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 Eighteen: Mike Batt and Friends – Tarot Suite

Epic Records ■  NJE 36312

Released ??, 1979
Produced, Arranged, and Conducted by Mike Batt
Engineered by John Simon and Robbie Robertson
“This album is not a statement on the Tarot or the occult. It doesn’t say anything new in intellectual terms; there are many books on the subject of Tarot which go into far more detail than is possible in forty minutes of music. I have used the 22 major arcana trump cards of the pack purely as inspiration for a set of pieces of music. Of course I have stuck to the generally accepted titles and meanings of the cards, but the basis for each piece is what each card itself suggests to me, rather than a rigid, detailed musical description of each symbol.” — from the liner notes, written by Mike Batt

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Introduction (The Journey of a Fool)
  2. Imbecile
  3. Plainsong
  4. Lady of the Dawn
  5. The Valley of Swords
  1. Losing Your Way in the Rain
  2. Tarota
  3. The Night of the Dead
  4. The Dead of the Night
  5. Run Like the Wind

Okay, this is the last album before I’m stuck covering, gulp, the Beach Boys. Followed by the Beatles. Curse you, alphabet.

When I talked about the Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot, I mentioned the stack of doubled records (not double records, though there were some of those, too) that my dad had lying around for me to pilfer. Most of them were unknowns, with a few standout examples. There was a clutter of disco and disco singles (from Casablanca, the label that later held Kiss) from a friend of his–and a bunch of other albums that, my understandings of that friend’s taste suggest also came from him. I tried going through them sort of carefully, using AllMusicGuide as a sort of starting point to determine whether I should bother with a record. There were too many–and I no longer lived at home–to listen one by one, so I wanted a quick and dirty way of getting through the stack. AMG rated this particular album 4½/5 stars, so I decided that was cause enough to drop it in my pile of takeaways. I may or may not have had a recommendation from my father on it as well (if so, he may chime in to that effect in the comments–or to correct that notion).
As with many of those records (such as I Robot, and others that come later in the alphabet), Tarot Suite was left to languish, familiar or excitingly new records taking precedent, and eventually getting lost in the shuffle (all told, I have somewhere in the vicinity of 3-400 records). As I listened today, I felt that I might have given it a moment when I first picked it up–just a single spin, though, and one that never really processed. I don’t know quite what I thought of it then (though I can guess), and I’m not sure what I expected when I dropped the needle today.
The opening instrumental, “Introduction (The Journey of a Fool)” starts with the just-off bells that make me think of the television show Tales from the Darkside (oh dear–if that reference means nothing to you, this may be an impenetrable discussion, eventually, though I ask that you try to bear with me: sometimes I simply can’t frame a sound or feeling better than a semi-obscure association), a sort of dark gonging that seems to kind of turn down in an uneasy way. Strings from the London Symphony Orchestra immediately make themselves known and add great drama, while a steady thudding heartbeat seems to operate outside the music. Woodwinds bring a more relaxing melody to the party, but wind up to the entrance of the song’s real kickstart: the heartbeat becomes distinct bass kicks and the strings swirl with melodrama, until Rory Gallagher’s guitar punches in and wails the song into the completion of its sound. Batt himself tosses in strange keyboard noises primarily, the orchestra carrying the piece without breaking a sweat. But this isn’t an orchestral piece–not exactly. Control is taken by Batt with a bassy keyboard line that, matched with the choked rhythm section reminds of 70s cop show (or movie) music. Mel Collins (yes–the one from King Crimson) blasts out a brief tenor sax solo, and then Rory Gallagher is allowed to really bring the song home with another guitar solo, but one that is left to the alternating woodwind sections that isolate in pitches and eventually converge to hold the madness at a final note–one that fades to the rhythmic sounds of passing time.
Representing The Fool and the Magician, “Imbecile” is one of the more rock-oriented songs. Chugging guitars establish this at the outset, and then the constant quivering of Roger Chapman takes us roughly–there’s also a gravel to it, a powerful one–into the first vocal section of the album, though Batt backs him up on the chorus. The chorus also allows the strings of the LSO to reclaim their place from the guitars briefly, and even open the gates for an ending set of punctuation from the whole orchestra, in full dramatic display. The Magician and The Fool argue over who is the real imbecile, trading philosophies and outlooks on life to a driving beat. It’s actually quite catchy, with a really great vocal from Chapman, that rings bells deep in the back of my head–perhaps it’s some of the artists from The Phantom of the Paradise? If so, I can’t think of which–nor why that association is drawn. I also think of Steinman-backed Meat Loaf, though the LSO is a more expert, precise kind of backing than they ever used. The deliberately flat woodwinds, too, are a bit too eccentric for those sprawling–but ever-poppy–songs.
As the album progresses just as Batt writes (in the numerical order of the major arcana), “Plainsong” represents the High Priestess, the Empress, The Emperor, and the Pope. It makes for an odd track in the whole of the album, as the LSO does not appear at all, and only percussionists accompany Batt on a vaguely atmospheric, semi-regal keyboard-driven track. Of course–it’s also built from layered vocals that are also the responsibility of Batt, which, chopped as they are, create a slightly jarring effect (as this technique often does). The primary melody he plays, though, is rapid and dramatic. 
The only “hit” the album saw was “Lady of the Dawn”, interesting as it is the one track on which Batt has lead vocal. It represents “The Lovers”–one of two tracks that represents only one card. It’s pastoral, and runs the risk of saccharine syrupyness in its initial string melody, but Batt’s voice and the melody he uses keep it just out of this and in territory bridging it and the arty, symphonic sound of the album as a whole–likely also a testament to the skill of the LSO. It’s a concession to the notion of romance in general–mystification at love, eyes opened, world in colour kinds of feelings stemming from the lady of the dawn, whom our singer tells, “I like you for your body, but I love you ’cause you’re wise.” It’s perhaps the gentlest, least varied of the songs on the album, which probably explains its hit status. “Imbecile” and “Run Like the Wind” may be just a bit too bombastic.
“The Valley of the Swords” (The Chariot, Justice) ends the first side’s alternation of instrumental and vocal tracks, leaving us with a final instrumental. Batt’s sleeve notes describe The Chariot as “Represent[ing] conquest, either mental or physical. Motion, achievement. The young Charioteer rides confidently and triumphantly.” This is perhaps the most engaging of the generally orchestral pieces: it has a theme that shifts between sections of the orchestra, and even allows another lead guitar moment from Ricky Hitchcock. The technique is familiar: a subtle, hushed form of the melody gives way to a repetition with the entire orchestra behind it. It’s not a bad technique, indeed, it remains quite effective. There is a definite movement to the song–it sounds like the kind of scoring that would back a triumphant, confident montage of travel (in other words, Batt made clear his interpretation when he described The Chariot). The inclusion of Batt’s own keyboards in that style of low-end, softened honking gives the piece just enough quirk to keep it interesting and unusual.
As I suggested, a second track represents only one card, and that is “Losing Your Way in the Rain”, bookending Side Two (alongside “Run Like the Wind”) as a vocal track around three instrumentals. The heavy bass and cello (eventually full string) opening leaves us with the bright hints of upcoming positivity that the higher end of a woodwind section often hint at in scores. And then we hear a voice that I’ve got to say is a pleasant surprise: Colin Blunstone, of the Zombies. Blunstone has always had a lovely voice anyway, but this is a very pretty performance from him, embellished in just the right way by Batt’s backing on the repetition of the title. It’s the sound of the Fool finding himself the Hermit, at a turning point in life, with wisdom now under his belt.
“Tarota” brings us Batt’s version of The Wheel of Fortune and Strength, credited to four lead guitarists in order of appearance: Jim Cregan, Rony McPhee, Rory Gallagher, B.J. Cole, and sometime one-hit-wonder, longtime session wunderkind, Chris Spedding. The leads are talented, but they are the fill between the peaks of horn-driven moments. Each brings a different style to their performance, which is quite interesting to hear, as the rest of the song moves into Batt’s vocal layering, peculiar percussion and other odd sounds to break the guitars apart.
The first of a pair of mirrored songs, “The Night of the Dead” is the most condensed of the pieces: it represents The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, and The Tower. It’s the most seat-clutching drama, cymbal-splashing, stomping, encroaching, varied and tumultuous piece–which, of course, makes sense. It has a lot of ideas and thoughts wandering through it–turning points, hedonism, sudden change, balance, and reversal. It’s almost undetected when it shifts into “The Dead of the Night”, The Star and The Moon, even though that following piece is actually much quieter, a hummingi of tense, pacing strings that holds aloft a lone, deliberate woodwind piece–it’s also Mike Batt’s only abstention from performance.
“Run Like the Wind” is the Sun, the Judgment (Resurrection) and The World: it’s resolution, triumph, self-assured nodding at future pans, and it is the return of Roger Chapman’s quaver. It’s bright and sunny, and Mel Collins’s wild sax solo only helps to emphasize that our Fool has found his feet: he isn’t at the end yet, but he knows he’ll get there, and by his own hand. The forces that work against him may have plans, but he won’t be subject to them. It’s the end credits, so to speak–the moment in a happy ending where the protagonist turns in self-assurance, and we’re faded happily to know that there’s no more suffering in this scripted life: where it goes from here is defined by the tone we’re left with, and it’s one of unbridled freedom.
I have a strange relationship with progressive rock of the more niche varieties–or symphonic rock, or art rock, or whatever this may be, it reminds me of all–in that it sometimes makes me uncomfortable in its bombast. I feel like either it’s making me feel stupid for not getting it, or like it’s convinced I should feel stupid when it’s far more transparent than it thinks–over-reach in the extreme. I’m often unsure which it is, and prefer to take it, instead, as cause for enjoyment (if I am stricken with the desire to do so, which I am not always).
This is, in the end, an enjoyable album–which is the majority of what matters to me. It’s constructed and arranged nicely, so that there’s never a feeling of a missed step. It does occasionally seem to have puffed out its chest, but the way Batt writes about the concept on the sleeve, it’s very humble and pleasant: there’s the immediate declaration that he isn’t writing anything profund or intellectual, just his own personal interpretations and understandings. It may well have been that attitude that rescued it, as I can have difficulty preventing my eyes from rolling at strong orchestral sections, no matter how well-performed they may be, in certain contexts. And, beyond that, there’s a disconnect for me in clean, clear, expert kinds of performance, the kind found almost exclusively in orchestral music.
One of the first conversations I ever had with someone I had an very complementary relationship was about the differing in stances on the subject of music: overhead, we heard “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements, and I said “This, this is what music is to me,” and she disagreed: to her, precision and skill defined performance. A singer was good if they hit the notes properly, if they worked to present themselves within that framework–bringing emotion to those pre-set notes and stylings. On the other hand, I liked the rough and immediate emotional nature of a song sung by its writer–regardless of the quality of their voice–because it conveys most directly the feeling of that song.
Tarot Suite manages to juggle the two of these: Blunstone, Chapman and the guitars (as well as some of the electronic peculiarities of Batt himself) brought my kind of humanity to the kind of music I often respect but cannot connect to, and kept it engaging as it went on. 
Not an extremely strong recommendation, but if the sensibilities of it sound appealing, on that grounds I will move the recommendation to a strong one.
  • Next Up: The Beach Boys – ?

Day Nine: The Association – Greatest Hits!

Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records ■  WS 1767
Released December, 1968

Produced by Bones Howe [1,2,3,4,5,9,10,12], The Association [7,13], Curt Boetticher [6,11], and Jerry Yester [8]

Side One: Side Two:
  1. The Time It Is Today
  2. Everything That Touches You
  3. Like Always
  4. Never My Love
  5. Requiem for the Masses
  6. Along Comes Mary
  1. Enter the Young
  2. No Fair at All
  3. Time for Livin’
  4. We Love [Us]
  5. Cherish
  6. Windy
  7. Six Man Band

I’ve never understood this about a lot of compilations, particularly in the 1960s: if you’re going to list every single song on the record on the front, why would you list them in an order different from the order they are actually pressed in? I’d almost suspect it’s a matter of graphic design, but “Like Always” kind of goofs up the formatting at the bottom (and “Windy” being placed above “Cherish” would’ve completed the sort of “arrow” shape better). It’s not really even a quibble, just something I find bizarre.

Out of my father’s collection of doubled records (not to be confused with double LPs) from which I previously mentioned drawing I Robot, I also drew this compilation–that might draw a sigh of relief of confusion from those who know of my general opposition to greatest hits, best ofs, and similar packages. Being progressive rock, The Alan Parsons Project, for all that some of their songs achieved some fame, remain somewhat niche in music history. The Association, on the other hand, had a greatest hits compilation after only three years in existence, though in that time they released four albums and 12 singles, with only four of those being non-album A-sides. Of course, this is because all of those singles peaked in the top 100 for the band, including a B-side (“Requiem for the Masses”). Five were top 10, and two of them were #1s (“Cherish” and “Windy”), with one even squeaking into a #2 spot (“Never My Love”). As such, other than a few exceptions that will be incredibly obvious when I get to them, this is probably the most “mainstream” or familiar album I picked up out of that lot.

I’d be inclined to call it odd that I would hazard a guess that The Association are not familiar to a lot of my generation if the name is thrown at them, but if you look back at the pop charts from days gone by, it’s increasingly obvious that a lot of charting music has not stood the test of time, at least with respect to availability and familiarity to new generations. It becomes humourous, sometimes, when people from my generation try to reach back and compare the popular music of now to then and lament the state of modern music, failing to realize the number of artists they are totally unaware of who topped the charts–plenty far, far more obscure than The Association.

If memory serves, my introduction to the band was via a much later compilation my father passed me, though I also picked up, after snagging the stack of records that included Greatest Hits!, their first and third albums (And Then…Along Comes the Association and Insight Out), the latter at the behest of my father visiting my then-employer during a new year clearance sale. I actually sold that copy of Insight Out for an absurd amount of money as an expanded release was announced–though it was a mono one, and my copy was a stereo one (likely the reason its out of print status was able to remain a price-driver). Even with all of that, I didn’t devote a ton of time to the band, as they always struck me as rather slight and somewhat “folky.” That’s not a fair thing to list as cause to avoid or ignore a band, but it has often been cause for me all the same. Perhaps it’s the association (ahem) it draws with the divergence of taste between myself and my father, as well as an overall indicator of some of our philosophical differences: he grew up–in the sense of high school and college–with this music, and has always identified as a pacifist (while he enjoys Die Hard, he notes that the joy of it is “watching Bruce Willis be a smartass” rather than any action setpieces, a sentiment I’m hard-pressed to disagree with), while I’ve grown up in a culture, and with friends, that is more embracing of violence as entertainment, and has a much stronger seed for aggression in music, as I grew up after heavy metal and punk were long established and even hardcore (punk) and extreme metal (death metal, black metal, etc.) were established.

If I really wanted to stand on this narrative, I’d pretend I went in to listen to this album (that isn’t just a strange grammatical construction: I have a room where I keep my records and my stereo, so I literally did “go in” to listen to it) with trepidation, heavy sighs or other indicators that I was not looking forward to it. I didn’t: there’s an excitement in exploring the releases I haven’t taken time to listen to, which is part of what I get out of all of this. There’s usually a surprise and something more interesting to find here that I might never have realized otherwise. It’s also fair to say that there are a few songs I’d be guaranteed to look forward to and enjoy.

The compilation is not constructed in chronological order at all, nor alphabetical or any other obvious order. “The Time It Is Today” opens Side One with a not-unexpected sound for a band often most reasonably referred to as “sunshine pop” (which is basically what it sounds like) and “baroque pop” (which is basically classically inflected pop music, as you also might expect of it), but then Joe Osborn’s bassline comes in and surprises me: it’s distinct and upfront, acting as a bit of a hook with a lovely slide to it that doesn’t feel at all like the kind of folk-y, harmony-oriented band I usually think of them as. Hal Blaine’s drums focus on the rim to keep the bottom end pretty much clear except for Osborn. It’s a vaguely psychedelic track, that matches the rather great album art it was originally released under and that art’s psychedelic vibe. It is a track from 1968, so it makes some sense.

With my ears now perked, we move on to “Everything That Touches You”, which comes from the same album, which is more in line with the sound I think of the band most far: heavy harmonies for much of the vocal work (which is where the “band” is usually present on the albums, rather than the instruments, many of which are the work of session musicians) and some heavy-handed romanticism. This isn’t too surprising, as the song comes from the pen of Terry Kirkman, one of the group’s leaders over the years, who was also responsible for “Cherish”.

“Like Always” is yet another track from Birthday, and it reminds me strongly of some deep cuts from The Lovin’ Spoonful (another 60’s band, most known for tracks like “Nashville Cats”, “Summer in the City”, “Do You Believe in Magic”, and “Daydream”, which is not to be confused with the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”), with a much looser gait, and vocals from Larry Ramos that are reminiscent of the Spoonful’s John Sebastian, descending through each line with only exception per verse. The lyrics (the song was written by Bob Alcivar, Tony Ortega, Larry Ramos) that have a cheerful down-on-his-luck sentiment that is also reminiscent of Sebastian’s songs.

“Never My Love” brings us back to the overbearing romanticism, middle school dance-feeling of “Everything That Touches You” and a number of Association singles from the 60s. It was written by Don and Dick Addrisi, who never had a hit for themselves as big as this one for the Association. The sentiment is simple–“You ask me if there’ll come a time/When I grow tired of you/Never my love/Never my love”, but the Addrisis, I have to say, manage this with greater aplomb than Kirkman (who does far better on his socially conscious tracks, I feel). The tone bounces appropriately: the expression is obviously to an existing lover, but carries a note of pain at doubt alongside it. It’s one of the few tracks with apparent guitar layers. It ends with a pretty great keyboard solo at the end.

The next track is the one my father was most emphatic to me about the quality of when I was pondering the purchase of Insight Out. It ties a bit back into his pacificism, I suppose, in that it’s a metaphorical song about  lost soldiers in the war occurring at the time, as seen through the story of a fallen matador. It’s a rather breath-taking song: it begins with semi-martial drumrolls before multi-layered, church-choral vocals (in Latin, no less) come in quite beautifully, before Kirkman relays the story of the matador, imploring mothers to turn away from life at home to recognize the loss of their sons, with a chorus that first describes the red blood “flowing thin” from the dying matador, the white of his lifeless skin, and the blue of the sky that was “the last thing that was seen by him”. I imagine you can catch the obvious connection there. Balance is an important thing to me, and this song has it: there’s no mistaking the intent of the song, but it holds up as the allegorical matador just as well. The musical hints Kirkman (who wrote the song) worked in are also clever. The martial drum rolls are later met with forlorn horns that bring to mind the image of somber and funereal moments. The song is longer by a full 40 seconds than the next longest track on the compilation–indeed, it was the longest song they released in all those albums and singles to this point.

Now, it would take a lot to follow up that track, and the compiler did his or her job: “Along Comes Mary” is the next song, which is a real corker of an upbeat track, complete with handclaps. It was written by Tandyn Almer, a friend of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and has lyrics that race to fit into each line until the title of the song comes in to start the chorus, helping to emphasize the sudden change the appearance of Mary brings to the life of the singer (in this case, James Yester). This marks the first appearance on this compilation of a flute as accent to the music, complete with trills.

Side Two opens with another of Kirkman’s more socially conscious tracks, “Enter the Young”, which first marked the opening of the debut album And Then…Along Comes the Association. The song is basically an endorsement of youth written by a man who was 26 at the time, seeming to then reflect a less self-aggrandizing attitude than one might think the sentiment come from, as that seems to imply a generation still rising as he sings. “Enter the young, yeah/Yeah, they’ve learned to think/Enter the young, yeah/More than you think they think/Not only learned to think, but to care/Not only learned to think, but to dare”.

“No Fair at All” is another of the romantically oriented songs, one written by “Along Comes Mary”‘s lead vocalist, James Yester. It sees the return of a prominent woodwind instrument (not a flute, but my ear is not refined enough at identifying them to be more specific) as solo emphasis for the song.

“Time for Livin'” is another Addrisi brothers single, which has a nice thumping bassline, and some nice bendy guitar bits that act as background accent for more triumphant sort of song, a notion emphasized by the prominent horns behind the chorus. The bassline is prominent again, being allowed to bridge the gap from chorus back to verse with just a little bit of solo playing. Ron Giguere (who wrote “The Time It Is Today”) and Larry Ramos share lead vocal duties on this one, and have less standard voices, which I tend to appreciate.

“We Love [Us]” is titled only “We Love” on the actual sleeve and labels for this compilation, but is titled “We Love Us” on Insight Out, from which it is derived. It’s a Ted Bluechel, Jr. song (making it another written by an actual member of The Association), and it’s yet another of the romantically oriented songs–it gets hard not to stack them against each other, as they are all so overblown in their sentiments (“Her laughing, her crying/Her caring, her sharing/Of my life means more to me/Than all the wealth and fame that fortune brings to me”) and generally more familiar arrangements keep them of a kind. Now, this is one that seems to be married to a harpsichord (!) as the melody-carrying instrument, which is a bit unusual–though I might be mistaken about what type of keys we’re talking about exactly.

“Cherish” is Terry Kirkman’s contribution to the “romantic songs” oeuvre for the band, with another vocal-racing chorus that one hopes is just slightly awkward only because of a drive to rhyme: “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I had told you/You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you/You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold you/Into someone who could cherish me as much as I cherish you”. It’s a lyric that will make some people more uncomfortable than others, but feels most like an attempt to express the kind of feelings many of us experience–the whole song is really about finding a word that is more accurate than “want” or “need” or even “love” to describe the feelings you have for another person. It does really find its feet with the arrangement, which uses bells, chimes, and vocals to match those, as well as a wonderful set of harmonized vocal acrobatics for the ending of the lines “Cherish is the word I use to describe/All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside”.

The next song brings us back from the rather syrupy end of the Association with Ruthan Friedman’s “Windy”, which actually has a weird second billing on the album cover for Insight Out (which no pedantic folks have turned to call Insight Out/Windy, oddly enough). We see the return of the keys I remain convinced (probably wrongly) are related to harpsichords, as well as more flute. The rhythm, down to the vocal lines, is toe-tapping and catchy, and has some great background harmonies, with the dips and rise of “Who’s..” beginning the repetitions at the end of the song, which begins to break off in multiple directions at the end.

“Six Man Band” ends the release with the single released closest to the album’s own release, having hit the charts in July of 1968, a few months after Birthday was released. It’s a bit of a shocker for the group, with a heavily distorted guitar playing a clear lead throughout the song, with a great lick sliding up and down the neck, and some finger picking to match. By far the most guitar-dominated track on the album, which falls out to close the song and the album. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for it, but I don’t have that information close to hand (or even in easy reach, so far as I can tell).

There are some excellent tunes on here that anyone and everyone should check out, and a few everybody should know, but taking the whole thing in means you’d better have a high tolerance for sweet, naïve romanticism, or else you may require insulin by the end. The stuff doesn’t bother me when done properly (by which I mean generally lending musicality to the affair), so it doesn’t really get to me much here, but it could easily overload plenty of people I know.

Still, make sure to check out “Along Comes Mary” (which I still think should’ve been their biggest single, but only hit #7), “Windy”, and especially “Requiem for the Masses”.

Next Up: The Asylum Choir – Asylum Choir II

Day Five: The Alan Parsons Project – I, Robot

Arista Records ■ AL 7002

Released: June, 1977

Produced and Engineered by Alan Parsons


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Robot
  2. I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You
  3. Some Other Time
  4. Breakdown
  5. Don’t Let It Show
  1. The Voice
  2. Nucleus
  3. Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)
  4. Total Eclipse
  5. Genesis Ch. 1, V. 32

I’ve never listened to the Alan Parsons Project–well, hadn’t. This, of course, changed that. I actually own three of their albums on vinyl (this one, The Turn of a Friendly Card and Pyramid, both of the others being released after this one), but this is really just due to the doubles still sitting in my father’s collection of 8,000 records. I was allowed to peruse these doubles and steal away any I deemed fit. We’ll see more of them (plenty far more obscure) later, but this was the one where I was able to withdraw numerous albums from a group I had never listened to.

We’re rocketing along nicely through a variety of physical types of releases, as we’ve already covered one picture disc, one combination double-LP and coloured vinyl, and now we have our first gatefold album. Of course, this was from a discarded pile of duplicate albums, and many are not without their flaws of one kind or another. This particular album had its gatefold thoroughly stuck together in the center and is now quite thoroughly disfigured internally, but remains in large part legible despite this.

The Alan Parsons Project were a progressive rock band, with most of the baggage (or benefits) that accompanies that label, I’ve found. The album opens with “I Robot,” which is very reminiscent of period electronic music like Synergy (about whom I will talk much, much later, considering where they are–he is–in the alphabet) and Tangerine Dream of the same time period. Now, if you don’t know Synergy or Tangerine Dream (or any other mid-70s electronic music) let me do my best to describe it for you: sparse, wholly and unmistakably electronic music, where synthesizers and keyboards are used not to emulate known instruments, but to create their own noise and sound. It sets the stage for exactly what progressive rock means to both fans and detractors: heavily instrumental music dominated by slower paces, lengthier track times and unabashed use of the electronic.

The surprise comes from the track it leads into: “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” which I actually recognized quite readily from the dim recesses of a youth spent listening to my father’s choices of music and the radio, as determined by classic rock, oldies and “college rock” stations. The song fades in from a thudding bass and taps on the hi-hat alongside spacious keyboard chords that make it sound like the music from a 1970s cop movie at night designed to build tension. A guitar fades in over this with the palm-muted and emphatic strums many would associate with the intro to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Once the song kicks in and Lenny Zakatek’s vocals begin, it’s all riding over a very clear disco beat, signified by what many call the “pea-soup” drum, which is onomatopoeia for the hiss of a hi-hat leading quickly into a drum hit. Once you hear it and think of “pea soup,” you’ll probably understand.

“Some Other Time” follows this and is almost like one of the spacey, folk-esque singers of the 1960s before it moves into the chorus, underscored by a triumphant synthetic horn section. The drums and bass fill out the sound of the verses and the song continually builds and falls away to create a song that has the highs and lows of a soundtrack, which it resembles like much of the album. Peter Straker adds a completely different vocal style to the song, which is weighty with its faux brass section.

A lot of the album has hints of both 1970s-styled soundtracks and various classic progressive rock bands, hints of things like “I Talk to the Wind” from King Crimson’s debut and its more pastoral approach to the genre as well as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and even earlier material in Jack Harris’s vocals on “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” which has the airy stylings of Roger Waters’s vocals on Meddle‘s “San Tropez.” The Dark Side connection is unsurprising, considering Alan Parsons himself, half of the core songwriting duo of the group (the other half being Peter Woolfson), engineered that very album.

I’ve been known to let progressive rock albums drift in one ear and out the other sometimes, especially the keyboard-oriented varieties, but the album never meanders or drifts off too far into obvious or laughable pretension, even if the concept doesn’t necessarily jump out. It stays comfortable and interesting, until it ends with the rather excellent instrumental, “Genesis Ch.1, V.32” which has stable, steady, drums marching the song off into the distance as if over end credits of a film, while Ian Bairnson’s electric guitar uses sustained bends and firm marches between single strings on clear frets to push the album and the song in the same direction, choral voices (one of the elements most indicative of Parsons’s time with the Floyd) lend it all a sort of drama that is perfectly faded to end the album with the march onward of time, into the theoretical future of a robot-dominated world, inexorable and fated, but not clearly totalitarian or sad so much as a new verse or chapter–which, of course, the title itself implies, being named for the verse of Genesis Ch. 1 that does not (yet) exist in its known 31 verse form.

I’m actually quite pleased: I was reminded somewhat of the Bob Welch era of Fleetwood Mac, which appeared between Peter Green’s more experimental dominance of the group and the more popular and famous era of Buckingham/Nicks. It straddled that line of experimentation and pop happily without falling too much a victim to either, as this album does.

Next Up: Alice in Chains – Sap/Jar of Flies