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Sagittarius

Present Tense

(Sundazed)

High Llamas

Cold and Bouncy

(V2)

By Frank Youngwerth

It's "not possible to overstate how influential Pet Sounds was in its day and, remarkably, continues to be," Beach Boys scribe David Leaf observes in his liner notes to the recent box set devoted to the 1966 album. "Ask Bob Dylan or Elton John or Tom Petty or Mike Mills of R.E.M. Or any musician with ears. It is a record that musicians worship."

Worship, maybe; but emulate, very rarely. Writer-producer Brian Wilson's deeply personal, instrumentally obsessive tour de force is still as unusual in rock as the elaborate archival treatment it has received. Pet Sounds certainly moved other artists--most notably the Beatles--to make far greater use of studio technology and the LP format than rock bands ever had before. But who's ever made another record that actually feels like Pet Sounds?

Not long after its release, former Wilson collaborator Gary Usher tried, with a studio project he dubbed Sagittarius. And in recent years the London-based High Llamas have become contenders, making several albums in a style explicitly reminiscent of Wilson's.

But while a recent reissue of Sagittarius's 1968 Present Tense and the Llamas' new Cold and Bouncy are both quite enjoyable, to my mind both of them are defined by their failure to measure up to Pet Sounds.

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Gary Usher first hooked up with Brian Wilson, who was then only 19, in early 1962. Together they came up with "409," the intended A side of the Beach Boys' debut Capitol single, as well as "In My Room," an introspective ballad that foreshadowed the guileless sensitivity of Pet Sounds. They soon parted ways, and Usher went on to produce and arrange a spate of hot-rod albums inspired by the commercial success of "409." Later, on staff at Columbia, he produced significant records like the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But his creative input in those sessions was relatively minimal and, feeling like he was living in Brian's shadow, he responded to Pet Sounds with a determination to create "an inspirational album" of his own.

His first effort, the 1967 single "My World Fell Down," clearly draws on Wilson's "Good Vibrations" for its structure and pacing. Usher brought in Wilson's regular crew of studio musicians to cut it, and used vocalists Glen Campbell and Bruce Johnston, both of whom had filled Brian's shoes on tour with the Beach Boys. Usher's major innovation on the track was to interrupt the music halfway through with a 22-second montage of sampled sounds that worked like a dream sequence in a film--crying baby, horse race, bullfight, slamming door.

The somewhat unorthodox single managed to chart nationally, prompting a follow-up: the cheery "Hotel Indiscreet," which rhythmically mimics Wilson's "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Again Usher saw fit to insert a nonmusical bridge, this time some inspired foolishness from a comedy troupe he'd recently signed to Columbia--the Firesign Theatre. Their sketch, a send-up of California trendies ("We are all hip-two-three-four"), takes up nearly a third of the two-minute, 20-second single, and ends on an ominous cry of "Sieg heil!"

Label chief Clive Davis took issue with these shenanigans, and as a result the album versions of both "My World Fell Down" and "Hotel Indiscreet" lost their weird interludes (though the CD reissue includes the original single versions as bonus tracks).

That was just the start of a series of compromises made in the course of putting together Present Tense. To round out the album Usher enlisted fellow producer Curt Boettcher, who'd worked on hits with the Association and Tommy Roe. Boettcher sings ethereally on psychedelic trinkets like "Song to the Magic Frog" and "The Keeper of the Games"; with a couple exceptions, like the Byrds-ish "I'm Not Living Here," his tracks are throwaways.

Additionally, in order to obtain Boettcher's services, Columbia had to buy out his contract with another production company. The deal called for the label to purchase the masters for some unreleased material by Boettcher's middling group, the Ballroom. At least two of those tracks, made completely without Usher's involvement, got thrown onto the Sagittarius album.

Present Tense sounds just like what it is--a mixed bag. If Usher originally intended his album as an answer to Pet Sounds, he ended up revealing only what happens when a producer's vision gets wrested away from him by the forces of capitalism.

By contrast, with Pet Sounds Brian Wilson managed to carry his vision through to the finish, fully intact. Somehow, the label bosses at Capitol--whose ruthless hacking of the Beatles' LPs for American consumption was thought to have inspired their infamous butcher cover for Yesterday...and Today--allowed Pet Sounds out of the barn relatively unscathed. Of course, Capitol then elected to bury the commercially disappointing album at stores with the hastily assembled Best of the Beach Boys, Volume One. Still, at least Wilson's masterpiece was preserved for posterity.

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If the High Llamas' last outing, Hawaii, gathered snapshots from an exotic vacation, the less expansive Cold and Bouncy evokes life at home. A large, tight ensemble of brass, strings, and percussion, sounding like it's crammed into someone's living room, plays with quiet deliberation. In the background faucets drip torturously; insects and birds (actually Stereolab percussionist Andy Ramsey on "sound supersizer") buzz and chirp distractingly.

You almost want to bolt from claustrophobia, except the music's so amusing, alternating between quaint banjo ditties and long, stretched-out sound-track swirls. Head Llama Sean O'Hagan is interesting enough as a singer, writer, and arranger to grab your attention, but once he's got it, he whiles away the hour making small talk and playing parlor games. He affects the panache of vintage Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, but can't or won't contribute any distinctive content of his own.

Compare this to Pet Sounds, where Wilson holds your hand and looks deep into your eyes and can't stop talking about his feelings--longing, hope, loss, gratitude, embarrassment, and frustration. You almost want to bolt, except the music's downright beautiful.

O'Hagan and Wilson share a musical language of gentle melodies and haunting chord changes. But in the indie-rock 90s, O'Hagan operates within an entrenched business network of labels, clubs, and media. This allows him to take for granted the status and support as an artist that Wilson struggled to attain against his typecasting as a hit maker in the "establishment" 60s. O'Hagan can blithely exhibit his latest ditties in a charming little gallery today only because Wilson poured his soul into thin air more than three decades ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): High Llamas photo by Steve Gulick/ album covers.

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