Some of the most respected experimental artists of the 21st century dish up their takes on the Beach Boys' classic album.
The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is a rare kind of record. It has witnessed the rise and fall of countless genres around it, enduring them all to remain innovative and relevant 50 years on from its 1966 release. It has the power to transcend demographic structure; its listeners know no uniform age, gender or race. Many of us can still remember how we first came into contact with Pet Sounds. For me, buying the record was a desperate effort to convince a musically perceptive girl that I had cultural sensitivity. Good call, Jasper. Despite the nostalgia and undeniable influence of the original album, my initial reaction to the announcement that a Pet Sounds tribute was in the works was a mix of surprise and concern. It was to be a tribute which, among others, would feature some of the most respected experimental rock outfits of our time, as curated by independent record label, the Reverberation Appreciation Society.
My concern came from the fact that there is more than a shadow of taboo around the concept of a tribute album. It's a floating concept, difficult to pin down and dripping with questions; to what extent should the artist offering the tribute emulate the style of the original? On the other end of the spectrum, should the new take on the track attempt to depart from the character of the original? Should the power of new technology, which may have been unavailable at the time that the original was recorded, be harnessed to “improve” on the original? The fact that there isn't really a definitive answer to any of these questions means that crafting a tribute to an album as seminal as Pet Sounds was always going to be a bold move. It seems fair, however, to suggest that if those offering the tribute keep the thought-processes and values of the original artist at heart, they should not be punished for their efforts. Recall that the record's experimentation with unusual sounds, its attention to vocal precision and Brian Wilson's desire to emulate his deep emotions in his musical choices are all vital in marking the record as influential. The artists on this tribute album rarely tick all three of these boxes in their versions, but they usually satisfy at least one of them.
A notable exception is Indian Jewelry's take on “Wouldn't It Be Nice”, which fails in spectacular fashion. There's vague experimentation, sure, but you can't help but feel that the fact that they're performing a Beach Boys track is incidental to the band's original style. There is no attention to precision of melody or harmony, and the track radiates none of the positive emotion of Pet Sounds. It's about as much of a tribute to the Beach Boys as the TV ads produced by Australian chocolate brand, Cadbury, which feature this track. (Look them up, they're very strange).
Predictably, many of the performers become too caught up in speaking to the experimental character of the Beach Boys and end up neglecting the energy of the music, the passionate tales of love and the group's partiality for vocal harmonies. Christian Brand and the Revelators' “I Know There's an Answer”, Night Beats' “Sloop John B” and Cosmonauts' “Caroline No” are a few of the guilty parties here; there are shades of experimentation, but their tracks lumber on without energy and their vocals are often drowned out by insurmountable tonal walls. Wilson stated that “Caroline No” was his favourite track on the album, and “Sloop John B” is often regarded as one of its most powerful, so it's a shame that these tunes have been handled with such negligence of the album's original values.
Some of the artists struggle to pull off vocal harmony, experimentation or energy to any great effect, simply half-baking all three of these concepts. What results is an attempt at a tribute, but one that evokes neither nostalgia for the original music nor challenges the Beach Boys faithful with clever interpretations. For example, the Shes' “You Still Believe In Me”, whilst strong in the vocals department, lacks imagination in its copy-and-pasting of the original introduction. In the heat of some glaring “swing-and-a-miss” moments, however, there is some very perceptive work being done on this tribute album. Holy Wave's “That's Not Me” and Cool Ghouls' “Here Today” are the stand-outs; effectively juggling vocal harmony, experimentation and positive energy to pull off ingenious takes of two of the Beach Boys' classics. Holy Wave's inclusion of a vibraslap on their track is as much of a head-scratcher as some of the sounds on the original album, while Cool Ghouls take a gritty, lo-fi interpretation of “Here Today” without subordinating any of Wilson's musical philosophies. It's a shame that these tracks have to be rated alongside some of the others. Indeed, this album jumps around in quality so jarringly; it's slightly odd to hear Beach Boys songs presented so inconsistently in this manner. If other artists had have been as considered as Holy Wave and Cool Ghouls, perhaps inconsistency wouldn't have been such a problem for this tribute album.