained confined by the distance I kept from my father’s turntable and thus the questionable volume of music available to someone who didn’t look to spend limited allowance-type funds on it. The local library had its share of odds and ends, and I checked some out from them here and there, but two in particular ended up sticking with me for quite a while, as my non-existent owned music meant whatever I had checked out was what I was listening to, short of hitting the radio. Those two albums were–bear with me now, and feel free to look back at other albums I reviewed (and thus own) and drop jaws or shake heads as needed–Billy Joel’s Storm Front and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad. These (and the few albums I would gradually purchase) were strangely important: listening to the same songs from each over and over would have been tiresome with the limited (and tedious) programming capabilities of my cheap (discman-style!) CD player at the time, so I ended up listening to both albums straight through many times.
In some circles, it’s probably desirable to disavow my love for Storm Front, but that tends to be unsurprising to anyone who has spoken with even mildly devoted music people (though there are, of course, always exceptions). Kamakiriad fascinates me that much more: Fagen is of course best known for his work with his primary band, that which is defined by co-conspirator Walter Becker–Steely Dan. There are ripples of discontent surrounding the group, even amongst more serious music people, whether it be for the “appropriation” of jazz, the purported sterility of carefully expert and tight production and recordings, or even the “flaccid/soft rock” sensibility many have regarding them (including, if memory serves, George Carlin ¹). It’s strange, really–the band was named for a dildo (!) in the writings of William S. Burroughs (!!), and the lyrics are notoriously clever (maybe even obnoxiously so), often sardonic or dark. Sure–the music tends to be pretty relaxed and “smooth”, and the performances and recordings are absurdly tight, but the criticism does not easily bear out.
The Nightfly was purchased some years ago, unquestionably, because of my love for Kamakiriad. I had never heard it before, and may or may not have heard any of the songs that were released to radio (and later repeated on “classic rock” stations), and it was only $3 anyway. I listened to it once or twice at the time, but didn’t run out into the streets proselytizing. It wasn’t until it was repackaged (with Kamakiriad, and the much later Morph the Cat) as The Nightfly Trilogy that I stood up and took notice. Then, I had lovingly packaged (CD) versions of each album (in some of my favourite packaging ever) and time and ease to get to know each.
It was because of that time that revisiting this album like I did was both a familiar comfort and a pleasure.
The first thing I ever recognized about the album is how appropriate it is for certain environmental conditions: the first light, chiming tones of “I.G.Y.” (clarified on the inner sleeve as “International Geophysical Year” cannot ever seem to sound as right as they do in a comfortable, dark room. Sitting, alone, together, reclined–it doesn’t matter, it just sets the tone clearly, with a lovely synthetic intro where a backing bed of rising and falling cascading notes sits behind more definitive notes that seem to spike upward from an otherwise smooth surface. It turns to a swinging beat, horns enter, and it becomes a ridiculously catchy tune, marrying Fagen’s voice to a chorus of female backing singers in a wistful, nostalgic chorus. The track is fascinating aurally: it’s perfectly balanced in pitches and tones, yet seems to keep to a narrow range somehow. It’s the ideal energy for the tone of the track–defining the tone of the album as a whole. The fabled pin-point accuracy of both men who lead Steely Dan is apparent–even the parts that aren’t electronic sound as if they could be, but they hold the right warmth and variability that marks them as physically present acoustic instruments.
I always imagine (wrongly) that “Green Flower Street” was one of the album’s singles (instead, “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontiers” hold that honour), and feel that I can be forgiven this–keys tug at the song as hi-hat marks the time to keep it going. Bass dances along the back ground as keys phase and warp from channel to channel, and lightly played, muted guitar notes jump back and forth the same way. The guitar and keys are somewhat odd, a bit cut off, approaching staccato (readily meeting it in the case of the guitar part), acting as the primary hook and melody, but leaving so much space and riding so heavily on repetition that the restless movement of the bass pulls that old trick of really moving the song’s melodic progressions, but does it without being at all obvious. A rather tasty guitar lead is met with the snarled and curly notes of a brief key lead that is reminiscent of the kind of work I personally love in earlier Prince material–dense and funky, wrapped tightly around itself. Dig that sudden exclamation point ending, too.
I’m prone to unnecessary elaboration for sure, but it’s actually quite appropriate that I brought up the Coasters earlier–many of their hits were the writing work of Leiber and Stoller, who also wrote the only cover on this album: “Ruby Baby”. While the note on the inner sleeve points toward reminiscing (as does the cover), Fagen molds the classic hit into his own style, unquestionably, arranging it into more instrumental and drifting, electronic-leaning sound the album runs on, while maintaining the flavour of the original Drifters recording. It becomes extended, playing with improvisational (if probably pre-determined) instrumental stretches, and handclaps and crowd noises that are subtle enough that, on casual listen, they just feed the feeling of the track’s placement as drawn from a time closer to the exclusively live domain of music, rather than seeming like an intended faux-live recording.
Side one closes with “Maxine”, which drops the drum beat to a steady 3/4, warm and slow like I would immediately imagine from many a late night radio would play. It’s relaxed in an album that is innately relaxed, using keys that sound more like known keyboard-based instruments. It’s the breeziest track by far, though it is actually the third shortest, oddly enough.
“New Frontier” was an excellent choice for a single, no question. Reverberating as if underwater, keys thoughtfully and dreamily establish something of the melody, while an electronic beat bounces out cheerfully. Harmonica seems bizarrely out of place–but only if you stop and think: integrated into the whole, it somehow functions. The keyboard lines that introduce the chorus have an excellently suspicious quality about them, as if something is not quite right here, though everything remains as cheerful and enjoyable as they were when they began. That bouncing electronic beat is fascinating: it runs straight through the track, but is lost, almost ignored, as if it’s being followed entirely by accident rather than design. Double-tracking the chorus vocals is a clever touch, and puts just the right kind of tonal “oomph” onto them, to bring them above Fagen’s normally easy tones.

The title track embraces the image on the cover fully, as Fagen takes on the role of “Lester the Nightfly”, WJAZ DJ and host in Baton Rouge. He’s an amalgamation of Fagen’s remembered late night DJs, taking conspiracy calls, talking of his own life, and playing classic jazz tunes–indeed, he describes the show as “with jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mount Belzoni, sweet music, tonight the night is mine, late night ’til the sun comes through the skyline”. Semi-spoken verses are from Lester’s point of view, over steady cowbells and heavily played key chords, that have just enough spin on them to take on a bit of a funky hook. Female vocalists emulate the station’s call sign interstitial, sweet and clear, with a catchy emphasis on rhythm, jumping up and down in pitch sharply, but cleanly. The drums drive the trick in that same background fashion way, but hold themselves more apparent.

“The Goodbye Look” seems slightly out of place as the penultimate track–combined with its predecessor, it might even have turned into a sort of strange conceptual album (as opposed to a thematic one), suggesting the “goodbye look” given to a DJ as a signal that their time is shortly up–whether literal or just for effect. It’s actually a sort of paranoid tale of hiding away on an island instead, with a mention of steel drums that comes through in the unusual choice of synthesized sounds that resemble steel drums, later met with the sound of more distinctly synthesized steel drums, which is a peculiar union to be sure. The relaxed pace of the verses is hurried at its end until the staccato vocalizations of the chorus, which is where the most steel drum-like sounds appear, offsetting that sudden rush of terseness in an interesting way.

Instead, the album closes with “Walk Between Raindrops”, which rides organ-styled keyboards and walking bass through a pretty rapid and upbeat tune, somewhat unexpected after the relaxation of the midsection of side two, especially at the end of the album. It’s a bit slight and peculiar in this place, especially at its call out of Miami (!) that is followed by a smoothed out organ solo. It fits in its way of course–it’s an original song companion to the cover of “Ruby Baby”, recalling the kind of pop tracks that Fagen would’ve enjoyed in his childhood, rather than the actual cover of or reference to them.

The Nightfly‘s rather odd legacy is that of an album that has been used over the years as a test of sound systems thanks to its ultra-clear, clean production and playing. Certainly, this adds a lot of credence to the declaration that Fagen’s music is somewhat sterile, as achieving the status of ideal “index” recording to test a system–a demonstration disc, even.

While a laudable achievement, there’s something else to be said, in that all the subjective assessments of things like emotional content or flavour are difficult to render so complete and definitive: there’s unquestionably emotional content here, it’s just displayed less in the spontaneous burst of unrehearsed or knowingly loose playing, and more in the choice of tones, playstyles, genres, sounds, and all of the other detailed components used to construct it. Maybe it is a more “mechanical” assembly, but that doesn’t preclude creativity or emotion–it simply leaves it with pre-defined places to be assigned and then experienced. Any of that would be theoretical, were it not for this album, which most definitely confirms any of those thoughts has its place in reality: the album’s feel and sound are very engaging on even an emotional level, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the way Fagen puts music together.

¹This is a companion to Bill Hicks’ dismissal of a Judas Priest fan as a “future gas station attendant”–in context, it’s necessary for the joke (which is part of a much larger bit), but is vaguely dumbfounding in the context of a man who was also responsible for saying, “Let’s say that rock and roll is the devil’s music…at least he fuckin’ jams.” Someone who appreciates things that “rock” casually dismissing Priest seems to be drawing pretty arbitrary lines to me. Not that appreciation is necessitated, but–ah, well.
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Day Nineteen: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Brother Records/Reprise Records ■  2MS 2083

Released May 16, 1966
[This release: 1972]
Produced by Brian Wilson

“This recording is pressed in monophonic sound, the way Brian cut it.”


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
  2. You Still Believe in Me
  3. That’s Not Me
  4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
  5. I’m Waiting for the Day
  6. Let’s Go Away for a While
  7. Sloop John B
  1. God Only Knows
  2. I Know There’s an Answer
  3. Here Today
  4. I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
  5. Pet Sounds
  6. Caroline, No

When I initially put the selection of Beach Boys records I own up to a vote(on vinyl, though the CD set is actually not much different), I debated listing this one as it physically presents itself. Those familiar with the album may notice (probably immediately) that the cover looks a bit strange. Truth is, this is actually a compiled double album, paired with Carl & the Passions – So Tough. It’s a weird looking thing, and one I own as yet another of the doubled (in the case of Pet Sounds, I think tripled or more, really) records my dad let me take. I’d call it the “crown jewel” of that set, but there are albums I like more personally (including my other Beach Boys record, Surf’s Up), but as something to blurt out at others it sounds more like it validates my taste and knowledge.


That said, this is probably the one classic album I own on vinyl that I’m in a bad position to write on. The poll that is still running on the Beatles as of writing indicates my limited selection of their material on vinyl–certainly, it includes their oft-considered best by those who stop and measure (rather than responding by reflex), but it doesn’t include the iconic, name-drop title (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), so there’s a certain measure less pressure. More to the point, that alleged best is also my favourite, so, much along the lines of Pink Floyd, I’m a bit more at ease dealing with it (the equivalent there, if you’re wondering, is Wish You Were Here–less an icon, more a qualified work. Depending on who you ask, of course). Here, I’m in territory I regard similarly to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: albums whose reputations precede them, and who have been so automatically doled out to responses to “What is the best album…” that the question doesn’t even need to be finished. For those bands? For rock music? Some people just list those because it’s “the answer”, some because they sincerely believe it and can explain it, and a handful reject it out of hand primarily because some people do the first.

I don’t much like dealing with albums like these publicly: it puts me in the position of having to establish a clear opinion–which means detangling and cropping off the influence of reputation and the opinion bluffs of those who feel the need to automatically bring the public impression of their taste to the same level, and finally that of those who emphatically feel the need to reject it simply to prove the “honesty” of their opinions. I make a show of acting nervous or intimidated by writing about something written about a million times before, but I’m not writing this for money, so it isn’t as if I need to justify the cost to those who paid. More than anything, I don’t like the segment of that which means I have to tell you something that isn’t obvious. I have a lot of leeway with obscure or semi-obscure items, as the unfamiliar will have nothing to attach to it anyway, and the familiar will be looking for the familiar to find common ground (or to argue against it).

In this case, I’m also left with the opinions of Sir Paul McCartney, of Sir George Martin, in attempting to address an album widely considered one of the most ground-breaking and influential of all time. A response to Rubber Soul and the inspiration for the album I just mentioned three times above: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thought in some ways to have been handed by the torch from Rubber Soul–itself given an infusion by the work of Bob Dylan–to carry the music industry out of the 45rpm single market and into the embrace of the 33 1/3 album approach. Those are some long shadows.

But that’s the reason I poll when I can: it means I don’t get to just dodge this, it means I don’t get to run off and happily talk about Surf’s Up and never have to nail down and clarify any thoughts I had, have, or will have about Pet Sounds. Or, it means everyone’s tired of hearing about Pet Sounds and I shouldn’t–if I weren’t directed–try to challenge myself. I know some people aimed for Surf’s Up (it was relatively close!) out of a personal affection, and some because it’s “not Pet Sounds“, in effect. So that’s where we ended up: more wanted to hear my thoughts–or torture me, perhaps–on Pet Sounds. I will do my best to live up, not to the reputation of the album or writing around it, but to be clear and as thoughtful as I can. I have notes (which I only occasionally take) as well as the information I have lingering around already–the Pet Sounds Sessions box set (with liner notes) and the 40th Anniversary stereo/mono dual release (in effect, I own about  6-7 versions of the album, counting the instrumental and vocal-only tracks on the box). Not so that I can just regurgitate Brian’s commentary or that of paid writers who got there first, but so that I can be most accurate regarding instrumentation and techniques involved in creating sounds, moods, tones, and atmospheres that I identify.

Beginning an album with a song that would become a single (though it started as a B-side to “God Only Knows”) was not an uncommon thing in the 1960s, but the totality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, particularly its intro, is still a sort of odd move. The sound of that opening (which apparently no one can confirm the instrumental identity of) that sounds rather like a harp is distinct and recognizable, but suggests nothing of the sounds one expects from the Beach Boys, the song that follows it, or the genre as a whole. Hal Blaine’s lone drum hit shifts the song entirely, and lets the intro fade quickly away, with Brian immediately launching into the chorus with his voice at full power, and the whole band (of session musicians–many with tens of thousands of credits under their belts at this point, and I mean individually) backs him for the rest, with Al, Dennis, Carl, and Mike assisting primarily with Mike taking over for the bridge. It’s a full, powerful song, using accordions, saxophones, mandolins, piano, organ and a variety of more expected instruments to chug along with a kind of energy that does not represent a large chunk of the album. It slows partway through, for just a brief time, which is quite unusual for an earlier pop album, at least in so distinct and constructed a way.

The energy that keeps “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” moving at such a quick clip (a lot if it driven by the accordions) is left behind almost entirely for “You Still Believe in Me”, though the intro is somewhat reminiscent of that song’s own introduction–even down to the bizarre methodology used to achieve the singular instrumental backing for a humming vocalization that seems to reverberate just slightly, but ethereally: album co-writer Tony Asher says one of them was left to crawl into a piano to pluck the strings, while another sat at it to let the notes ring.  As the song proper starts, we’re at a much slower pace than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and Brian’s vocal is given a great deal more space: the song is more intimate, more personal. The backing is no less complex, with timpani and harpsichord accompanying the far more expected bass guitar. Backing vocals primarily define the repetition of the song’s title alone, which is useful as it allows for Brian’s “I wanna cry” to take its looping shape as an isolated voice. There are strange touches that hint at its place in psychedelia in this track, too: bike horns and bells seem to drop in from nowhere in particular–not incongruous, yet startlingly odd at the same time.

Brian abstains from lead vocal only a few times on the album, but the first is on “That’s Not Me”, where his cousin Mike Love takes over, the tempo fittingly speeding up (as Mike Love is generally more aligned with the lighter surf songs of the group, which are generally uptempo in line with their “fun” nature). Brian Wilson’s opening on the organ eventually becomes notes that are just held for long periods of time, creating a hum in the background. Tambourines set the half-shuffling beat, strangely filling the middle ground of the song, which is primarily percussive and low end behind Mike’s voice. The song is one of the more drug-like and odd, despite being, in some respects, more conventional. The absent middle space, in particular, gives it a slightly weird feeling.

It’s almost like we have “You Still Believe in Me” Part 2 when “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” comes following in, as Brian returns to lead vocals. The song is slower, sadder, and has the first appearance of strong strings. It’s sweetly sad, though: obviously Brian is addressing someone in pain, but is offering consolation and hope. He asks the listener to listen to his heart beat–and for just a moment, the bass emulates a heartbeat. The bass thrums underneath it all even outside that moment, but the song has a comfortable embrace: it’s spacious, but not cold and filled with empty parts.

Giving the impression of alternating tones, “I’m Waiting for the Day” brings the tempo back up, with the curious choice of a percussive intro, though the use of timpanis gives a bit of variation in pitch, snare hits tweaking the sound just enough to kickstart the song, as if they are the turns of a key to start an engine. And when that engine starts, it’s with an organ’s keys slid across and then hit lightly but rapidly, the melody actually briefly introduced by flutes, but then taken over by violins as Brian begins to sing the verses–acknowledging the hurt of someone abandoned that he is attempting to bring solace to. “I’m waiting for the day that you can love again”, he sings, and the song jumps upward, as does his voice, which takes on a slightly harder edge, though an edge denoting determination rather than threat. The backing vocals–all Brian–move around each other for another of the drums’ moments of not only emphasis, but actual appearance: most of the track is absent the drum kit, though the timpanis do have a relatively strong presence through much of it. A last hushed lead up to “..when you can love again”, gives us a pretty string outro, but the drums don’t seem to want this to happen, and bring the organ, the backing Brians and timpanis back for him to repeat, “You didn’t think/That I could sit around and let you go”, which has that determined, self-confident edge as it fades out.

There are two instrumental tracks on the record, and the first is “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, which would be the end of side one, were it not for the decision to include a studio-unrelated recording (“Sloop John B”). Julius Wechter mans the vibraphones and defines the majority of the track as a result, which builds on a sound only they can provide: both percussive and gentle, melodic and curved but distinct. There are numerous instruments layered behind them, especially a piano that gradually takes over and brings horns with it, a drum fill bringing the song back down to a hush, but one that cannot keep down the string section, which builds the song back to horns, which only build more, to a seemingly unified note, then isolate themselves. A brief appearance from what I believe are temple blocks–echoing in the background behind the vibraphone, the overdubbed strings only gently drawn in the background, but a faux-steel guitar (apparently a Coke bottle on the strings) gives a bit of a rounding to the edges of the song, with more familiar guitars given their place, too. The intermittent drumming that crops up on the album appears again, marking separations in the piece to great effect–the absence of the drums previously is emphasized, yet so is the actual appearance. It’s really a great piece–no surprise Brian is most proud of this one.

The only cover on the album, “Sloop John B” was recorded long before the primary Pet Sounds Sessions, but doesn’t feel as out of place as rumours that it was jammed in suggest (evidence suggests this was actually not the case). The song was a traditional folk one, an arena with which Al Jardine (the only non-family in the original Beach Boys) was most familiar. A metronomic tapping and glockenspiel descends into Brian’s vocal, and slowly other instruments join up, a guitar, a bass, drums briefly, and then more steadily, another voice (Mike Love’s) comes in for the bridge and the chorus, after which, the backing vocals appear briefly in non-verbal form, and by the next chorus, the drums are regular and consistent, all the voices are joined in, enough that the instrumentation disappears entirely for a brief a cappella moment. The drums finally make up for lost time and pound every beat as the song fades, along with Side One.

A huge single for the group, “God Only Knows” opens the second side with French horns and keys, with a bass line linking it to the first verse, where we get to hear Brian’s brother Carl sing lead for the first time on the album. A simpler, wood block/temple block rhythm backs the verses, though a deeper rhythm transitions it to the next verse. When Carl gets to the title of the song, there’s a curious moment as the rhythm is broken and chopped from the steady beat it used previously, quite staccato but for a brief fill on the drums. Backing vocals that flit around each other converge and pitch upward to Carl’s repetition of the title that leads to the second verse. Later the voices of Brian and Mike are recognizable in alternating vocalizations of the title that start a beat off from each other and begin to spiral together, emphasizing the sentiment of the song in general: it’s a bit sad, but with a warmth and brightness at the core–who knows what the singer would be without the addressee, but they are both there right now.

At one point, we might have had “Hang on to Your Ego” next, but the title was changed and we’re instead left with “I Know There’s an Answer”. It’s centered around an intro of mutliple key instruments that lean into their parts, but a buzzing of baritone and tenor saxophones hovers in the background, with the rhythm defined by a tambourine. Any attempt to listen closely only reveals that it’s nearly impossible to pick through all the layers. The choice of baritone saxophone for the solo, backed by banjo is beyond peculiar, and slants the song in a way that a number of songs on the album turn: somewhere that is, on the surface, comforting pop, but something else alongside it.

“It starts with just a little glance now/Right away you’re thinking about romance now” begins “Here Today”, keys pounding rhythm and slowly transitioning melody under Mike Love’s voice, drums and tambourine pounding down each beat as the song moves in, his voice rising slightly and getting somewhat faster paced, until it all falls back down, and the pounding heart of new love is brought back to reality with the reminder: “You’ve got to keep in mind/Love is here today/And it’s gone tomorrow”.

I will forever associate the next song with my best friend in high school and college, who was getting into 1960s music when we lived together, and spent a while with the Beach Boys before I ever did–I could name at least a handful of peculiar injokes we ended up with, but few would make sense to anyone else. Still, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is a track that I think of him referencing the phrase a few times, and so the part that sticks strongest remains the title’s appearance in the lyrics. It’s odd, as it seemed that my friend meant the phrase in the reverse–being born too late, not early–and that moment is out of character, tonally, for the rest of the song. The song is light and airy at first, but there’s an odd temple block construction, and a backing of “Oohs” that seems almost as if it’s mocking or out of step (or rather, pitch) with Brian’s vocal. They even get to share the spotlight without any backing for a moment–it’s hard to tell what feels (quite deliberately) mismatched there: are the backing vocals sadder? Are they just significantly lower? Not harmonized? And then you hear a higher, modulating voice–but it’s not, and that rapidly becomes apparent: it’s the infamous theremin that Brian later made such famous usage of in “Good Vibrations”.

As a title track, “Pet Sounds” is weird. As a track on this album, despite the matching titles, “Pet Sounds” is weird. Ratcheting percussion launches it, hints of guitar that are distorted as if some force has knocked them silly appear, before a lightly wavering guitar line takes control of the piece, horns subtly building it up, but all of them stopped short for a moment. When it returns, the horns push again, seeming to attempt to take control away from the rather “castaway” guitar sound, bongos and tons of other instruments wandering in and out, until one baritone saxophone bleats out the noise that introduces the first large crescendo that comes to define the latter half of the piece.

“Caroline, No” is not necessarily the expected favourite, but it is indeed Brian’s favourite track from the album. A very dry tambourine defines the beat of the song, but is fleshed out with an organ line and Brian’s double-tracked vocals. A lone drum beat echoes at the start of each measure, as Brian pines for a girl who broke his heart. Woodwinds (primarily bass flutes) repeat the melody after Brian’s last vocalization of it, with light accents from the vibraphone we thought we’d heard the last of, until it all fades away. And then it fades back in, but not with the music we know: it’s the ringing bell and whistle of an oncoming train, dogs barking and finally that train passing, rattling the tracks and heading off into the distance amid the last barks of those dogs.

I find it no less difficult now to talk about this album: I found nooks and crannies I’d not heard, I gathered a lot of the elements that bring it lasting respect that I had taken for granted previously, but I’m still left with a central dilemma: how do you recognize brilliance after it is already labelled as such? Can you? Is there some element of self-fulfillment or expectation nascent in any attempt to explore or discuss a work so well-regarded? Can you really give it proper context once its context as brilliant has been determined, affirmed and re-affirmed?

I don’t have answers to any of that. I’ve always enjoyed this album, so it’s not exactly the kind of stretch for me that it is to listen to some albums where I have to take time and understand why anyone likes them in the first place. There’s a production sensibility Brian brought to this that I always found unusual, which is the sort of gauzy haze layered over a lot of it. Maybe it’s the way the vocals are mixed, maybe it’s the way they’re recorded–it’s definitely something around the vocals in general. I listened harder this time and was still left wondering. I found new respect–a lot of it–for the instrumental pieces (which might easily be my favourite parts of this album), as well as reaffirmation of my love for Carl Wilson’s voice over the rest. I found new appreciation for the absurdly brilliant craft and layering of the album. That point, that was brought home. The way that each and every part seems to live and last only for the moments it is to be heard, for where it brings the whole of a song to a conclusion, or a feeling–that is something that almost defines the differing listening styles I know best.

My aforementioned best friend, John (inevitably, at least a few people make repeated appearances if I talk about music) has always heard music “separated”, while I’ve always heard it as a whole cloth. If you do either, it’s difficult not to respect this work. Taken as a whole, an astonishing variety of sounds–recognizably different even without detailed listening–never seem to cause any conflict or confusion about the sound or feeling of any song, other than the kind that is inherent to the subject matter present. If you take the same piece and start to dissect it, you suddenly realize just how complicated that generally delightful sound actually is. Some parts fade shortly after others come in, without ever openly advertising that fact. Some are mixed low or off to the side and serve only to lock into their places and smooth out the whole of it all. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, in terms of the way this record is put together, its reputation is undoubtedly deserved. It’s full and lush and varied, yet measured and economic, and all the parts both fit and mesh without exception.

Pet Sounds manages, in some way, to simultaneously run into the realms of psychedlia, art rock, even classical music, and simple pop: lyrically, it’s very innocent and sweet, occasionally even naïve, but never uncomfortably so, as it’s supported by the music so artfully. It’s catchy and bright and nice, and sad in the right parts, but it’s also dense and complicated and experimental and unique. It doesn’t show off the latter at all though: experimentation and complication are used in service of the final pop product. That’s not a common thing: usually you end up with something more like I Robot or Tarot Suite where those other elements make themselves known, perhaps even boast of their presence. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing in those instances–at least not intrinsically–but it’s something amazing to witness those things folded in so neatly there are no seams left.

If you don’t respect this album–and I do say “respect”, as opposed to “like”–you would be well advised, if you intend on expressing a stance on it, or music in many senses, to explore and dissect it anyway, to try to see what makes it tick. While occasionally that metaphor is used to emphasize the idea that you might dissect a living animal and be left with none of the soul or life that drives you to find the driving force in the first place, this is more like a watch or a clock: find the parts and separate them out to understand it, but put them back together, wind it up and watch it go–it won’t miss a beat.

  • Next Up: The Beatles – ?

Day Ten: Leon Russell & Marc Benno [The Asylum Choir] – Asylum Choir II

Shelter Records ■  SW-8910
Released November 15, 1971
(Recorded April, 1969, originally intended for release that year)

Produced by Leon Russell and Marc Benno


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sweet Home Chicago
  2. Down on the Base
  3. Hello Little Friend
  4. Salty Candy
  5. Tryin’ to Stay Alive
  1. …Intro to Rita…
  2. Straight Brother
  3. Learn How to Boogie
  4. Ballad for a Soldier
  5. When You Wish upon a Fag
  6. Lady in Waiting

This is basically cheating, in a sense. While Look Inside the Asylum Choir was originally credited to “The Asylum Choir”, though when its cover art changed it was credited to “Leon Russell and Marc Benno” as this album is. Of course, the labels on that release actually still said “Asylum Choir”. Anyway, the point is, this might technically belong in the “R” section of my alphabet, but out of respect to the original album, I keep it in the A’s–sort of a goofy talisman toward eventually pairing it with its sibling-release. Except in the CDs–there I keep it next to the rest of Russell’s solo output. Which is also where I file One for the Road, credited to Leon and Willie Nelson, as well as The Union, his album from two years back with Elton John. Nothing against Elton or Willie, I just like Leon more (most places file them by the other artists, who are more popular).

If you check out that first link I dropped, you’ll find me talking about both Asylum Choir albums a while back. This is the first of my “extensive collection of a single artist” examples, of which more can be found later on in the alphabet, and that is a decent part of why I’ve already talked about it (and Leon on numerous occasions).
The album was actually recorded long before its release and was only tied up for legal reasons that prevented its release at the time. Despite that, it bears far more resemblance to Leon’s solo records (such as his self-titled one from 1970) than it does to the extremely psychedelic and almost Mothers-y¹ sound of Look Inside the Asylum Choir, which was recorded in ’67 and released in ’68. While many groups or acts, particularly those composed of groups of distinct voices often take sophomore releases as cause to expand their session lineups, Benno and Russell continued to just play the entire set with each other and no one else.
“Sweet Home Chicago” and “Down on the Base” are the semi-swampy (odd for an Okie and a Texan!) sound that defines a lot of Leon’s solo work, with soul-based touches like backing vocals that sound like Marc’s voice pitch-shifted to resemble the backing vocals you might hear in some soul work from the same time frame. Marc’s guitar is in fine form on the opener, and is appealingly clear but simple in the followup, finger picked and sliding up and down the neck to the light thump of the bass, as Leon’s vocals and piano keys dominate the song. “Hello Little Friend” is one of the handful of songs with a writing credit solely given to Leon, and is one of those most reminiscent (if you will) of his later solo work.
“Salty Candy” brings us back more to Look Inside territory, with Marc taking over vocal duties for the first half of each voice, with fiddle accents and effect-laden guitar echoing in the back. “Tryin’ to Stay Alive” has a bit of a false start, which Leon seems to be a fan of doing, and has a nice long instrumental intro. The two of them layer background vocals to give the song another soul twist.
Side Two is significantly longer than Side One, (20:08 versus 13:48) and contains the peculiar bit of “studio chatter” that is Leon asking for the preferred feel of two piano riffs from an unidentified female voice–probably Rita Coolidge, if the tracks’s title (“…Intro to Rita…”) is any indicator. She identifies one of the riffs as “Straight Brother”, which the side launches into immediately thereafter. “Straight Brother” is groove oriented, heavy on the low end and pounding on the rhythmic end. “Learn How to Boogie” is almost exactly what you would expect: boogie piano! It dances along happily, with semi-muffled lead bits from Marc on guitar behind it. “Ballad for a Soldier” is somewhat reminiscent of The Association‘s “Requiem for the Masses” in its subject matter, but entirely different in all other respects. The song has Leon’s trademark upbeat, rollicking piano and is told from the point of view of a soldier, who is puffed up by military movies and the idea of heroics, but finds the reality significantly different, intoning the notion that “we haven’t really won/till all the fighting’s done/and there are no more ballads for the soldiers”. 
“When You Wish upon a Fag,” it should relieve many to know, uses the word in the song as follows: “When your bass player’s flat and your drummer drags/I bet you wish you had a fag”. It seems to balance both the risk–starting the song with “Caution may be harmful to your heart and to your health,” and the chorus making it clear that–yeah, man, it’s bad for you, but I could sure go for one right now, as it would be a real relief. “Lady in Waiting” closes the album with a waltzing rhythm, and the last of Russell’s string of solo writing credits (all three songs ending the album). 
As implied by the fact that I own a lot of Leon Russell, this is a really good album. There’s a lot of crossover in feel around this album and Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which was actually released the same year–and not only starts with a song about location (“Stranger in a Strange Land”) but actually has “Home Sweet Oklahoma”, which is about Leon’s actual home and is titled not far away from the opener of this album. If you aren’t familiar, Leon does have a distinct (some say grating) voice, and his accent is far from hidden: “heard” becomes “hoid”, and “candy” has an exaggerated vowel: “caindy”. That appreciation of origin is somewhat unusual, as his sentiments do not reflect those that his home is known for at all, though Leon’s been an openly religious man, at least (which is very much in keeping with the state’s public face)–his politics are somewhat counter. But then, he was a wild-haired, bearded session musician in the 1960s, so perhaps that’s not entirely unexpected.
¹That’s the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa’s band in the 60s and periodically thereafter.