28 February 2007

Brian Wilson - Smart Girls & Spirit of Rock n Roll


You know why people say Brian Wilson is a genius? Because he is one.

To see beyond the limits of your field of work, to be bold, inspired, to expand and redefine your entire artform in a way that nobody had conceived of before and that makes pretty much everyone who comes after you respect your work and a serious proportion of them take heavy influence; that is what he has done. That is genius.

And still he hears it in his head. How else can he do all those breath-takingly heartmeltingly beautiful multitracked harmonies by himself?

Brian Wilson has made some of the most transcendently beautiful music ever recorded, and also some of the worst. Weirdly, he and many of his fans seem unable to tell which is which.

I know of Beach Boys fans who listen to a bootleg of 20 minutes of dogs barking because it's the recording session for the dogs you hear at the end of Pet Sounds.

The emotional strength of his work comes not through profound insights in the lyrics, but through matching complex harmonies and visionary arrangements with straightforward heartfelt words. I strongly suspect the latter quality is to do with an arresting of Brian's development thanks to fame.

I went to see Ray Davies reading from his (more or less) autobiography X-Ray. The book's written partly in the voice of a 19 year old, because that's how old he was when You Really Got Me hit, and a part of him got stuck there.

It made me make sense of Brian Wilson, the way that his songs have this childlike wonder, this simple approach to love. The trick is that his music is so luscious and ethereal that it elevates it, it seems so heavenly that it calls on the bit in the middle of us where, for all our adult wisdom and sophistication, we still just want to love and be loved and nothing else in our lives really works if that stuff ain't right.

After a decade in the void following Beach Boys Love You, he came back with an eponymous solo album in 1988. Despite the record company administering overdoses of big name producers, Brian still managed to make what we want the most, what he does best; a record of wide eyed tender wonder with a strong melancholic undertow drenched in astonishing harmonies (all vocals done by the man himself, too).

He recorded a follow-up, Sweet Insanity, that remains unreleased. For good reason. With the arguable exception of Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel, it's fucking awful.

There are, however, two curiosities on it that you should know about.

One is The Spirit of Rock n Roll, fairly unremarkable except for the fact that it's a duet with Bob Dylan. (Incidentally, for another Dylan-backed career anomaly, check out Leonard Cohen's riotous Don't Go Home With Your Hard-on, featuring not only Dylan but Allen Ginsberg too).

The track appears to feature the same twat who played saccharine sax on every bad record in the 80s. I reckon there have only been four sax players in the history of pop records. Each decade has the same sound. I can imagine how busy that filthy honking sax player was in the 50s. At the turn of the 80s insipid Saccharine Sax came along - first on Echo Beach, I think - and stayed for ten years or so.

But this is all as nothing to compared with what you're about to receive. Sweet Insanity's outstanding mp3 from Hades is Smart Girls.

Taking appallingly heavy-handed samples of Beach Boys classics and working them into his - ye gods - rap lyric, Brian tells us of a personal revelation.

He used to write songs about pretty girls. Now he's realised that it's just shallow crass objectification of women. He now wants them to look nice and be very clever with it.

Wouldn't it be nice
If PhDs
were stroking me with hypotheses?

Think that's bad?

God only knows what I'd be
Without smart girls
Hip hop and harmony
I'm wiser now, I know where it's at
Intelligence is an aphrodisiac
So if you're seekin' that perfect mate
Listen to Brian, beauty's good but
Smart girls, talkin' 'bout smart girls
Sexy legs with high IQs
Smart girls, I love the smart girls
You brainy babes with your attitudes

The song offends on pretty much every level possible. The utter stupidity and unintentional irony of saying you're beyond sexist objectification of women by narrowing the perameters. The shoddy production. The shit rhymes. The slimy sexual politics. The thorough desecration of his own titanic talent not just in performing this crap but in hacking into his perfect recordings from the past less like a sampling producer and more like a googly-eyed frothy-mouthed crack addled murderer flying round the tape archive with a jetpack and a chainsaw.

It's by far the worst thing he's ever recorded. And that really is saying something.

The Sweet Insanity album was so self-evidently shite that it never came out and, worse, gave the record company the leverage they needed to make him do a tired retread of old hits for his next album, the entirely superfluous and negligible I Wasn't Made For These Times. Ever since, his proper new albums have suffered from Eric Clapton guest appearances.

We should be enormously thankful for his amazing backing group the Wondermints who've given him the confidence to tour again and got him to finish the frankly astonishing Smile project.

[MP3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]


Gyrus said...

I tried to listen to Smart Girls, but couldn't stay the distance. All I could think of is the discomfort Bob Dylan must have felt when he came in to do the other track. Brian says, "Hey Bob, listen to what we laid down yesterday!" - and he has to sit there nodding vaguely. Of course, those situations are where the perennial shades and mumbling come in handy...

Mick said...

Just found your excellent site. I've recently started a similar blog but I seem to have got stuck in late 70's early 80's new wave.

merrick said...

Hey Mick, I think it's no bad thing to get stuck in a particular genre or era - write about what you know and love!

howard said...

I saw Brian for both the pet sounds and smile concerts and they were both amazing, but I understand your points about the albums from Brian Wilson onwards. Just pants, marginally better than the High llamas, but not by much. Paul Steel's April & I was the last record I heard with a little of the magic of Brian of old, and maybe HAL before that.

Anonymous said...

Oh geez.

"Spirit of Rock and Roll" is fine by me. But words can not express the damage done to my soul by listening to "Smart Girls" all the way through.

And I have never despised Eugene E. Landy more than I do right now.

Stephanie Williamsonian said...

Just stayed the distance with Smart Girls and all I can say is... "NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK" and "UGH!"

Cool blog, bring back the Feargal!

Anonymous said...

"muh muh muh this is so offensive to my soul"

this is the best song i've ever heard. especially knowing that it's in such stark contrast to his background/he's also more or less insane. you guys are uptight, i was laughing my ass off.

Anonymous said...

the world is spinning into absolute novelty. get use to it and embrace it.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)