Columnated ruins domino
My latest obsession has come in the guise of listening to Brian Wilson’s 2004 album, Smile. Released a little more than three years ago by Warner Music’s art label Nonesuch, Smile was assembled from newly re-recorded fragments of what was then rock music’s most famous unfinished masterwork—well, aside from Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy.
The original Smile was slated to follow the Beach Boys’ 1966 Pet Sounds, which was an artistic triumph but, at that time still a commercial disappointment. Slated for the beginning of 1967, Smile never got released, although songs from it ended up on later Beach Boys albums. Those songs hinted at the brilliant slice of Americana that had been abandoned by its creator, who was plagued by doubt and paranoia fueled by the internal dissention within the Beach Boys, some of whom did not want to abandon the low but well traveled road of mass acceptance for the high mountain path of artistic adventurism. The Smile story was sweetly chronicled in David Leaf’s 2005 documentary, Beautiful Dreamer.
Point is, Smile combined a melodic beauty that often recalled Bach, or Gershwin, with an esoteric journey from Plymouth Rock westward to Diamond Head; it was a combination of the familiar and the strange that’s sorely missing.
Wilson’s lyricist on much of Smile, Van Dyke Parks, is still active, and last year wrote string arrangements for Nevada City singer/harpist Joanna Newsom on Ys (Drag City)—an album with five long songs, or suites, that sometimes sound like an American Björk run amok on mushrooms in the landscape of the animated Disney film Fantasia. This weekend, Newsom will perform with a 40-piece orchestra at a sold-out Music in the Mountains production in Grass Valley.
So musical adventurism isn’t dead, and may even be more alive than ever, now that the major-label colossus that dominated popular music since the 1970s lies in ruins, and now that the careerists who made music only to “get signed” either switched to doing it for love or found sales gigs outside of music.
One of the better new discs I’ve heard is Aficionado by local singer-songwriter Lee Bob Watson, formerly a member of Jackpot. Recorded with co-producer Dana Gumbiner at Station to Station in Grass Valley and released by Nevada City indie label Grass Roots, Aficionado evokes that late-1960s period in music after Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde changed the way people thought about music. Watson, backed here by Jackpot’s Rusty Miller and Cake alumni Gabe Nelson and Todd Roper, isn’t afraid to drop his nicotine-tinged baritone into a Neil Diamond register. He also calls up that era’s Jimmy Webb, Harry Nilsson and Fred Neil, combining them with the (also Dylan-influenced) David Bowie of Hunky Dory fame. Aficionado has a cornucopia of pop-references, too—the stunning track “A Stranger to Myself” evokes Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” while other songs collide with, oh, the vibe of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” with Spectorian drum cues and more, which makes for fun listening.
You can hear Watson live on Friday at the Java Lounge, with labelmates Mariee Sioux and Aaron Ross; details can be found at www.myspace.com/leebobmusic.