Box coverGod only knows why it took so long, but The Pet Sounds Sessions, a four-CD set (Capitol C2-37662) devoted to that most astonishingly beautiful of all Beach Boys albums, finally was released in late 1997 after more than a year of delays, and at last it has reached my listening post.

Was it worth the wait? Of course it was. Pet Sounds, mono mix and record-company indifference notwithstanding, has been hailed for years as one of the seminal Sixties recordings, an album you simply could not go through life without owning. I still have two copies on vinyl: the original Capitol issue (T 2458, 1966) and a reissue on Brother/Reprise (MS 2197, 1972), and also Capitol's original CD reissue (CDP 7 48421-2, 1990). The new box set, though, makes all the previous reissues utterly irrelevant.

Stereo fans will rejoice at the first-ever true stereo mix, from the original session tapes. A few last-minute changes made to the original mono master aren't reflected on the session tapes, so it's Brian Wilson instead of Mike Love on the bridge of "Wouldn't It Be Nice", and Carl Wilson instead of Brian at the beginning of the fade of "God Only Knows", but all the instruments are intact, and engineer Mark Linett eschews Nineties studio trickery to produce a remarkable simulation of an actual Sixties mix, with percussion to the sides and lead vocals centered.

But that's just the first forty minutes or so. The rest of the first disc, and all of the second, is taken up with actual segments from the session tapes and the final versions (in stereo) of the instrumental tracks. The Beach Boys had long since ceased to play on their own records, so what you hear is Brian Wilson giving instructions to some of the top L.A. session musicians, and getting back something that bordered on symphonic: Spector's Wall of Sound without the murk. There were many retakes, mercifully not all included here — the final version of "You Still Believe in Me" is take 23 — but eventually Brian got what he wanted.

Which brings us to Disc 3 and "Stack-O-Vocals", the eleven final vocal tracks in stereo. The depth of Brian's voice arrangements was at least equal to the intricacy of his instrumental arrangements, and without accompaniment, it becomes apparent that the Beach Boys could really sing — not that there was ever much doubt. The disc is filled out with alternate versions, different vocals over the finished instrumental tracks, and a couple of anomalies, most notably a completed "Caroline, No" somewhat slower and more lugubrious than the version we know. Apparently it was Murry Wilson's idea to speed up the track before release, presumably to make Brian sound younger, and Brian, in this case, deferred to Dad.

Finally, on a "bonus disc", comes a newly-remastered but not remixed version of the original album in mono, from apparently better source tapes. Certainly it makes Capitol's 1990 CD, also engineered by Mark Linett (with Larry Walsh), sound like it was recorded in a closet, which proves: (1) Linett is getting better at this; (2) the technology is improving as well; (3) there is still no substitute for good master tapes.

Two booklets containing more than you ever wanted to know about Pet Sounds and its participants are also included. David Leaf's excellent notes from the 1990 disc are carried over and updated as appropriate. An interview with Paul McCartney, an avowed fan of the album, dropped from the earlier package before shipping, is included here as well. But the real treasure among the printed material is a week's worth of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, from May 1990, in which Andy dies happy, now that Pet Sounds is out on CD. Andy is no longer with us, and neither are Carl or Dennis Wilson, but I have to think they'd be pleased with the box set that is, um, here today.

Updated 23 March 1999

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