cartwheels into your heart

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Constantly see what I'm listening to with Audioscrobbler!

LATER: Dear Audioscrobbler, you are chronically buggy and update my playlist infrequently. That doesn't stop me from checking the site at least three times a day, though. Love, John.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

It's hard to talk about what's lacking about the new Smile without resorting to hoary complaints that don't really have much to do with the actual music and frequently fall into the trap of "rockism," an old term that gained legs after being made subject of a recent New York Times cover story. Writer Kelefa Sanneh explains that a rockist approach to music criticism privileges the old over the new, the raw over the slick, the artist over the producer -- and all strictly as a matter of course. And though rockism is usually used in defense of folks like Brian Wilson -- "idolizing the authentic old legend ... while mocking the latest pop star," to quote Sanneh -- it's equally applicable to some of the more prevalent critiques of Smile.

For instance: the new Smile, some have said, isn't the real Smile, since it wasn't the Smile the band set out to make back in 1966. These critics want as faithful a recreation of the band's original intentions as possible, which means, for one, using the actual sixties recordings and, ideally, summoning Dennis and Carl Wilson from the dead. This line of argument, while romantic, is a moot point in the face of these impossibilities.

More interesting, perhaps, is the notion that, by finally being completed, Smile makes vulgarly concrete what was once mysterious; in attempting to fulfill a potential, it only destroys the magic of its potentiality. Which, I have to admit, is awfully compelling. Listening to the old tapes, as I have, you feel privy to a secret and a sense of giddy excitement at imagining what might have been. You start to construct a Smile in your mind, equal parts Brian Wilson's genius and your own good judgment, that's perfect only because it's intangible, unknown. Less a teenage symphony to God as one, perhaps, from Him. The new album, the mere fact of the new album, of course, ruins all this.

The problem with both of these points is that they seem to deny a priori that a new recording could ever be good. And they also seem to play into a canard about the sacred power of the primitive and the spontaneous in creative works. Never mind the fact that the recording process for the original Smile sessions lasted over a year. In the mid-sixties flurry of rock history being invented at every turn, the original tapes are seen as a veritable inspiration incapable of being resurrected -- especially since the myth tells us that the band was all downhill after that.(1) In this view, the 1966-67 recordings are the opium-induced dream in Coleridge's "Kublai Khan"; the 2004 version is the end of the poem: the more measured, faltering attempt to recapture what is gone.

And yet how else to explain what doesn't work about a project that's actually fairly faithful to the sound of the original, without any obvious juiced-up, digitally altered production as some might have feared? The closest I can come is this: One thing I liked about the original tapes was their fragmentary nature, and not just because I liked envisioning how the puzzle pieces fit, but because I liked the puzzle pieces as they were (scattered), too. There's a moment in the song that's now called "Roll, Plymouth Rock," where a chorus of high voices chants, "Bicycle rider, just see what you've done, done to the church of the American Indian." In the sixties sessions, or at least the version I have(2), this line is suddenly followed by a soaring violin that's equally beautiful and ridiculous in its abruptness. Now it just goes back to the verse. I also like hearing the myriad variations on the "Heroes and Villains" theme, one after another, randomly, directionless. Whereas the new record is still strange for a pop album but less absurd. And in streamlining some of this chance jaggedness, the 2004 Smile begins to resemble nothing so much as a whimsical American musical revue.

Which isn't such a bad thing. Brian Wilson wanted to be taken seriously as a composer, and on Smile you can hear the trademarks of a distinctly American style of composition, in the open-chord arrangements and the quoting of common folk songs. (Just as Aaron Copland stole old Shaker melodies, Wilson swipes "You Are My Sunshine.") But the new version also somehow reminds me, for the first time, of the songs in Waiting for Guffman, the mockumentary about a community-theatre troupe who perform a musical about the history of their small town. And as much as I love the dizzying "Stool Boom" and the kitschy clip-clops of "Covered Wagons," it's not quite what I want out of Smile. At the same time (lesson alert!), I recognize that if I'd heard these songs for the first time yesterday, without any prior context, I'd probably love it.

(1) Which isn't really true. At least not if my copy of Friends (1968) is any indication.

(2) Cobbled mostly from the 1993 Good Vibrations boxset, I gather. I'm not sure. It's an unmarked CD courtesy a friend of a friend.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

I never realized until last night, dancing at the Ice Factory, just how good Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" actually is. Now before you sling Patrick Bateman accusations at me, observe that the song artfully blends three elements: Whitney's cosmopolitan, almost lite-jazz verse vocals; the aerobic-workout party horns; and (most important) this electro synth-bass that really grounds the song in a way that a lot of too trebly and spacious eighties pop can't quite manage. Basically, it synthesizes a handful of sounds in the air at the time (Sade, Phil Collins, New Order) in a pleasing way. Plus, it never fails to happily remind me of Natalie Brooks, Salvia Smith, and Jennifer Hammond, whose choreographed lip-sync routine of this song won them second place in our fourth-grade talent show. (I'm not too modest to say I won first place -- with my bizarre kid impersonations of Ronald Reagan, Joan Rivers, and Julia Child -- but I also voted enthusiastically for the Whitney fans.)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004