Alright, let’s go over the Brian Wilson primer one more time…
Brian creates quite possibly the greatest American musical group ever, the Beach Boys, with his two younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love and school pal Alan Jardine. The Beach Boys top the charts on numerous occasions, performing some of the quintessential American pop songs, like “I Get Around” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Beach Boys record what is arguably the greatest American album of all-time, Pet Sounds. Brian sets out to create his masterwork, which turns out to be an abstract, over-inflated, LSD-influenced train wreck that alienates his band and never sees the light of day in the form that Brian intended. Brian becomes largely unstable, participating only sparingly on his band’s work through the ’70s, and drops out of the band and society completely in 1980. Brian employs Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychiatrist whose influence on Brian is said to be almost a complete mental takeover. Brian records lone solo album in late ’80s. In the mid-90’s, American power pop band co-opts description of intended masterwork as a title for their finest album (Velvet Crush’s Teenage Symphonies to God). Canadian pop band records semi-biographical song and turns it into their American breakthrough single (Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”). Brian re-emerges in late ’90s to record another solo album, and performs on a series of tours. Rumblings of long-lost masterwork being finalized and released are tossed about.
As crude a summary as that is, it brings us to today. Or close enough, at least.
If you’ve had even a passing historical interest in pop music, you’ve heard it a million times if you’ve heard it once that Brian Wilson is the greatest composer of pop music in the rock and roll era. Endless arguments have resulted from this assertion, but it’s one that is hard to argue with. On taking note of the timeless, classic pop material he recorded with the Beach Boys, one becomes hard-pressed to say that he doesn’t at least share the distinction with a handful of other great musicians. Even in spite of his great musical prowess, and the fact that Pet Sounds is regarded by many as the seminal American pop album, it’s the one thing he never completed and the subsequent personal collapse that so many people remember first about Brian Wilson. Until recently, that is.
To the ear that has been spoiled by thousands of cheap hooks and cold, polished production on album after album (I’m as guilty as everyone else in that regard), SMiLE is the broccoli to 21st Century American pop’s Pixy Stix. It’s an album that sounds like it was pulled out of a time capsule from an alternate reality, the bizarrely slanted, unromanticized America that rang through the drug-addled minds of Wilson and co-writer Van Dyke Parks. It’s a jarring listen, full of sudden, drastic tempo and tonal shifts, with broad, sweeping orchestrations that have little to no interest in giving the listener anything to latch onto. Just as you think that Wilson is rolling out a nice melodic run or a hook, he pulls the rug right out from under you, and stops on a dime to move into another passage that sounds completely unrelated. The album is made up of three loosely-related movements, each of which culminates in one of Wilson’s more famous compositions, “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up” and “Good Vibrations,” respectively, the last of which closes the album.
The harmonies that Brian made famous with the Beach Boys are present in many places, but they don’t pack the same punch they would have had Brian’s late brother Dennis been involved. His 10-piece backing band, the Wondermints (including Wilson understudy Jeffrey Foskett and Poi Dog Pondering reedsman Paul Mertens) fill out some spots with massive crescendos while deftly stepping aside at others. Parks’ lyrics are unchanged from the original version, which means that legendarily unconventional lines like “columnated ruins domino” are still present. SMiLE is idiosyncratic almost to a fault; it has no traditional characteristics, and it’s not even one cohesive whole. What it is, however, is probably the truest representation of Wilson’s vision of SMiLE, uncompromising and living in its own universe. That being as it is, it makes this “official” version of SMiLE a significant accomplishment, just as much for what it represents as what it actually is.
It’s a wonder in itself to think what SMiLE would’ve turned out to be had not their consciousnesses been so royally distorted by their drug dependency. Maybe it would’ve come out when it should have, in 1967. Maybe the American public would’ve gotten to hear and revel in obviously-affected lyrics like “columnated ruins domino” in an era where it made at least some sense. Maybe the course of popular music would’ve been sent down another path, one where SMiLE was the lasting musical impression from that year instead of Sgt. Pepper’s. But as it is, it’s still a wonder to behold, and noteworthy just for the reason that Wilson actually finished it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, and nothing my spoiled ears ever really intend to partake in again. But I know significant when I hear it.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.