Friday, June 10, 2016

Review: The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary' Box Set


The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is so essential, influential, and culturally significant that a tired phrase like “It’s an album that needs no introduction” really does apply. Capitol/UMe’s new box set devoted to the 1966 monolith may require a bit more background though, especially since Pet Sounds has been remastered and rereleased so many times. This five-disc, 50th Anniversary collection is really an expanded, reconfigured rerelease of the landmark 1997 box The Pet Sounds Sessions, which was the first time the ultimate mono album was presented in stereo. It also gave a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mythical, mystical sessions with a series of “tracking date highlights” devoted to each of the original album’s thirteen songs and the outtakes “Hang on to Your Ego” and “Trombone Dixie”, as well as an early version of “Good Vibrations”. These highlights are much tidier than the ones on the more sprawling SMiLE Sessions box (which included a demanding disc consisting of nothing but “Good Vibrations” sessions). Consequently, they do not demystify the sessions completely but do provide a fascinating keyhole-peek at Brian Wilson’s working methods. His directions to his musicians could be incredibly specific or as unhelpfully general as “Can we do a real good one this time?” The guy’s sense of humor definitely comes out in these sessions.

Everything that was on The Pet Sounds Sessions is on the 50th Anniversary box, though in a different order, and it’s expanded with eleven live tracks spanning 1966 to 1993. There are also previously unreleased alternate mix and vocal sessions for “I Know There’s an Answer” (the sessions feature some grand moments but may also test your tolerance for Mike Love doing “funny” voices) and a master track of “Good Vibrations”. Disc Five consists of the previously released mono, stereo, instrumental, and 5.1 mixes in Blu-ray Pure Audio with a few bonus tracking date highlights and “Summer Means New Love”. The lead-up single “The Little Girl I Once Knew” would have been a much better choice than that 1965 instrumental. Nevertheless, these are all basically welcome additions, but the 50th Anniversary set could have really been the ultimate Pet Sounds box by including the stray material that didn’t find a place on The Pet Sounds Sessions for whatever reason. Where’s the Brian-solo version of “Hang on to Your Ego”—the best version of that song and “I Know There’s an Answer”— and the mono mix of “Trombone Dixie” from the 1990 CD? “God Only Knows” is one of the greatest songs ever written, but I would have been happy to lose half of the four live renditions of it included here to make room for those missing versions of “Hang on to Your Ego” and “Trombone Dixie”. These tracks are important and unique enough that wishing they were included amounts to more than fan-boy bellyaching.

Fortunately, there’s little to bellyache about in terms of sound quality. I don’t have everyone of the multitudinous Pet Sounds rereleases on hand for comparing and contrasting, but I can say that Mark Linett’s latest remastering job is livelier and more detailed than the flat CD he oversaw in 1990 and warmer and quieter than Ron McMaster’s slightly harsh 1999 remaster. The book-style box is pretty (the fuzzy textures of the album title and goat on the cover is a nifty touch), but the CDs fall out of their slots too easily and the contents are too light on track notes and history. Of course, Pet Sounds is an album that needs no introduction, so you probably already know everything there is to know about it. It’s beautiful, and it sounds beautiful on this 50th Anniversary set.
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