The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Sept. 4, 2000
Why Tribute Albums Don't Cut It
A new album devoted to the work of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys proves the point.
By Michael Goldberg
Beware of tribute albums.
In the abstract, they are so inviting. Imagine Flaming Lips covering Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," Eric Clapton remaking Jimi Hendrix's "Stone Free" or R.E.M. taking on Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan." How cool.
But the reality is often disappointing. Artists worthy of a tribute have in many cases already recorded the definitive versions of their songs. In some cases, the original recordings are so revolutionary that the tribute versions, no matter how well intended, seem irrelevant, trivial.
Such is the case with the recent Brian Wilson/Beach Boys tribute, Caroline Now! The Songs of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
Brian Wilson, of course, co-wrote and produced much of the Beach Boys' best work, including such classic top-40 hits as "Don't Worry Baby" and "Good Vibrations," as well as Pet Sounds, one of the greatest pop albums ever made.
Listening a number of times to Caroline Now! the name is a play on one of Brian Wilson's most beautiful ballads, "Caroline, No" I found Souvenir's French reading of "Girl Don't Tell Me" quite charming. Also of passing interest were versions of "Lady" by Eugene (The Vaselines, Eugenius) Kelly and "Lonely Sea" by Eric Matthews.
But then I put on Pet Sounds.
The greatest albums take me into another world. Pet Sounds does this every time I listen to it, which I'm sure I've done over a hundred times. That album is so inventive in its approach to production, instrumentation and arrangement that, if the vocals were removed, the music alone would be revelatory. But the lyrics and the vocal performances are equally transcendent.
To simplify, Pet Sounds is the story of a young man coming of age, falling in love, shedding his innocence and romanticism even as he tries to hang onto them. It culminates in "Caroline, No," Brian Wilson singing, "Where did your long hair go/ Where is the girl I used to know/ How could you lose that happy glow..."
I decided to listen to some of the other Beach Boys recordings. I put on "Don't Worry Baby," then "Surfer Girl" and then "Heroes and Villains" serious hits, heard by millions upon their release and still popular decades later.
Finally I listened to Sunflower, Surf's Up and Holland, regarded as lesser works released after the Beach Boys' commercial heyday, albums from which Brian Wilson was largely absent due to his well-documented psychological problems.
Brian Wilson was is an original. The first time you listen to, say, Pet Sounds's "Wouldn't It Be Nice" you hear things you've never heard before. The short intro that pulls you in, the way a single beat hits so strong and then there's a pause, and the song kicks in full-bore.
To take on such awesome songs, one must be prepared to equal, in a unique way, the original performances. Otherwise, why bother?
Many of the Beach Boys' later works after the hits were mostly over have been released recently in twofer packages, Sunflower, Surf's Up and Holland among them.
I still have my original copies from when I bought them as a kid. I liked them then, and listening again after a long absence, I think they have stood up well. Changing times were making the group irrelevant by the end of 1967, and it's fascinating to see how they attempted to change too. Psychedelia and the counterculture made Beach Boys songs of just a year or two earlier seem hopelessly naive. Only years later, as an oldies act concentrating on their '60s hits, would they again find a mass audience.
There was no way the Beach Boys were going to fit in with the acid-rock crowd. They brought a naive sensibility and romanticism (the very thing that made millions of pre-teens and teenagers relate to their work in the first place) to all three albums.
Imagine recording a song about taking care of your feet ("Take A Load off Your Feet") in 1971. While their contemporaries were singing about "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the Beach Boys sang about "Disney Girls."
Today, removed from their original context, some of the songs "All I Wanna Do" off Sunflower for instance are as good as many of the group's classic hits.
Listening again to Caroline Now! after revisiting some of the originals, I'll probably never listen to that tribute album again. No disrespect to the many fine artists involved, but none of the cover versions on that album can touch the work of the Beach Boys themselves.
I wish that Caroline Now! took me to the kind of places that I go to when I listen to the work of the Beach Boys. Instead, it is simply a curiosity, something of interest only to the most obsessive fans of the Beach Boys.
In The Game
The Olivia Tremor Control, Presents: Singles and Beyond (Emperor Norton): Operating in another zone, but one which references the Beach Boys and Beatles by way of Big Star and god knows who else, are The Olivia Tremor Control. Collecting some of their early singles and EPs, this album is the audio equivalent of a day spent reading "Alice In Wonderland" or C. S. Lewis' fantasy tales. The music suggests elegant, Victorian pop all the more amazing since some of these 20 wonderful tracks were recorded on extremely primitive equipment. Talent and ideas rule! Check out "Fireplace," "Love Athena" and the excellently titled "Beneath the Climb," a pop track that feels a bit like early Who as it races along at a frantic pace. And "Gypsum All Field Fire" is a classic.
Kim Gordon, DJ Olive, Ikue Mori SYR5 (SYR): After releasing four challenging, experimental albums on their own indie label, SYR, Sonic Youth have begun issuing offshoot projects, the first of which is a collaboration between SY singer/bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, DJ Olive and Ikue Mori, mixed by Jim O'Rourke. "International Spy" " features Gordon improvising lyrics "I spy into your ear" over an audio collage that is somehow soothing, while "Neu Adult" feels like a beat poetry reading over the sounds of a beehive. Actually, this is exactly what you'd expect, and then some. It feels very New York/Village/late-night/modern/Jackson Pollock/let's go somewhere new/let's have fun while we go there. I love it!
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.