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At long, long last, Capital has issued the PET SOUNDS boxed set, THE PET SOUNDS SESSIONS [CDP 7243 8 37662 2 2], "Produced by Brian Wilson." To give you an idea of how long in the making this set was, the booklets (there are two) and packaging refer to this as a "30th Anniversary" set - the 30th anniversary of PET SOUNDS' original release was May, 1996. The actual release date for the boxed set was November 4, 1997 - or a year and a half later.

But better late than never. This set contains four CDs - the three in an 'old fashioned' double-jewel box, and the 4th, a bonus of sorts, in its own jacket. That 4th CD is an accurate digital replica of the original, mono-mix release of PET SOUNDS, in a miniature version of the LP jacket.

The original, May 1966, PET SOUNDS was released only in mono and fake-stereo ("Duophonic Sound"). It was a huge favorite in my house - my then-wife and I sang its songs in Brooklyn subway stations, late at night, while waiting for trains (great accoustics!). I had - and preferred - the fake-stereo version; it gave the illusion at least of being spread over a broader stage, rather than being centered between two speakers. The story is that Brian mixed for mono because he was deaf in one ear. The real reason was because he was still mixing for AM radio play, although he was very consciously creating a coherent album, rather than a collection of singles destined for radio.

Rock thinking was, then, more than ten years behind that of jazz, when it came to conceptualizing in terms of albums. Brian started thinking in terms of producing a whole album only after hearing the Beatles' RUBBER SOUL, in 1965. (Ironically, in the competitive turnabout of the times, PET SOUNDS directly inspired the Beatles' SGT PEPPER album, which in turn influenced the Beach Boys' SMILE - on which Paul McCartney guest-produced "Vegetables.") The booklets for the boxed set are full of praise for PET SOUNDS and Brian Wilson's work on it, from people like McCartney and George Martin. It is referred to as one of the best albums of all time.

Frankly, much as I liked it, the superlatives were getting to me - until I started playing the three main discs in this set.

Disc one opens were the completely newly remixed true-stereo version of the album. In order to produce real stereo, the original track tapes had to be used - the tapes that were originally used to produce the original mono master-mix tape. This means they are one to three generations fresher than that original master. The new stereo mix was done meticulously to follow the mix and fades of the original, with side-by-side comparisons as it was done. The notes make much of the fact that this is a "different" way to hear PET SOUNDS, not necessarily a "better" way. But of course, sonically, it is better. There is more spacial clarity, more transparency. One can hear more in the way of small details. As far as I'm concerned, the sound is definitely improved.

But that accounts for only the first 13 tracks of a 28-track disc. What follows are the "sessions." These generally follow an A-B pattern: first "highlights from Tracking Date" for each of the songs - session outtakes that allow you to hear the sound for a piece evolve as Brian tries out different ideas with the musicians - and then the stereo instrumental backing track as it was recorded (no fades, just "Okay, thank you" at the end of the successful take). In addition to the pieces used on PET SOUNDS, there are the "highlights" and tracks for "Trombone Dixie" (never used, until released as a bonus track on the first CD release of PET SOUNDS), and "Good Vibrations," which was started at the same time as the album.

These "Sessions" continue on and are completed on disc two. There are no "highlights" for "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)", but to compensate, there's Brian's complete piano demo for the track, as well as a separate track for the strings overdub.

Disc three contains "Stack-O-Vocals" - the vocal tracks, sans backing, for the eleven songs on the album. Here tiny snippits of instrumental music fade in and out during vocal breaks so there won't be "dead air" for several bars. The remainder of the disc contains 19 tracks collectively grouped as "Alternate Versions," most in mono. These are single versions, promos, and the like - like a version of "God Only Knows" with a brief sax solo. Each of these three discs contains almost one and a quarter hours of music.

What they accomplish is the complete deconstruction and reconstruction of the original album. We are allowed a view/hearing of the inner workings of those gorgeous melodies, which turn out to be built of melodies in counterpoint, each of which has merit of its own, but the sum of which is even greater, and surprisingly organic and complete. To understand this is to understand Brian Wilson's genius as a composer.

Listening to these discs, I find myself cycling through the "sessions" and back to the stereo version of the whole album - each time finding new details to appreciate. The instrumental backing tracks are integral to the sound of the album, but fascinating to hear on their own, more open and not buried beneath the vocals. Similarly, the vocal tracks reveal surprising complexity and layering of voices and sounds. To hear the backing tracks by themselves is to hear the counter-melodies Brian constructed to back the main melodies. And the two instrumental tracks on the album, "Let's Go Away For A While," and "Pet Sounds," make me speculate about the unheard vocal melodies which might have been intended to be overlaid on them. ("Pet Sounds" was originally called "Run James Run" and was intended for a James Bond film.)

What I'm saying is, those extra tracks are more than a gimmick, or padding. They reward repeated listening. They enhance my appreciation for and enjoyment of the "real album," which conveniently opens the first disc. And the new sonics definitely help. This really was (and still is) an epochal album.

That said, I don't think much of the packaging format, the same one used for the earlier Capital/Beach Boys boxed set - a tall box that stands as tall as an LP, but is no deeper than a CD case. It's an awkward size, fitting poorly on most shelves, too tall for CD shelves, too shallow for LP shelves. Fortunately, the three main discs come in their own jewel box, and can be shelved that way. One of the two booklets (the one with most of the information) is sized for the tall box. The other (mostly interviews, with an intro by Mike Love) is CD-sized, a square little book.

There are references in the tall booklet to the next archival Beach Boys release: a similar treatment (but probably on fewer discs) of "Good Vibrations." By now it too is late, but perhaps we can expect it in 1998.                                                   

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