Technically, the original "Pet Sounds" album was a Beach Boys project, but eveyone who's even remotely familiar with the history of the band knows that it was really Brian Wilson's baby. Sure, everyone else sang their parts, but he was the one writing most of the songs, he was the one holed up in the studio with a small orchestra doing take after take until they got it exactly right, and he was the one slowly going insane through a combination of heavy drug use and obsessive behavior.
Still, the sessions resulted in what is widely regarded as one of the pop masterpieces of the last century (though due to poor sales, Brian's vision was compromised and eventually discarded on the legendary lost album "Smile"), inspiring contemporaries like the Beatles and influencing scores of more recent groups including R.E.M. to Spiritualized. Over the last few years, Wilson has begun to emerge from his reclusive self-imposed exile, releasing a couple of albums of new material and touring extensively.
To the uninitiated, Wilson's decision to release a live album in which he performs "Pet Sounds" in its entirety may seem like a cheap attempt to cash in on his former greatness, but as a fan, I can tell you that the second I heard about this project, I was dying to hear it. As perfect as the original record sounds, I was curious to hear how the lush orchestrations and harmonies that the album is famous for would translate to a live setting, and what kind of updates Wilson might make to the songs.
He covers all of the songs on the album (not including the three bonus tracks which are including on recent CD releases but which weren't on the original release), though not in the same order. His backing band is near perfect, emulating both the rich textures of horns and strings that were the hallmark of the original record and the layered vocal harmonies that the Beach Boys were famous for. Wilson's vocals aren't as strong as they once were, but his enthusiasm for performing more than makes up for any small tremors that might have crept into his voice. He chats with the audience and thanks them for their applause after almost every song, and there are a couple of times where his exuberance spills over into excited declarations like "Hooray for the audience!" and "We love it, we love it, we love you guys!"
The key ingredient in this performance is the pure joy that shines through every note, reminding you of lost summers in the sun and the excitement of first loves. This is what pop music was made for, and this record makes you forget the madness, tragedy, and heartbreak that were to dog Wilson for many years after these songs were recorded. All you hear is the perfect pop bliss that is at the heart of this music, and the sincere love that he has for these songs.
Fans of the original "Pet Sounds" will definitely want to pick up this disc, not because there are really any new insights into the songs, but because it will remind you again of why you fell in love with the album in the first place. Hearing the songs performed live breathes new life into them (despite some minor technical flaws) and gives you a taste of what it must have been like to hear this album for the first time when it was released back in May of 1966. Those unfamiliar with this work (and let me assure you that you don't necessarily have to be a Beach Boys fan to enjoy this record) should pick up the original (which has digitally remasterd and released with extensive commentary in the liner notes), but will probably want to pick this up as a companion piece shortly thereafter.