Friday, September 18, 2015

Review - Brian Wilson & Al Jardine (w/ Blondie Chaplin) - Davies Symphony Hall - San Francisco, CA - September 11, 2015

 Mere weeks after catching the opening night of Brian Wilson’s 2015 Summer Tour in Saratoga, CA in June, I was surprised to see that a single, one-off show was scheduled for September in San Francisco. It was a bit difficult to make another set of expensive tickets work, but I couldn’t pass up the chance; perhaps the last chance to see these guys, and almost certainly the last chance this year. What ultimately transpired was that the San Francisco gig was indeed a one-off, and it will be followed by additional shows from October to December, covering areas including the Midwest and South.

Adding to the enticing nature of the show, as if Brian and his band weren’t enough, was the addition of Al Jardine as well as Blondie Chaplin (whose name was added a bit later). Al is on board for all of Brian’s currently-scheduled shows, while Blondie has only been confirmed for this San Francisco show. For this night, Brian was booked at Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony. It was also the venue for Brian’s 2004 Bay Area stop on his “Smile” tour. The theater was built in 1980 and is a beautiful, well-constructed venue. It seats about 2700. The only downside (which I’ll touch on later) is that it’s not sonically tuned that well for “rock” concerts.

I decided to go into the city early in the day and do a few “touristy” things. I’m very proud of the Bay Area and all of the unique things to see and experience. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But honestly, it’s awfully expensive to do anything of note in the city, other than just walk around and look (and even then parking is quite expensive). After blowing too much money near the Fisherman’s Wharf area (we had a good time nonetheless), we made the mistake of driving the one mile or so back towards the downtown area where the theater is situated at about 5pm on a Friday afternoon. I will take full responsibility for the awful timing. But it’s not fun driving through downtown, it’s kind of insane actually, mostly because of the hundreds of bicyclists who, to their credit, aren’t apparently aware that they are constantly about one inch away from having an even slightly distracted driver instantly mow down 50 bicycles before they even know what has happened. It also didn’t help that my meticulous mapping research was instantly rendered useless as the main side street where the theater (and parking garage) is located was blocked off for some unrelated, high-end, outdoor, tented gala event. In any event, I’ll spare any more detail. I eventually made it to the parking garage, where I was actually astonished by how the $15 flat-rate parking actually seemed comparatively cheap.

Davies Symphony Hall is in the middle of numerous downtown landmarks, including most obviously City Hall. It’s a nice, peaceful area once you’re out of your car. The City Hall regularly does a nice lighting motif when it gets dark, and its dome is quite impressive. Waiting in the lobby for the doors to open, I noticed (as I did in 2004, strangely) Nelson Bragg walking around and then talking to some acquaintances before getting them into the venue early. Once inside the outer sort of foyer area (which also provides a multi-level, indoor and outdoor view of the city that is quite impressive), I quickly perused the merchandise stand. As I expected, it was all stuff from the June/July Summer Tour. Frankly, I was okay with this. I snagged a few things back in June, and I was happy to save a few bucks where I could. A poster for the show or something along those lines would have been nice. But the last time I bought a poster at a Brian show that listed cities and dates was 2007. Even the 2013 poster was rather generic.

Inside the venue, I was able to confirm that I did indeed end up strangely with nearly the same seats I had in 2004. The theater is impressive visually, with a huge pipe organ motif behind the stage and hanging lights. Also quite conspicuous are numerous large clear acoustic panels hanging from the ceiling.
Leading up to the show, there were indications the show might not be selling super well. Indeed, this was the second high-priced ticket in the same “market” in less than three months. However, by the time of the start of the show, the floor and first balcony appeared to be 90 to 95% full (I couldn’t see most of the second balcony, but a few photos I’ve seen show that there were plenty of folks up there too).

With no opening act, the band came on stage not too long after 8pm, and went right into the set. While I always hope that the setlist will have something weird and/or new, I fully expected a one-off show like this to stick to the recently-established setlist of the Summer tour. They did indeed do a variation on that setlist, and while I always miss the chance to hear something new, it was still an impressive and wide-ranging setlist, one with a good mixture of styles and eras. Also worth noting is that at least five songs were swapped out from the band’s previous Bay Area show at the beginning of the Summer tour. So I was glad to get some different elements. In addition to the five song swaps, Al took over three leads previously sung by Brian. More on that below.
The band lineup was the same as during the Summer Tour. It looks like Darian may be missing some shows in October, but he made it to this show. The entire band seemed relaxed and sounded good.

The band opened once again with “Our Prayer” and “Heroes and Villains.” As always, they were spot-on and not shaky at all right from the get-go. Matt is really nailing the falsetto parts. “Calfornia Girls” followed, performed impeccably. Brian was in good voice overall, about on par with what he has sounded like for quite awhile. He got a bit whispery from time to time during the show, but it actually made a few of his leads sound a bit more vulnerable.

Al followed with two leads: "Shut Down" and "Little Deuce Coupe." If you check out my review of the 6/18 show, you'll note that Brian sang "Shut Down" and both sang "Little Deuce Coupe" in unison (it kind of seemed like Brian just forgot that it was supposed to be Al's lead). So it was cool to hear alternate leads on these songs, especially since the setlist wasn't otherwise hugely different from opening night in Saratoga or other shows on the Summer Tour.

"I Get Around" followed, and then they once again did "This Whole World" with Darian on the lead, with some help from Brian.

They followed up with "You're So Good To Me", which they didn't do in Saratoga. It sounded fine, with Brian on lead. The band biffed the ending a bit, probably because it was their first show in awhile and this song was only sporadically performed during the summer.

Al offered two of his now-standards for Brian shows: "Then I Kissed Her" and "California Saga: California." These were cool inclusions as well, as neither were performed back in June in Saratoga (he did "Cotton Fields" instead). In fact, when I saw the band in 2013 in Oakland, they also did "Cotton Fields" instead, so this was the first time I got to hear this since the Beach Boys 50th show in Berkeley in 2012. Al as always sounds freakishly youthful and in good voice on his leads.

"In My Room" was next, and Brian played a cool piano part throughout the song, playing in a higher register, evidencing that he does play an active role on the piano during the concert. That was followed by "Surfer Girl."

Matt took his usual vocal turn on "Don't Worry Baby", which often seems to be one of the crowd favorites. Not only is Matt the best falsetto group vocalist the band has had, he also turns in great leads.

"One Kind of Love" was again performed of the new album (which also serves as a plug for the film of course), followed by the introduction of Blondie Chaplin as he joined Al and Brian in singing the lead to "Sail Away." They once again seemed to almost relish and get a kick out of not deciding on precise vocal cues on this song, singing over each other.

Blondie followed with his now standard, barn-burning two-song set of "Wild Honey" and "Sail on Sailor", offering extended guitar solos on both. My only complaint about Blondie is that they haven't tossed him another lead or two to sing while he's on stage.

I was glad to see the return of the "Wake the World"/"Busy Doin' Nothin'" duo. Whereas Brian sang the lead on the former in Saratoga (before Al quickly took over the lead), Al sang it here, and to equally great effect. The band also once again owned "Busy Doin' Nothin'." As I've said elsewhere, no other Beach Boys-related band past or present could pull off a number like that with such ease.

Another difference from Saratoga came in the form of "Please Let Me Wonder", which I believe was only rarely (if ever) performed during the summer. Unfortunately, I think this took the place of "Surf's Up", so I didn't get to hear that one.

Al followed up with a great turn on "The Right Time", followed by Matt's other lead vocal of the night on "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

I think covering the rest of the show would be pretty redundant in light of my review of the Saratoga show back in June. It was the same setlist as Saratoga, and was immensely enjoyable and impeccably performed. The trio of Brian, Al, and Blondie is unbeatable (barring a full reunion of course), and I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity and the means to see them twice this year, and within the span of less than three months no less.

The only technical downside of the show was the sound of the venue. For whatever reason, most likely because the venue was designed, built, and tuned to symphonic shows, the sound was rather muddy. The mix and performances were fine. But the way the sound bounced around the venue led to a somewhat muddy, and slightly cavernous sound. I don't recall the acoustics being quite as muddy back in 2004 for Brian's show at this venue, but that may have been due to the show being a bit more quiet overall, with an opening acoustic set and quieter "Smile" interludes.

The full setlist:

Brian Wilson & Al Jardine (with Blondie Chaplin)
Davies Symphony Hall
San Francisco, CA
September 11, 2015

Our Prayer
Heroes and Villains
California Girls
Shut Down (Al)
Little Deuce Coupe (Al)
I Get Around
This Whole World (Darian)
You're So Good To Me
Then I Kissed Her (Al)
California Saga: California (Al)
In My Room
Surfer Girl
Don't Worry Baby (Matt)
One Kind of Love
Sail Away (Blondie/Al/Brian)
Wild Honey (Blondie)
Sail on Sailor (Blondie)
Darlin' (Darian)
Wake the World (Al)
Busy Doin' Nothin'
Please Let Me Wonder
The Right Time (Al)
Wouldn't It Be Nice (Matt)
Sloop John B. (Al/Brian)
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
All Summer Long
Help Me Rhonda (Al)
Barbara Ann
Surfin' USA
Fun Fun Fun
Love and Mercy

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review - Three 1980 Beach Boys Live Downloads from "Concert Vault"

Something that has no doubt been up online for a while but I only just recently finally investigated is the availability of some live Beach Boys recordings from the “ConcertVault” website. They offer a myriad of live recordings, mostly from years past (it looks like a lot of 70’s and 80’s material), some of which is inherited from the old “Wolfgang’s Vault” website (which still exists as well; more on that a bit later). In terms of Beach Boys material, they offer some shows as streaming-only, while others are available to purchase as downloads. The following shows are available to purchase:

The Spectrum – Philadelphia, PA – April 18, 1980
Hampton Coliseum – Hampton, VA – July 3, 1980 (incorrectly labled as June)
Washington Monument – Washington DC – July 4, 1980 (incorrectly labled as June)
Penn’s Landing – Philadelphia, PA – July 4, 1995

Additional shows available for streaming-only are:
Fillmore East – 6/27/71
Nassau Coliseum – 5/14/79
Springfield Civic Center – 5/15/79

The two 1979 shows are severely truncated; I’m not sure about the Fillmore East ’71 show. It’s worth noting that the Fillmore East and Nassau ’79 shows have “circulated” among fans for many years sourced from soundboard/radio broadcast tapes. I don’t think the Springfield ’79 show had previously circulated. But again, it’s truncated. And more importantly, these are not available to download. 

In terms of purchasing the downloadable shows, here's how it appears the deal works: The three 1980 gigs and the 1995 gig are on both websites (“ConcertVault” and “Wolfgang’s Vault”). If you go to Wolfgang's Vault, no membership is needed and it's $7 per show (320 kbps MP3 files). On ConcertVault, it's $5 per show for the same shows, but you need a membership, which starts at $4 per month.

However, you get a 14-day trial on their memberships. So if you just want to get in and out and download a few shows at $5 each, you can do the membership and cancel it before 14 days are up. You’d also get access to those streaming shows if you’re interested in that.
For my review, I’ll be delving into the three 1980 shows. (I haven’t yet downloaded the 1995 show; I’m not sure if I will. It’s another commonly circulating show that was also aired in live TV back then; given that 1995 show’s rather standard setlist, watching the video of the show is probably more interesting and entertaining.)

A few thing on the specs on these shows. Only the Philadelphia show has individual indexed tracks; the other two consist of one long sound file with the entire show. As previously mentioned, all files are encoded as 320 mbps MP3 files, which is about as good as one can ask for outside of uncompressed/highrez options (which, given the sourcing/quality of these recordings, wouldn’t offer much added quality). These are indeed all soundboard recordings, just the raw house mix that, presumably in some if not most cases, aired live on the radio back then (that these shows were contracted to air on the radio is, I’m guessing, the legal loophole that allows the shows to be sold in the present day). So these shows sound way better than any audience recordings, but there are wonky elements to the live mix just like there probably were at the shows at the time.

First up chronologically is the 4/18/80 Philadelphia show. This aired on the radio (simulcast in several markets) back then and has been floating around for decades. Steve Desper reportedly was brought in to mix/engineer this live broadcast. As most previously-available versions floating around among collectors were sourced from tapes fans recorded off the radio (and in some cases were missing some songs), this version sounds better; really as good as it gets in terms of a master tape made from the live house/radio mix. The show is in true stereo. It even begins with five minutes of the DJ bantering with the resident "Beach Boys expert", who tries and kind of fails to highlight how good the band was sounding on this tour. (I have a soft spot for the 1980 band/tour; I actually think it has been maligned a bit over the years. But a creative peak it was not).

This show actually has some curios as well. A nice solo rendition of "Disney Girls" from Bruce, and the best-sounding recordings of the short period of time when "Goin' On" and "Livin' with a Heartache" were in the setlist (Mike insists that latter was getting a lot of requests at the time). The show is obviously heavy on “Keepin’ the Summer Alive” material, with the two aforementioned songs in addition to the album’s title track as well as “Some of Your Love.” The mix again starts off a bit unbalanced but evens out, although Brian's mic is not very audible through most of it. Sounds like Joe Chemay is at this gig on bass, with Ed Carter on guitar and Mike Meros on keyboards. Bobby Figueroa is on drums throughout; this was the tail end of Dennis' 1979-1980 exodus. Overall, a nice-sounding recording with some unique tracks. The band is generally tight musically. Vocals are good, occasionally a bit wonky (not trying to pick on Mike, but he flats on a few harmony bits here and there). Compared to other recordings from this era, it sounds like the band probably rehearsed a bit more than usual, knowing they would be going out to several markets live on the radio.

The full setlist:
1. California Girls
2. Sloop John B
3. Darlin'
4. School Days
5. In My Room
6. Do It Again
7. Little Deuce Coupe
8. Keepin' The Summer Alive
9. God Only Knows
10. Good Timin'
11. Some Of Your Love
12. Surfer Girl
13. Goin' On
14. Be True To Your School
15. Catch A Wave
16. Livin' With A Heartache
17. Lady Lynda
18. Disney Girls (Bruce solo)
19. Long Tall Texan
20. Help Me Rhonda
21. Wouldn't It Be Nice
22. Rock And Roll Music
23. I Get Around
24. Surfin' USA
25. Good Vibrations
26. Barbara Ann
27. Fun Fun Fun

Next up, the 7/3/80 Hampton, VA show. I don't believe this had ever floated around from a soundboard source before, and considering the next day’s show was simulcast to several radio markets, I would guess they didn’t air this one. I’m guessing sometimes (as evidenced by two consecutive shows being recorded on the 1979 tour for radio) the radio crew would record two consecutive nights for test/references purposes. In any event, the show starts during "California Girls" and has a more uneven, thin-sounding mix. It’s a pretty standard/barebones setlist without some of the interesting curios found on the 4/18 and 7/4 shows. I could swear Joe Chemay is playing bass on this one too with Ed Carter on guitar (one of the tiny tells is a specific bass pattern Carter always plays near the end of "Sloop John B"), but I'm not sure if Chemay was still in the touring band, as he wasn't at the show the following day in Washington DC.

The full setlist:
1. California Girls
2. Sloop John B
3. Darlin'
4. School Days
5. In My Room
6. Good Timin’
7. God Only Knows
8. Do It Again
9. Little Deuce Coupe
10. Catch A Wave
11. Some Of Your Love
12. Keepin’ the Summer Alive
13. Lady Lynda
14. Heroes and Villains
15. Surfer Girl
16. Help Me Rhonda
17. Be True To Your School
18. Wouldn't It Be Nice
19. Rock And Roll Music
20. I Get Around
21. Surfin' USA
22. You Are So Beautiful
23. Good Vibrations
24. Barbara Ann
25. Fun Fun Fun

Onto the most interesting and historic of the three shows: Washington DC, July 4th, 1980 show. This show is of course well-known to fans both for its historic nature (their first free DC gig; the largest crowd they had ever played to and perhaps still to this day the largest), and because an edited hour-long TV special was made from this show and aired on HBO back in the day (and also was released on VHS and DVD in Japan for a very short time). The show was noticeably overdubbed for that TV special. Though, to be fair, little has been re-recorded on that TV special. Rather, they simply beefed up the sound with, most noticeably, extra background vocals and additional keyboard overdubs. So all of the live elements of the performance are still there, though some are mixed differently of course.

This recording of course presents the live "house mix" that went out to radio. The mix starts out a bit wonky, nothing too bad, and then evens out as the show goes on. It is the *entire* show, with the exception of the last second or two of "Heroes and Villains" and "I Write the Songs", which is chopped up into several partial pieces; it also appears the PA went out during the song (Mike mentions this after the song), so only at the very end does it come in at full fidelity. Prior to that, the bits sound like Bruce's vocal and keyboard mic aren't getting directly mic'ed. I figure the guy running the tape deck cut the tape when the PA went out, or just really didn't like "I Write the Songs" (the crowd sounds restless as Bruce does the song; I believe I even hear Dennis telling the audience to shut up and let Bruce sing the song (very loosely paraphrasing)). It's still an enjoyable show, and it's the only decent-sounding (and only soundboard) live recording of the band doing "Santa Ana Winds." The band also offers up several other tracks from the then-new "Keepin' the Summer Alive" album. They also work up an odd one-time performance of the old folk song "Merry Minuet", adding to the politically-charged lyrics some additional, contemporary, deep insights into the political turmoil of the day (such as Mike ending the song with "the ayatollah is a shit.") The Iran hostage crisis was of course in the news at the time, leading to Mike's pontifications as well as Dennis several times mumbling incoherently about the hostages in Iran.

The band sounds pretty good overall, with a few hiccups here and there. Dennis actually drums pretty well. But he seems to be rather wasted by the time the show starts, and when he grabs the mic and starts talking several times, he's sometimes barely understandable between his shredded, raspy voice and his likely drunken slurring. Brian also runs out of batteries at one point despite barely participating. During "Wouldn't It Be Nice", after Al pep-talks Brian into singing, Brian starts out weirdly overly-enthusiastic, almost singing the song in his "Pied Piper" cartoony voice, and then near the end of the song, he literally runs of steam and trails off doing a perfect impersonation of a cassette player running out of battery power.

The full setlist (songs not included in the HBO TV special are in bold):
1. California Girls
2. Sloop John B
3. Darlin'
4. School Days
5. In My Room
6. Good Timin’
7. God Only Knows
8. Do It Again
9. Little Deuce Coupe
10. Catch A Wave
11. Hawaii
12. Merry Minuet
13. Santa Ana Winds
14. Some Of Your Love
15. Keepin’ the Summer Alive
16. Lady Lynda
17. Cottonfields
18. Heroes and Villains
19. I Write the Songs
20. Surfer Girl
21. Help Me Rhonda
22. Be True To Your School
23. Wouldn't It Be Nice
24. Rock And Roll Music
25. I Get Around
26. Surfin' USA
27. Good Vibrations
28. Barbara Ann
29. Fun Fun Fun

These downloads are fun stuff though overall, especially after years of wading through mostly wonky audience recordings. It's kind of a throwback to hearing concerts on the radio.

The Beach Boys/BRI should look at this model as a guide to releasing their HUGE archive of live shows.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Concert Review - Brian Wilson - The Mountain Winery - Saratoga, CA - June 18, 2015 (with Special Guests Al Jardine & Blondie Chaplin)

Brian Wilson, along with special guests Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, put on an impressive and enjoyable opening night show at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California.

I made what I can selfishly say is a less arduous trek to Saratoga as compared to having to make it into “the city” in Oakland or San Francisco for Brian’s fourth appearance at this venue high up in the hills of Saratoga (I’ve caught his previous shows here in 2000 and 2007; while missing his 2011 appearance).

Upon arriving, as is always the case at this outdoor venue, I was able to hear some of the band’s soundcheck. After having my ticket scanned, my first order of business was a visit to the merchandise stand. Disappointingly, there was not a great deal of tour-specific merchandise. A good hunk of the merch consisted of items already previously sold online, including autographed copies of the new album, and an, erm, not-too-flattering pencil sketch-style poster of Brian. My usual fare is a tour poster and program; neither of those were made for this tour apparently. Beyond that, there were tour-specific clothing items (shirts, hoodies, hats), and a tote bag. I went with the hugely overpriced hoodie (not quite as exciting to buy it right now, as I won’t often need it for months) and the hugely overpriced t-shirt (I went with the black t-shirt with the “No Pier Pressure” album cover on the front and tour city names on the back). I at least like to get something that lists tour dates and/or cities; there were only a few of the shirts that had this. Did I just drop $100 on a shirt and hoodie? Yes, yes I did. Financially irresponsible, but I go to few concerts these days.

The day was pretty warm, and the venue requires a few steep walks to get through the parking lot and up into the entrance path. Cut to myself and my significant other paying $12 for two bottled sodas. Neither my girlfriend nor myself are much in the way of drinkers, but we were almost ready to buy some booze just to make the overspending somehow more worth it. But we just went with sodas, and took a walk around and ended up in a spot looking down on the stage and seating area. Blondie was sitting in the front row casually, and was jokingly heckling the folks on the stage, at one point calling out for Al to do a guitar solo. Cue the always-overzealous Mountain Winery staff telling me I was watching a “closed soundcheck.” I simply demurred rather than pointing out that the soundcheck was already over, and that we were simply standing in front of one of the venue’s food shops, and that it’s a freaking open-air venue where the entire lobby/foyer area literally overlooks the actual stage/seating area, where a “closed soundcheck” is literally impossible and the venue chooses to open the area up two hours before showtime. I thought about offering to “un-see” the 30 seconds of non-musical soundcheck, but that sounded way too smartass.

Steep, death-defying drive and over-priced food notwithstanding, one can’t help but admit the venue and location are beautiful. I’ve never been a fan of the slightly stuffy, aloof vibe this venue sometimes attracts. It didn’t help when the still somewhat quaint, homegrown vibe the venue had was partially done away with in 2008 when they remodeled the concert area, turning it from a rustic old winery building with folding chairs and bleachers to essentially a mini-outdoor shed/amphitheater. But the audience at the show was, with a few exceptions that always exist, not stuffy at all, but a healthy mixture of older fans and the younger indie hipster crowd. Also, while the venue has been slightly oddly “modernized”, it’s still a *very* intimate venue that really still doesn’t have a bad seat. I also usually prefer outdoor venues, especially smaller ones, as the sound can breath and doesn’t have the cavernous, muddy sound that some indoor venues offer.

We scuttled to our seats, and I was surprised how relaxed the atmosphere was. I’m sometimes overhyped for the few concerts I go to, arriving way too early and sitting in my seat way too early. But we enjoyed our drinks up above, and then headed down to our seats early, but not too early. I paid for the top tier tickets, again not financially the best decision, but I really haven’t been to much of any non-Beach Boys related gig in the past six or seven years at least (in other words, apart from an odd club gig here or there, my expensive concerts have been essentially the 50th anniversary show in Berkeley in 2012, Brian in Oakland in 2013, and this 2015 show), and was pleasantly surprised with how close to the stage and how centered the seats were.

As usual, I saw several band members as well as Blondie and Al milling around on the sides of the stage. The opening act for this tour is Rodriguez, most well-known for being the focus of an academy award-winning documentary a few years back. To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I’ve seen an “opening act” for Brian. On two other occasions (2001 with Paul Simon and 2013 with Jeff Beck), Brian did joint tours and opened the show. Not being particularly used to opening acts for Brian, I had no expectations for the Rodriguez set. He came on and performed solo on guitar, and it was quite enjoyable. He did what appeared to be some of his well-known tracks and a couple of slightly kitschy covers. Interestingly, perhaps due to this being opening night, several of Brian’s band came out and watched some of his set from the wings. Most interestingly, Al came out and watched the entire Rodriguez set from the side of the stage. It was interesting to watch Al watch a show!
A short intermission followed, during which Brian came out and sat off to that same side of the stage. He seemed quite relaxed actually. Eventually, the band all came out on stage and started up. Brian seemed very jovial and animated. More upbeat than I’ve seen him in some time. Al came out immediately with Brian and the band, while I was surprise to find that Blondie only came out during his lead vocal turns (and then again near the end of the show).

They opened with the “Our Prayer/Heroes and Villains” combo, which sounded amazingly tight vocally and instrumentally. I have to admit, the scaled-back band at the NonComm show last month (no Al or Blondie, and minus a couple backing band guys) sounded a bit rusty and shaky, Brian in particular. Not so here. They sounded amazingly sharp, especially for opening night. This was followed up with “California Girls” and “I Get Around”, which seemed to please the hits-seeking audience members (and everyone else for that matter).

I had heard someone else singing the lead to “This Whole World” during soundcheck, and this was confirmed when the band ripped into the song with Darian singing the lead for what I believe is the first time on tour. Brian did take over during the bridge (“when girls get mad…”). Four more oldies followed with “Dance Dance Dance” (dropped after opening night, as of this writing), “The Little Girl I Once Knew” (Al nicely in the vocal blend on this one), “Shut Down” with Brian singing the lead (later shows apparently have Al taking over the lead), and a weird but enjoyable performance of “Little Deuce Coupe” with both Brian and Al singing in unison. My best guess is this was an “Al” lead (he has sung it in the past with Brian), but Brian missed the cue and sang on top of Al. Al seemed amused.

Matt Jardine got his first vocal turn with “Don’t Worry Baby.” This was my first chance to see Matt Jardine with Brian’s band, and he was impressive. I’ve been opining since 1999 that Matt would be the best falsetto guy for Brian’s band. It was so far-fetched of an idea in 1999, but here we are now. With two defections from Brian’s band, Brian has stumbled into the best scenario.

Al was up next with his requisite awesome take on “Cottonfields”, which the band always seems to enjoy playing as well. At this point Brian dug out his old "Row Row Row Your Boat" routine for the audience, which was fun. As I mentioned, Brian was in a good mood. This was followed by the pairing of the two classic ballads, “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl”, which exemplified why Brian and Al (and Matt) are key parts of the harmony stacks for this live presentation.

They surprisingly threw it back to Matt again for “She Knows Me Too Well”, which Brian has for some reason been regularly adding since last year. It’s great to hear Matt sing something other than the requisite falsetto parts and “Don’t Worry Baby”, and he sounds great on this one.

This was followed by the one true absolute surprise of the evening. Announcing another older song, Brian asked Al the key while Al mentioned that he and Brian wrote the song at Brian’s house. They then went into the first-ever performance by the band of “Wake the World”, with Brian singing the lead (later shows appear to have Al taking the lead). They both seemed to be into it, and after went straight into “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, which was another rarity that Brian has only sporadically added in past years. Al seemed more impressed by the song than Brian himself. Not being hugely into this song over the years (blasphemy, I know), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching Brian sing this one. At the end, he “conducted” the band as they did a live fade-out. This two-song pairing was perhaps the highlight of the show in terms of surprise.

The band then shifted into a four-song set of tracks from the new album, starting with Al’s turn on “The Right Time.” Next up was “Runaway Dancer”, which Al again seemed hugely amused by, simply offering some percussion. Finally, Blondie was brought out on stage and joined with Brian and Al for “Sail Away.” The band sounded tight, but it was amusing to watch all three of the guys still unsure of who was going to sing which part of the song. Blondie exited, and Brian introduced “One Kind of Love” as coming from the new “Love & Mercy” film. They’ve lowered the key compared to the album, but still surprised me with a strong rendition of the song.

Blondie came back out again and reprised his 2013 appearances with energetic performance of “Wild Honey” and “Sail on Sailor.” Brian seemed to be proud of how hard “Wild Honey” rocked. Amusingly, Brian went on autopilot and introduced Scott Bennett to sing “Sailor”, after which Scott noted that “the guy who sang the original record is here” without missing a beat, and Blondie offered an awesomely authentic performance. Blondie exited, returning during the encore on “Help Me Rhonda” and staying for the remainder.

Matt took on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” next. He always sounds impeccable on this one, though it would have been nice to see Al take this one on. They rounded out the main set with “Sloop John B” (Al on lead, with Brian only on the last “poor cook” verse), “God Only Knows”, and “Good Vibrations.”

An encore followed, which ran through the more or less standard encore Brian has been doing for some time, give or take. They ran through "All Summer Long", seguing immediately into Al's "Help Me Rhonda", then the classic "Barbara Ann/Surfin' USA/Fun Fun Fun" run, and then back to closing the show as Brian did in past years with a piano/vocal rendition of "Love and Mercy." For some strange reason, either Scott or Darian sang the final few lines solo without Brian. Not sure if that was planned.

So, overall impressions? Excellent show, very high energy. Al adds a great deal to Brian's show, even when he isn't given a lot of lead vocals. Matt Jardine is the perfect falsetto guy for this band, and it's interesting to see him also take on some background guitar work for the first time. Blondie was a great treat to see again, as I did in Oakland in 2013.

The only downside I can see is that the show was still a bit shorter than past tours (joint tours excepted of course; this show *was* longer than the 2013 Beck show), and the setlist didn't incorporate a ton of mindblowing, new stuff. I would have also liked to see Al sing more leads (subsequent shows have seen Al taking a few of Brian's leads as mentioned above). I was also surprised that, as in 2013, Blondie only came on during his vocal spots and stayed off the stage otherwise apart from the encore. But all of these complaints are cases of wanting MORE of something the band does so well, so I can't help but say this show and tour are quite successful and enjoyable.

I can only hope this lineup continues to do touring at least now and then. I will definitely do my best to see them again when or if they play in my area.

Verdict: Highly Recommended!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Film Review - "Love & Mercy"

I recall one reviewer snarkily opining back in 2000 that “ABC will apparently make a Beach Boys movie every ten years until they get it right.” This was in reaction to the clunker that was the 2000 miniseries “The Beach Boys: An American Family”, as well as 1990’s “so-bad-it’s-funny” TV movie “Summer Dreams”.

Thankfully, when 2010 rolled around, we weren’t subjected to another hack TV movie full of fake beards and “edgy” references to Charles Manson.

Some 15 years later, we have the very different, and in every way superior film “Love & Mercy.” To even discuss the film in the context of those TV movies seems rather ill-advised. The film has little in common in any way with those older films. The context that those older clunkers do give to “Love & Mercy” is that fans finally have a “biopic” (a term reviewers all seem to agree is not really the right term) that is actually art, and that fans don’t have to be embarrassed about or hope that it’s so bad that it can at least get a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.

Director Bill Pohlad has taken what many learned fans would agree is the correct approach: He doesn’t try to shoehorn in a very dense, dramatic 50-plus year history of Brian and the Beach Boys into a two hour film. Rather, Pohlad has tapped two different actors to play Brian during, for the most part, two key periods: The 1966-67 “Pet Sounds/Smile” period, and the 1986-1992 “Landy Years” period (which are more or less condensed into a year or so). These year markings are rough; years are rarely if ever mentioned (and are especially jumbled during the “Landy” years), and the narrative does touch on some periods outside of these timeframes.

I purposely stayed away from reading a ton of detailed reports of the film during or after filming, as well as detailed reviews of the film once it started getting screenings. I obviously knew the basic setup and all of the general details. But I went into this film relatively “spoiler free.”

As many have noted, the film constantly jumps between the two “time periods”, and this is done quite effectively. I took a non-superfan with me, and they did not have any problem following the narrative. While this film isn’t a traditional “biopic” and is certainly about emotion and ambience and atmosphere, it isn’t any sort of experimental, mind-bending film. I mean this in a good way. It’s art, and it’s unconventional for a “biopic”, but it’s not some avant-grade lump of nonsense. It has heart and emotion and is easy to digest.

Paul Dano plays the “60’s” Brian. Dano easily provides the best portrayal of Brian on film to date. They’ve done a good job of giving him the right “look”, with an appropriate hair style and numerous wardrobe nods to known photos of Brian and in general a good eye towards wardrobe and set design (for both time periods). Dano also offers a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal. He’s sometimes weaker and emotional (when confronted by “authority”), but also has periods of self-confidence and actual forward-thinking thoughts that don’t just reek of hippie-dippie nonsense. He also portrays Brian’s eccentricities with sympathy. One of the keys of the writing and Dano’s performance is that the film delineates the different aspects of Brian’s odd behavior rather than lumping it all together: Sometimes he’s just odd because that’s his personality, his eccentricity. Sometimes his odd behavior is due specifically to his emerging mental illness including auditory hallucinations, and at least once, his odd behavior is motivated (or amplified) by LSD.

Dano also does a good job of portraying Brian’s awkward, not always particularly actually funny, but earnest sense of humor. What about the rest of the actors during the 60’s period? Pretty much everybody else takes a backseat. One thing this film does have in common with the other films is that Al comically barely registers. I’m not sure he even had a line in “Love & Mercy.” Even the guy playing “Bruce” got a line or two. Carl and Dennis play a slightly more prominent role, being positioned alongside Brian in several key scenes. Their respective actors provide a solid service, providing the needed mixture of brotherly love, concerned bandmate, and conveying just how young all of these guys are.

As for Mike, the character who has the most potential to stir controversy (both within the film and among film-watching fans), the film actually handles Mike quite well. He’s not pushed all the way to the side; he figures as prominently if not moreso than anyone other than Brian among the band members. The film truly handles Mike as well as it possibly could. Needing to portray that Mike did have misgivings about the new musical direction of the group, the dialogue provides direct references from Mike to those misgivings. But they are done as organically as possible, and the viewer, even grizzled fans who know the full story of the group in all its gory detail, can actively empathize with Mike at several points. At one point, after Mike has helped Brian write the lyrics to “Good Vibrations”, we see Mike in the control room watching Brian spend hours perfecting the short cello parts to the song. Eventually, Mike explodes in a half-serious, half-comical moment, telling Brian they’ve spent hours on the part. This is the stuff one can empathize with.

Murry Wilson gets a few scenes. I wouldn’t even call it a weakness in the film necessarily, but Murry seems a bit shoehorned in. Apart from a more surreal bit near the end where many eras of Brian’s life converge (you’ll have to see that for yourself), Murry mostly has two key scenes in the film. In one, Brian is trying to get Murry’s opinion on “God Only Knows.” Here, we get a requisite brief bit of exposition explaining how Murry had been their manager and had been fired, etc. In another scene, Murry tells Brian about selling the song publishing catalog. The filmmakers seem to be juxtaposing Murry in the 60’s with Landy in the 80’s, and this isn’t an unfounded comparison.

Van Dyke Parks gets a few scenes, although a bit more explanation of his and Tony Asher’s roles (Asher pops up briefly as well) might have helped. In one scene, Mike offers some pretty direct criticism to Parks during a “group meeting” in Brian’s pool. It’s probably a bit more on the nose than it needed to be; Parks is essentially fired on the spot in the scene (and/or quits), literally walking away in a huff. But scenes like this, while having to compress the expositional dialogue, also provide some great symbolic moments, as Brian is positioned away from the rest of the group at the deep end of the pool, insisting everybody come over to his side.

Where the film also succeeds is its actual depiction of music. Too often, music-related films (as opposed to actual musicals) often tend to skip past the whole crux of the thing: the music itself. Thankfully, “Love & Mercy” isn’t just two hours of people *saying* how much of a musical genius Brian is. The film shows and tells us, through a number of meticulously recreated studio scenes. For once, a film has done its homework and provides not only all of correct, age-appropriate studio gear that nerds will recognize, but also uses both vintage and new recordings to meld the footage and music together and truly make the whole thing seem credible. I’m not sure what Academy Award this aspect of the film should get (Set design? Costumes/Wardrobe? Art Direction?), but it should get a nomination if not a win for whichever award is applicable.

As for the 80’s? John Cusack provides a portrayal of a mid-late 80’s Brian that may be visually less accurate (although, as Pohlad has mentioned, Brian’s appearance did indeed drastically change throughout the 80’s; Cusack actually doesn’t look terribly unlike a circa 1988 Brian), but makes up for it with nuance. Cusack goes with some subtle mannerisms and speech patterns that evoke Brian. Frankly, despite Cusack clearly going for a rather eccentric portrayal, he comes across more normal here than Brian actually did in the most of the interviews and public appearances from this time frame that fans have seen. Is Cusack ironing out Brian’s weirdness, or is this a look into the more normal, funny Brian that we rarely get to see? Either way, Cusack effectively portrays the most important aspect of this part of the story: a rather meek, confused, befuddled guy in what is essentially an elaborate version of an abusive relationship. In this case, the relationship is with Eugene Landy. Portrayed by Paul Giamatti, Landy in this film is given the needed sinister gravitas. You buy that Cusack’s Brian cowers before Giamatti’s Landy. Giamatti provides perhaps less nuance. We get less of the subversive, creepy, calm-voiced Landy doing his evil work (though that’s in the film too), and get a bit more of the ranting, screaming iteration of Landy. One can’t help but find one scene particularly tantalizing and awkward, as Melinda hands Brian a hamburger that he starts to wolf down, leading to Landy berating Brian, telling him he only *thinks* he’s hungry. The film surprisingly goes light on Landy overmedicating Brian. The references are made, and we get a couple scenes showing Brian zonked out. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda, and she serves the important purpose not only within the story of working to extricate Brian from Landy’s control, but also serves as essentially the “viewer”, the sane outsider thrown into the odd world of Landy.

Music plays much less of a role in the Cusack portion of the film, relegated mainly to a quick bit with Brian playing the titular song itself in a scene with Melinda.

Are there “errors” in the facts presented in the film? There is surprisingly little in the way of nitpicky quibbles. A few are there, but the filmmakers keep it to a minimum, and I never felt like something was so drastically altered as to change the meaning of the story. The little nitpicky bits would be mostly related to compressing events within a shorter period of time. They want to keep to the 1966-67 timeframe, so Murry selling the Sea of Tunes catalog gets moved up to 1967. Little stuff like that.

What of the Atticus Ross score? Ross utilizes fragments of many Beach Boys recordings, weaving them in and out of somewhat ambient, electronica-ish musical bits. This isn’t a conventional score with orchestral cues. During the film, I found Ross’ work tantalizing, but also feel like a separate release of the score will allow much more enjoyment (and dissection). A release of the score has been rumored to be held up in the bottomless legal pit known as “awaiting BRI approval”, though Pohlad has recently said they still intend to release it. Let’s hope that happens. In addition to the actual musical content of the musical cues, the overall sound design is quite impressive. Auditory hallucinations and key vintage musical cues swoop around the sound stage. I found the surround mix in the theater I attended was a bit muted. The hallucination bits provided loud, immersive surround effects. But relatively straight vintage music interludes sounded a bit quiet, and stayed in the front speakers. I’m not sure if some of this was due to the theater I was at. The front speakers when playing vintage music could have been louder, that’s pretty much my only complaint.

I’ll leave intricate details at that to avoid even more spoilers. The film is truly a feat, not only as a film piece that finally does Brian justice, but also as a film. Aside from the Brian/Beach Boys story, this is a strong film with effective performances. It never devolves into camp. It is art. I can’t imagine a non-documentary ever getting better than this.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Review - Brian Wilson "No Pier Pressure"

"No Pier Pressure", Brian Wilson's first solo album of new material in seven years, and his first project released in the aftermath of the Beach Boys' 50th Anniversary tour and album, offers fans a textured mixture of new and old. The album features heavy involvement from a number of guests, pulling in very old friends and some new. Those still waiting for a Johnny Cash style career renaissance either artistically or commercially may not find it here. The album doesn't break any new ground, but it doesn't have to. The point, in my opinion, is to keep creating. To this end, this new album is a gift to fans. 

Using a number of associates found on the 2012 Beach Boys album, "No Pier Pressure" in some ways continues in both theme and production style what we last heard from Brian with the Beach Boys. 

Much of the publicity behind the album has invoked the Beach Boys, and for good reason. As the Beach Boys's anniversary tour wound down in 2012, it appears clear that Brian (as well as Al Jardine) pretty strongly desired to keep going with the full, reunited Beach Boys lineup both in the studio and on tour. To this end, Brian envisioned his next album to be another Beach Boys album made in a similar format to 2012's "That's Why God Made the Radio." With a cache of unfinished songs from that 2012 album, in addition to a large cache of songs from Brian's late 90's collaborations with Joe Thomas (which also formed the basis for the 2012 set), Brian seemed primed to do what he does best with the band: use them as his instruments, and in the best way possible. Brian seemed more at ease in the studio and on tour with the Beach Boys than he had in years. Clearly, he enjoyed being in a band. He didn't have to do all of the heavy lifting, and it allowed him to finely arrange those voices that he knows better than anyone. 

But this was "not to be" as the press release for "No Pier Pressure" delicately and diplomatically puts it. Mike Love chose to go back to his own band, which licenses use of the Beach Boys name for touring purposes. As the months and years passed, Love aired some of the issues he had with the format of the band's anniversary projects. At the end of the day, whatever the reasoning, it was back to being a solo artist for Brian. 

Perhaps keeping in mind how much he thrived in a group format, Brian utilized this format in alternative ways. 2013 saw him touring with fellow Beach Boys David Marks and Al Jardine. He also reconnected with 1970's Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin, enlisting Chaplin in the studio as well as select live dates. In 2014, he continued to record and did sporadic dates, keeping Al Jardine with his band for most dates. 2015 will see him touring again with Chaplin and Jardine.

Some wondered if the 2013 departure of Brian's long-time right-hand man on the stage and in the studio, Jeffrey Foskett, might negatively impact Brian's momentum. It did anything but. Brian quickly enlisted long-time studio and Beach Boys live band member Matt Jardine, son of Al, to accompany him.

Brian would later admit that both he and collaborator Joe Thomas had been exposed to their kids' music. With this exposure also came a stated desire to be "cool" with their kids. Thus, Brian and Joe called up a number of younger, up-and-coming artists to collaborate to varying degrees. But make no mistake. This is not a "Duets" album. Not only does a good hunk of the album feature Brian alone on lead vocals, but one will find that Brian continues to use these "guests" as if he's still dishing out parts to a band. How much "No Pier Pressure" resembles a "what could have been" Beach Boys album will never be known, but one wouldn't be out of line for suggesting that at least some of the guests are functioning as adjunct, honorary Beach Boys. 

"No Pier Pressure" continues Brian's deep working relationship with Joe Thomas. Nearly all of the tracks on the album are Brian/Joe co-writes, and Thomas also garners a co-producer credit alongside Brian. Simply put, Thomas' work with Brian continues to be a mixed, but productive blessing. Continuing the trend from "That's Why God Made the Radio", Thomas has taken a step back from the more overt role he took with Brian in 1998. Unlike 1998, Joe is not in the touring band. He doesn't appear alongside Brian in interviews. He is much less visible. Also, whether due to the passage of time and change of musical and production tastes, or due to factoring in past criticism, Thomas has toned down his abrasive production and arrangement style. Brian's 1998 "Imagination" album was criticized by many fans as sounding too slick. Thomas was enamored with that "Adult Contemporary" sound. Some feared Thomas was trying to turn Brian's rich music and productions into Kenny G. But in this new 2010's iteration, Thomas has scaled it back. 

That doesn't mean Thomas isn't still a key, audible player. Some of Thomas' production techniques are still there on "No Pier Pressure" in all their glory. Heavy use of oboes and other woodwinds, incessant use of claves and other tinkly instrumentation and percussion, those hallmarks and more are still there. As we will see, this continues to be a mixed blessing. What can't be denied, though, is that Thomas is one of a very select group of collaborators over the years that have been able to facilitate Brian not only creating, but being productive and getting material released.

Given the current climate both in the music industry as well as the fan community, one would be remiss for not tackling the loaded topic of "Autotune", a prevalent audio production tool that has been in increasingly widespread use for the last 15 years or so. While spectators and audiophiles have occasionally tackled this subject as it pertains to Brian's music for many years (questions about the use of vocal sampling/synthesizers have been around since the Beach Boys' 1985 album and Brian's 1988 solo album), the heavy discussion of the topic came to the fore in 2012 with the overt apparent use of autotune on the "That's Why God Made the Radio" album.

Let's get something out of the way: Unless we have an engineer admit to using autotune, we will simply never know what was done to any piece of music. There's no other way to know. Even people who have been in the studio while the stuff is being recorded can't tell you whether autotune was used. Period. All we have is our ears, and for some, a familiarity with the audio anomalies that autotune (and other pitch correction software and effects) introduces. We also have our deductive reasoning.

Unfortunately, some Brian Wilson (and Beach Boys) fans can sometimes be an overly-forgiving, ultra-defensive lot. Yes, there are some cynics with an agenda who will use the autotune accusation as a way to get extra digs in on Brian. But there are plenty of levelheaded, informed fans and commentators who might observe the potential use of autotune. This reviewer is one of them. I think it, or similar effects, are present on this album to varying degrees. The effect is rather muted and subtle compared to the previous two Beach Boys albums (the studio and live anniversary sets). That those albums received a good amount of criticism for excessive use of autotune could well be one of the reasons a more gentle hand is used on “No Pier Pressure.”

The album has been issued in two formats: a "standard" 13-track album and a "deluxe" 16-track album with three additional tracks added into the middle of the album. One or the other of these versions appears to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick. I will be reviewing the 16-track album, and for all intents and purposes I consider this version to "The Album." 

Additionally, some international markets as well as exclusive Target stores in the United States have added two additonal, unrelated bonus tracks. I will address these two tracks at the end. 

The album kicks off with "This Beautiful Day", a short piece that offers an earnest and unvarnished lead vocal from Brian. That's right, that's 72-year-old Brian working up to a falsetto. It sounds just like it should. His voice cracks and strains, but he pulls it off. Rich harmonies, some lovely strings, and some trumpet noodling from guest Mark Isham help round out the track. Some fans have also cleverly noted that, perhaps intentionally, the melody from "Summer's Gone", the last track on Brian's previous album with the Beach Boys, is woven back into this piece. It seems too much of a coincidence. "This Beautiful Day" continues Brian's trend of having the balls to kick an album off with a quiet, somber, meditative piece instead of a barn-burning, uptempo number. 

Likely due to Capitol trying to push the track as a defacto single, we get a rather jarring segue into the next track, "Runaway Dancer." Starting life as "Talk of the Town", the song was reworked when Brian invited Sebu Simonian (of the group Capital Cities) to tweak both the song and the production. The result is the most jarring, divisive (for fans) track on the album. Simonian glitzes the track up with lots of electronica. Synths and electronic beats abound. The track is surprisingly and refreshing still mostly written by Brian (and Thomas), but the production is all Simonian. You can tell how old a fan is, perhaps, by whether they invoke the phrase "disco" when hearing this track. It ain't 70's disco, but it resembles modern "techno dance pop" to the degree any older fan can discern. Is it a good song? It's a catchy, but unmemorable composition.

“Whatever Happened” pops up next, and features cameos from Al Jardine and David Marks. This track is somewhat emblematic of a good hunk of the album. It’s a pleasant, relatively simple mid-tempo track, vaguely in the style of Brian’s mid-60’s productions. It doesn’t offer any super interesting hooks or unexpected chord changes, and as with a number of the tracks, is a bit hampered by the overbearing mixture of the mid-60’s production sound and Thomas’ slick latter-day production ethos. As one review put it, sometimes this arrangement and production style sounds a bit like the music you’d hear at a wedding for Peter Cetera and Kenny G. As with much of his work on the previous Beach Boys album, David Marks’ guitar work here is layered in, and comes in the forms of riffs more than any solos. Thus, to be frank, he’s imperceptible to all but the most ardent Marks fans who are intimately familiar with his playing style. Al’s vocals are woven in to good effect. As with the previous Beach Boys album, a number of tracks on “No Pier Pressure” tend to offer vocals that are somewhere in between a “lead” vocal and a “background” vocal. Several voices, sometimes from two different singers (e.g. Brian and Al) are layered together and mixed in a kind of mush that I’m not a particularly big fan of. This isn’t like the clever way John and Paul sometimes sang leads in unison on early Beatles records. When we can hear a clear and concise single lead vocalist, and certainly when harmonies come in at full force, this song and the album really shine. Overall, a rather middling track that counters its bland aspects with some good vocal work from Al.

Offered up next is a Bossa Nova-ish track from Brian, “On the Island.” The track features the duo of “She & Him” (Zooey Deschanel on vocals and M. Ward on guitar). Nearly a solo Zooey track, Brian teeters on the edge of kitsch in penning this track with Joe Thomas. Deschanel offers a voice tailor-made for such tracks. That is to say, her voice is far more about tone than vocal prowess. She is technically a fine singer, make no mistake. But as with some material of this genre, the tone sticks out more than the virtuosity of the vocal. More impressive and appealing are Zooey’s vocal stacks, with Brian popping into the stacks for the quick choruses. If you’re inclined to like the female chanteuse sound of this genre, you’ll love the song. I’m not that into Bossa Nova myself; it may be blasphemous to point out I’ve never been that enamored with “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” for instance. But one track like this is an enjoyable diversion, even if it’s a bit of a novelty piece.

For the first time in ages, Brian gives us an instrumental in the form of “Half Moon Bay.” Centered around the recognizable, simple repetitive two-chord motif we’ve heard in some other Brian-Joe tracks (think the last part of “From There to Back Again” before Brian comes in), the underlying sparseness of the chord changes are countered with some wonderful wordless harmonies and nice string work. Guest Mark Isham offers trumpet work that quickly wavers back and forth between subtle and understated and elevator cheese. While the mixture of trumpet and some of Thomas’ production touches are excessive, this is still an enjoyable piece.

After some time digesting this album, I have to say “Our Special Love” is the verifiable low point of the album. Written by Brian and Joe and featuring guest vocalist Peter Hollens, the track is overly-synthetic and garish in its use of autotune. Hollens rose to relative fame thanks to a series of YouTube videos where he offered layered, complex vocal harmony performances. I can’t say how much those performances used autotune, but it’s in overdrive on this track. It doesn’t help that Brian has given Hollens one of the more contrived, insipid compositions to work with (the title itself is as bland as can be for crying out loud). It comes across as a Brian reject that was fished out of the garbage can and given to Hollens to have his way with. Hollens offers all harmonies here, including percussion in the form of some lame beatbox-ish work. But it all fails rather miserably, as the whole thing gives synthetic boy band cheese a new meaning. Mediocre song. Embarrassing title. Cloying lyrics. Questionable guest star. Synthetic performance. It’s all uphill from here though, folks. That’s a good thing. Apparently, this mix differs noticeably from the version issued some time back on Hollens’ own album.

A slightly un-Brian-like sound kicks off the next track, “The Right Time.” The organ and jazzy chords in the intro almost give off a quick “Santana” vibe, if only for a few brief moments. Featuring an Al Jardine lead vocal, this track is another one that is emblematic of several on the album. Al offers a sterling lead vocal (with son Matt doing some nice falsetto), and the song is pleasant and catchy and relaxed. The verses have a few jazzy chord changes under Al’s lead, while the chord sequence on the chorus, as many fans quickly noted, is indeed lifted straight from “Lay Down Burden” off Brian’s “Imagination” album. That both Brian and Joe co-wrote both songs in question is not without some justification to note. While the song is pleasant and the chorus slightly catchy (if quite formulaic), I find myself noting the track more for Al’s lead than the song itself. Sorry to say, if anyone else had sung the song, it would be even less memorable. The editing on the song/track doesn’t help either; it seems to move too quickly into the chorus (another verse first might have helped a bit), and the mellow repetitive “right time” chant leading into the middle solo also goes on too long. Interestingly, this was the first track sold as a pseudo-single off the album, and it’s interesting that they chose what is essentially a Brian-penned Al Jardine solo track (Brian does pop in occasionally bridging the verses and choruses). David Marks is billed on guitar on this track as well though, as previously noted, his contributions are difficult to distinguish.

It’s back to the guest spots for “Guess You Had to Be There”, sung (and co-written) with country singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves. Interestingly again, Brian hands over most of the vocals to Musgraves here. The song itself is simple and catchy, in that order. There’s only so much one can do with a simple three or four-chord progression. Brian arranges and he and Kacey sing some nice melodic vocal stacks here. But again, the harmonies are more interesting than the song itself. The song is spiced up with some modern-day typical “country” arrangement bits. Musgraves’ lead vocal has also been extensively processed using either autotune or something else that seems to be going out of its way to sound just like autotune. It gives the lead vocal a rather phasey, synthetic quality. Yes, she has double or triple-tracked the vocal. But it sounds nothing like “old school” double or triple-tracking.

We next dip into the three “deluxe edition” bonus tracks which, as previously mentioned, I will treat as album tracks rather than tacked-on bonus material. “Don’t Worry” sounds like a 90’s attempt at a 70’s slightly blinged-out dance number, complete with pulsating horns (whether fake or real or both) and chugging guitars. It kind of sounds like the stuff the Spice Girls used to fill their albums out with in the 90’s. Indeed, given the late 90’s vintage of some of the Brian/Joe numbers, this song (and maybe even some of the recording) may date from the late 90’s. It’s fun to hear something sort of out of the ordinary for Brian. But this isn’t quirky genius so much as off-model noodling.

“Somewhere Quiet” is the long-discussed attempt at tacking on lyrics to the old 1965 instrumental “Summer Means New Love.” A collaboration with Scott Bennett (one of only two tracks on the album not sporting a Joe Thomas co-writing credit), it’s certainly as good as someone possibly could do to shoehorn lyrics into an old melody that was not written for them. It’s easy to assume any awkward phrasing or meter in the lyrics are due to simply being programmed to hear this song as an instrumental for 50 years. But objectively speaking (especially for me, as someone who has never been a huge fan of the original track), the lyrics do seem a bit clumsily phrased. An interesting curio for long-time fans, but a rather bland “throwback” sounding track isn’t going to win any new fans (or reviewers) over. An un-billed Al Jardine weaves through the backing vocals along with Brian.

“I’m Feeling Sad” is perhaps most noteworthy for Brian’s penchant for writing very simple, direct song titles sometimes. Despite the title, the track is a bit more bouncy and musically upbeat. Brian takes another stab here at "everyday" lyrics, to mixed effect. Wistful is perhaps another possible descriptor. While the overall impression and production still has a Thomas-esque sheen, the track still has enough Brian-isms to keep things interesting. Plus, great layered backing vocals. I could do without quite as many "bops" and "doos" as far as wordless Brian vocal parts, but that's a minor complaint.

As for “Tell Me Why”, see the previous comments about “Whatever Happened.” Most of the same deal applies here. Al offers some great punchy lead vocals, and the entire thing sounds like a modern-day Thomas-tinged attempt to do a mid-60’s “production number” like those heard on “Today.” Excellent as always backing vocals. But the song is again too bogged down in gobs of mid-60’s and Thomas-inspired schlock on the arrangement side.

Easily the stand-out track on the album, “Sail Away” is a collaboration with the “That’s Why God Made the Radio” team of Brian and Joe along with Larry Milias and Jim Peterik. This song ain’t “Pet Sounds II”, but it’s the most enjoyable track on the album. With a lead vocal trading off between Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine, and Brian, the song starts off with its weakest element, a slightly cheesy rip-off of the “Sloop John B” flute riff. After that, we get a slightly sea chanty-ish melodic tune offering simple but effective lyrics and excellent vocals all around. Most importantly, the chords here are great. Again, it’s not “This Whole World” or anything, but it’s a bit more varied but still immensely catchy. The production, flutes notwithstanding, is also less cluttered. This track is about as punchy as the drums are going to get on this album, for instance. Hard-edged it’s not, but even a “yacht rock” sound is welcomed at this stage. The unquestionable album highlight.

The other Brian-Scott Bennett co-write on the album, “One Kind of Love” was apparently written and recorded for the “Love and Mercy” biopic. Sounding compositionally markedly different from the Brian/Joe stuff, the song itself is pretty solid I’d say. Some interesting chords, an earnest lead vocal from Brian. The production is still too saccharine. While the drums are punchy (if sounding a bit like 80’s drums), I could do without the trumpet/flugelhorn sound that makes it sound like a “Full House” transitional music cue. I also like some of the Brian-heavy punchy, layered backing vocals. For better or worse, this is one of the more solid all-Brian tracks on the album.

“Saturday Night” is a tough one to review. Written by Brian and Joe and once again a near solo lead vocal from younger singer Nate Ruess, it sounds nothing like a Brian track. But it’s catchy and simple, in that order. It’s modern day pop/rock. It has the most simple of immensely catchy chord changes. For some reason layered with a bunch of country-ish adornments (banjo, mandolin) despite Ruess not appearing to be a country singer, the track offers a solid lead. I’m not that into his voice. It’s a bit bland and unremarkable, but its higher register allows him to own the song quite well. Some nice (again, as always) backing vocals flesh the track out.

The highly-anticipated “The Last Song” closes out the album. Originally pegged as a potential duet with singer Lana Del Rey (how much recording actually took place with Del Rey has been debated), the somber, emo, slow-paced track that eventually builds up into a larger production indeed sounds similar to some of Del Rey’s work. In terms of quality (not actual composition), this track actually reminds me quite a bit of “Summer’s Gone” off the last Beach Boys album. It’s an effectively emotional track, tinged with unavoidable sadness and direct links to Brian and the Beach Boys’ story which fans can’t help but be emotional about. It features pleasant, simple chords, and relatively simple lyrics. It just doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot like classic Brian works do for me. It’s just not musically memorable enough. I don’t even mind the (hopefully) meaningfully simple wordless “la la la” vocals.

In writing about each track on this album, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there’s less on the positive than on the neutral or negative side. I feel like the album as a whole holds together better and is more enjoyable than my individual track commentaries would suggest. All I can really add is that I’m glad Brian continues to make music. Integrating Al into the fold is the best decision Brian has made in years, and his prowess for arranging and recording group vocals is second to none. I don’t feel like “No Pier Pressure” is Brian’s best solo work, but it’s a welcome addition to the catalog.

The Target-exclusive edition offers two extra, unrelated bonus tracks.

The first, and far more interesting, is a 1975 Brian studio demo (simple vocals and piano) for “In the Back of My Mind.” Not surprisingly similar in ambiance to his 1974 “California Feelin’” demo released on the “Made in California” set, the recording features Brian’s voice in what can only be described as somewhere in between his early 70’s still-youthful whine and his later 70’s raspy, lower register voice. Brian re-writes portions of the song here, and it sounds like a rather impromptu (or at least unpolished) take on the song. This would have been perfect for the “Made in California” set. I can’t imagine how they arrived at the decision to pick this as an extra bonus track here, but I can’t complain given that there is still a relative paucity of “Brother-era” outtakes out there officially released. The context of this recording (why was he re-writing/re-recording the song?) may be more interesting than the actual performance is entertaining, but either way, this is a boon to scholars of the band.

A take on “Love and Mercy” is also included, and we quickly find upon listening that this is the same recording released as part of a medley with “Walking Down the Path of Life” as a single a decade ago. The “..Path of Life” song has simply been clipped off the front, leaving a nice sparse take of “Love and Mercy” that mirrors the live arrangement Brian used in concert at the time (which excises the wordless bridge part of the song). Less of a boon to collectors given it was released years ago, but still enjoyable.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review - "Brian Wilson and Friends - A Soundstage Special Event" Blu-ray

I was quite surprised a few weeks ago to see that the WTTW PBS website, home to the station that produces the "Soundstage" show, was already selling various packages including a DVD of Brian's "Soundstage" show. The show has just started airing this month on PBS stations, so I was surprised to see a longer version of the special offered so soon. Initially, the website only offered what purported to be a DVD of the show. Soon after, they clarified that the release is a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, which is GREAT news!

It appears this release will be "exclusive" to PBS (meaning presumably the website and most likely as a PBS pledge drive "gift") until November at least. So I would advise picking this up. The website offers several packages, including packages that include concert tickets. I went with the $30 package (plus $10 shipping!) that includes a signed copy of the Blu-ray/DVD set, and a completely superfluous copy of the "standard" 13-track edition of the "No Pier Pressure" CD. In a nice move, they've had Brian sign in the inner card insert to the set. Perhaps I'll use the cover from this superfluous CD to put in a frame alongside the autograph or something. In any event, I essentially paid $40 to get the Blu-ray of this show (with the autograph as a nice little extra bonus). Packaging nerds will want to know that the combo pack comes in a cardboard "digipak" style case, with a plastic tray for the two discs. The digipak is DVD case height rather than Blu-ray height, which may annoy super-nerds who want all their Blu-ray discs to match when shelved.

Let's get the video and audio quality stuff out of the way first. I'm of course reviewing the Blu-ray here. On the audio side, the disc offers a 24-bit PCM stereo (2.0) track, as well as a DTS-MA 5.1 track. Both sound just fine. I can't complain and can't offer much excessive detail. Joe Thomas produces and directs the "Soundstage" show, and this like his other shows I've seen look and sound excellent. On the video side of things, we of course get a nice pristine HD picture. On a few occasions, the picture slightly jitters. This doesn't seem to be a camera issue; but perhaps some sort of mastering or compression issue. It only happens on rare occasions for a few seconds, often during a busy moment on screen, and it's only worth mentioning in that it would probably keep me from giving this a full "10" on video quality.

Let's get to the contents! The main "feature" includes the majority of tracks from Brian's show in Las Vegas this past December. The tracklisting: 

Our Prayer (w/ Al)
Heroes and Villains (w/ Al)
Sloop John B. (w/ Al)
Dance, Dance, Dance (w/ Al)
Good Vibrations (w/ Al)
This Beautiful Day (w/ Mark Isham)
Runaway Dancer (w/ Sebu)
Don't Worry Baby (w/ Sebu)
Marcella (w/ Blondie, Ricky, Al, and Billy Hinsche)
Wild Honey (w/ Blondie, Ricky, Al, and Billy Hinsche)
Sail On Sailor (w/ Blondie, Ricky, and Al, and Billy Hinsche)
Sail Away (w/ Blondie, Ricky, and Al)
Half Moon Bay (w/ Mark Isham)
Don't Talk (w/ Mark Isham)
Saturday Night (w/Nate Ruess)
Hold On, Dear Brother (w/ Nate Ruess, Blondie, and Ricky)
Darlin' (w/ Nate Ruess)
On the Island (Studio, w/ She & Him)
God Only Knows (Studio, w/ She & Him)
The Right Time (w/ Al)
Wouldn't It Be Nice (w/ Al)
Help Me, Rhonda (w/ Al)
All Summer Long (w/ Al)
Fun, Fun, Fun  (w/ Al, Blondie, Ricky, and Sebu)
Guess You Had To Be There (Audio Only, under credits and interview)

I have to say, considering they always end up cutting some songs, they did a great job of including most of the most interesting songs from the show. Al sits in during most of the set, although he exits during the other "guest" spots. Brian still handles some of his leads, handing the lead over to Al for part of "Sloop John B.", and having Al sing "Wouldn't It Be Nice", in addition to Al's other regular leads. 

The show overall is refreshing and relatively full of energy. There has always been something just a bit sterile and reserved about Brian's stage presentation. Not just himself, but having the huge backing band on stage. This band is about the music, not showboating. I've always loved that about this band, and Thomas has produced a show that strikes the perfect balance between that attention to detail and also having a colorful, lively stage presentation. Thomas' direction is straightforward as well, without hyper quick-cutting. The direction and editing is perfect for such a show, managing to move around to shots of the entire band, but doing so at a proper pace. The backing band sounds great as always. Brian "Ike" Eichenburger is the falsetto guy on the show, but he is augmented on and off throughout the show with Matt Jardine. Having both guys along with the rest of the band sounds great. It's sounding like Matt will be the guy on the 2015 tour, and I'm excited about that, but I would love to see both Ike and Matt together.

Brian sounds as good on this show as he is ever going to on a live video presentation. They've done their best to polish Brian's performance up. There may be a bit of post-production work with his voice. But on the whole, everything sounds live and not futzed with after the fact. Al sounds AMAZING on the show. His voice shines, providing that key "Beach Boys" sound to the backing vocals, and delivering amazing robust and youthful sounding lead vocals for a guy past 72 years of age. 

Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar are a great addition. Ricky stays in the back drumming on his songs, and sounds just fine. His presence and the importance of having four guys on stage who recorded "So Tough" and "Holland" is the key. Blondie sounds cool on his vocal turns on "Sail on Sailor", "Wild Honey", as well as his bit on "Sail Away." I have to say "Sail Away" steals the show among the "new" songs on the album. It's a solid composition, and having Blondie, Al, and Brian all trade off on lead vocals. Blondie (and Ricky) are in a supporting role on "Hold on Dear Brother", but you can tell Blondie in particular likes resurrecting the track. 

Mark Isham's trumpet work is just fine. I'm not that big on trumpet wankery. He just has a small part on 'This Beautiful Day", while he is featured more prominently on the pleasant instrumental "Half Moon Bay." His most enjoyable work probably comes with his turn on the "Pet Sounds" track "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)." 

Sebu Simonian and the band offer a live take on the electronic-laden track "Runaway Dancer" that sounds a bit more rocking and organic. Sebu also offers a fine if not super memorable take on "Don't Worry Baby", with only a bit of off-script vocal riffing.

Aside from any Beach Boys, Nate Ruess offers the best guest spot. He has a voice in the higher register, and this helps in singing some songs otherwise likely out of the range of other folks in the band. I find his voice to be pleasant but a bit on the bland side. But he has the range to offer excellent and energetic renditions of three tracks. He first belts "Saturday Night" from the new album, with the entire band offering excellent backing. Then, with perhaps the most ingenious and daring setlist selection of the night (not sure if Ruess or someone else picked it), he brings Blondie and Ricky back out to back him while he offers a performance of the "So Tough" track "Hold on Dear Brother", offering a performance full of gusto if nothing else. Rounding out his set is a nice take on "Darlin'." As with Sebu, he offers a few vocal riffs/ticks that I'm not a fan of, but his voice is attuned well to a song like this.

The show strangely takes a detour for two (possibly partly or wholly staged) studio "peformances" with Brian and "She & Him", featuring Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel has a nice vocal tone, and is one of those singers who is more about tone than epic vocal prowess. We get studio renditions of "On the Island" (off the new album) and "God Only Knows." She fares better with the former.

The set rounds out with more of Al, offering great vocals on "The Right Time" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (the best Al has sounded on the song in eons!). 

At the last minute literally as the credits roll, they manage to shoehorn in some quick interview bits with Kacey Musgraves while a bit of her track with Brian, "Guess You Had to Be There", plays in the background. 

On to bonus features. There are individual interview segments with the young guest stars. The most interesting "bonus" bits are two additional songs: "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Summer's Gone." Brian does the former solo with his band, while Al joins in for the latter. They offer faithful renditions of these tracks from the 2012 Beach Boys reunion album. 

Simply put, this is easily the best *looking* live video presentation we've ever gotten from Brian, and it's probably the best content-wise as well outside of his "Smile" and "Pet Sounds" sets (and on those, the music and performances are great, but the stage and video presentation are a mixed bag). It offers a good mixture of Beach Boys and guest stars. This is easily a must-own.