Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/30/11 - The Beach Boys and Wolves In The Throne Room

Over its decades-long tenure as perhaps pop music’s defining “lost” record, The Beach Boys’ SMILE was one of the few recordings that could unite serious sound junkies with the more casual fans (with taste) in a state of resigned melancholy over what should’ve been. And during that same time period, the fact that the legendary follow-up to PET SOUNDS made it to the brink of and then notoriously did not see release has been adopted by all kinds of finger-waggers as an advisory tale to assorted cautions of all sorts; the hazards of too much drug use, the folly of indulging artistic inclinations at the expense of commerciality, or the dangers of hanging out with Van Dyke Parks. 2003 brought the world BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE, a collaboration with The Wondermints that helped to firmly establish what ardent Beach Boys' fans had already long believed; that SMILE was indeed a top-to-bottom masterpiece and not just a couple of hit singles bookending an unfocused mess of pretention, that Wilson was the one guy uniquely capable of seamlessly integrating classic Tin Pan Alley pop aesthetics with the possibilities of legit psychedelia and true-blue studio artistry, and that Mike Love was and continues to be a foul square. But as appealing and successful as WILSON PRESENTS indeed was, it in no way filled the gap left by the original SMILE’s lack of actualization. And that was really no surprise. While issued with goodwill partially as a recovery project and more so as a corrective to its auteur’s legacy, WILSON PRESENTS was still quite a few yardsticks short of a substitute. This opinion seems to have been shared by others including Wilson himself, for 2011 has seen the appearance of THE SMILE SESSIONS, a mammoth undertaking inhabiting a variety of shapes (compact disc, 12” and 7” vinyl) and sizes (digi-downloads, 2LP, 2CD or box set) that’s easily the year’s best reissue. To be clear, this amazing bundle of beauty is certainly not what SMILE would’ve been like had it actually hit racks and blown all sorts of heads in ’67, but it’s surely the closest to what Wilson had in his own mind during that period, sourced from the genuine studio recordings made in preparation for the album’s release. And as such it’s a total revelation, making scads of bootlegs obsolete and causing deep (but not grave) damage to SMILEY SMILE’s already chequered reputation, for as much as I eventually became comfortable with (if not accepting of) that LP’s restless scraps of greatness, I always regarded it with a certain critical distance if not outright detachment (and certainly I’m not alone in this) because it couldn’t avoid being a reminder of what the music world had been denied, namely the essence of Brian Wilson’s brilliance at its absolute apex, a document that would’ve meant a whole lot of different things to a vast diversity of listeners. And part of what’s so fantastic about THE SMILE SESSIONS is that in its format-diverse structure it can well serve listeners holding varying degrees of emotional (to say nothing of monetary) investment; the downloads or 2CD should easily satisfy the more casually erudite listener, the five discs of studio outtakes and demos will doubtlessly please legions of music obsessives, and the vinyl pressings are right up the swank alley of a certain stripe of hep connoisseur. Freeing up this masterpiece from the burden of a pricey (if thoroughly essential) box set hopefully means that the music will reach more people than just those already convinced of its quality and importance. And while I’m still dabbling through the CDs that definitively and happily essay the studio toil of SMILE not as a tumultuous exercise in scattershot grandiosity but as the painstakingly rigorous activity necessary to creating a work of this stature, I hesitate not a bit in claiming that the 2LP set manages to strike the perfect blend of user-friendliness with the expansive yet spectacularly succinct nature of the core recording in all its mono glory, broken up over three sides of vinyl (with a fourth of stereo mixes provided as a truly dandy bonus). What becomes obvious upon spending time with SMILE as a basic record and not as a holy grail surrounded by fascinating ephemera is how it so confidently combines conceptual hugeness with a near brutal directness inherent to pop-craft; breathtakingly experimental, yes (opener “Our Prayer” into “Gee” into “Heroes and Villains” managed to drop my jaw on first listen even though I essentially knew what to expect from WILSON PRESENTS); side-long jams, ill-conceived drum solos or patience testing stabs at borrowed authenticity, no. If Brian Wilson’s ability and vision were ultimately too much for some people (including himself) to bear, he was exceptionally tidy in how he executed his ideas, for nothing on SMILE exceeds the five minute mark. “Vega-Tables” and “Surf’s Up” are of course well known from the SMILEY SMILE and SURF’S UP LPs and “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” are both well-ensconced as cornerstones of high pop-style. But to hear them as simply parts of what Wilson conceived of SMILE to be is to not only experience the true rarity of non-hyperbolic artistic genius but to be boldly confronted with the possibilities of what might’ve transpired had SMILE actually been released at the time of its conception, not only pertaining to Wilson’s and The Beach Boys’ subsequent career(s) but to the pop music landscape as a whole. Because those naysayers mentioned above can occasionally be counted on to use the hullaballoo surrounding SMILE to dictate that pop music is best when unhindered by ambition, proposing that the banal strains of radio fodder typified by Britney Spears and Justin Bieber and their many rank imitators is somehow more legitimately “pop” than the desire to expand the parameters and create something new as exemplified by SMILE. Upon hearing this music with fresh ears in the present, it becomes obvious that calling Wilson an eccentric and SMILE a failure are severe miscalculations, for sheer invention in this case shouldn’t be mistaken for eccentricity and problems of commerce compounded by self-doubt should never be confused with a lack of artistic success; sometimes it just takes a while for an achievement to be established. Bluntly, the best pop record released in 2011 was recorded in 1967. Contemporary hitmakers shouldn’t feel insulted; instead, they should lend an open ear and then just step up their game.

While I’m assuredly a fan of assorted bands appropriately described as being metallic in orientation, I also can’t deny that when it comes to things metal, I’m best categorized as a dabbler. And this is funny, since the first two bands clutched to my metaphoric breast and regarded with solemn seriousness as setting the standard to which all other attempts at music should thenceforth be judged were Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. This attitude lasted approximately six months until after devouring the contents of LILLIAN ROXON’S ROCK ENCYCLOPEDIA through the auspices of my middle school’s hall of books (viva the era when the shelves of a public school library could adequately serve the needs of a young bookworm and budding autodidact) I realized how the harshness of my Zep/Sab sensibility also translated to something like short-sightedness. By freshman year of high school I was devouring the uncut electric blues that unknowingly aided and abetted the early hard-rock impulse and quickly begat heavy metal, and was also ogling the work of The Stooges, Velvets and Beefheart as a primer in getting smacked around by the seductive indelicacy of punk. But as is often my wont, I digress. Some may consider my admittance as a metal dabbler to preclude the ability to speak/write on the form, but that’s nonsense. The secret to writing from the perspective of a dabbler is to avoid adopting an authoritative tone (because there is almost nothing more insufferable than a phony expert) and to not slip into a condescending state of mind regarding those that do wield an expert knowledge of the genre in question (because in the end metalhead = jazzbo = garage-manic = blues-freak = classical-longhair). Now when I say dabbler I don’t mean to imply that my appreciation of the style is somehow less zealous in comparison to my feelings over other genres; when heavy metal fires on all cylinders I love it wholeheartedly, and a list of my favorites would include records by Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, St. Vitus, The Obsessed, Melvins, Samhain, Gore, Prong, Earth and Sunn O))). If you glean from this partial list that I’m more “doom” and less “glam” then you’re right on the money, sport. To me, the bold theatricality expressed through Bowie, Bolan, and early Roxy (all of them owing much to that lovely original glam-queen Little Richard) was far more suited to hybridization with punk (making the New York Dolls ground zero in this scheme of thinking). Metal is best when it’s stone-faced as it indulges in cheap, unsubtle, sometimes even cartoony imagery; another of its strong suits is how it acknowledges the relationship between performer and listener while still fostering a direct relationship with the audience as equals (sorta punk, come to think of it). I also like how many contemporary metal acts possess a severe attention to sonic detail that’s tangibly jazz-like, which is no surprise since Bill Frisell has worked with Earth on THE BEES MADE HONEY IN THE LION’S SKULL and Julian Priester, Eyvind Kang and Cuong Vu all contributed to Sunn O)))’s MONOLITHS AND DIMENSIONS. A current name that can easily be added to the above group of worthies is Olympia, Washington’s Wolves In The Throne Room, a band led by brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver that specializes in an unabashedly conceptual brand of rural, environmentally conscious black metal. They’ve just released CELESTIAL LINEAGE, the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2007 with TWO HUNTERS (BLACK CASCADE is the middle entry, issued in ‘09). One aspect of WITTR that I found immediately appealing was their attention to the band dynamic. In some of my (admittedly hit-and-run) black-metal listening I’ve been struck that much of the music doesn’t feel like bands that thrive on the intensity of interaction but rather projects intended to amplify the extremity of the whole endeavor. Chalk it up to the ease of modern home recording that an anti-social teenage Burzum fanatic need not find band members to make his/her masterpiece; no, they can just do it all themselves (needless to say DIY doesn’t mean what it used to). And these sort of projects are cool, but I must admit that it’s not really what I’d accurately describe as my bag; when I want extremity I listen to Prurient, Wolf Eyes, Borbetomagus or Japanese noise monsters like Masonna or The Incapacitants. When I want to hear human beings working it out like a group in a metal context, Wolves In The Throne Room will do very nicely. Not only do they offer the spark of collectivity, but they also display a fine handle on mood, texture and instrumental prowess. Much has been made of the brothers Weaver’s rep as rurally based and heavily ecologically invested individuals, a reality that’s reflected in their recordings. TWO HUNTERS for example is thematically concerned with the lore of the cave-bear cults. And the Weavers are the kind of guys who’ll release their demo CDR all wrapped up in fur with moss included with the lyric sheet to boot. I can dig this. As modern ideologically driven farmers, these two have a lot on their minds, and like many of the great old-time farmer/players of yore, their relationship to musical expression (and to the instruments they play) seems inextricably linked to emotional survival; I get the feeling that under different circumstances WITTR would be making music of this intensity (if not this scale) at home purely for their shared benefit. It seems obvious from their non-traditional stance (a desire to play unusual, non-commercial venues [i.e. not bars], a distaste for moshing and flash photography at shows, an allegiance to older recording equipment and studio techniques) that the Weaver’s approach to music making is, as Valerie Wilmer once put it in a jazz context “as serious as your life”.  Also, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that frequent WIITR contributor Jessika Kenney (she of Sunn O)))’s MONOLITHS AND DIMENSIONS) is in fine form on CELESTIAL LINEAGE. Her vocals help to bring a real sense of tonal diversity to the music, but ultimately the credit must go to Aaron and Nathan Weaver. Much of the record is meditative in delivery, at times even approaching ambient, and the band possess strategies of non-clichéd tension and release that really feel primed for the long haul. It’s been said that Popul Vuh are an influence, and after spinning LINEAGE for the fifth time in a row I’m convinced that’s more than lip service. Somebody play these guys for Werner Herzog, fast. Southern Lord has a very discerning ear for things metallic, and Wolves In The Throne Room is no exception. They’ve just put a trilogy in the pocket, and I'll be keeping tabs on where they head next.