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Let Down and Hanging On

Disappointments from Brian Wilson and Death Cab

4/14/15

Because of the nature of a weekly column, I always find myself writing about records at the extremes.

If I’m moved to write about it, generally I either really like it or I strongly dislike it. Those are the two conditions under which I’d have the most to say. But that covers maybe 20 percent of my listening experience. Most of the time I’m indifferent to the music I hear – it doesn’t leave a mark one way or another. Quite often I reservedly like something. And quite often I’m just a little let down, slightly disappointed.

This week, in the interest of equal time, I have two records that left me with that slightly empty feeling, that sense of mild unhappiness. I don’t hate either of these records, but I don’t love them either, and my listening experience tended more toward the negative. In both cases, I think some more time immersing myself could improve my initial impression. And maybe someday I’ll do that. Right now, here’s how I feel.

* * * * *

I’m never going to hate Brian Wilson.

This goes without saying, but the man is a legend. He created an entire sound, and then ditched it to create an even grander one. Pet Sounds is still one of the very best albums you’ll ever hear. When he finished his great lost masterwork, SMiLE, in 2004, it was like a miracle. That, too, is one of the best, goofiest, most astonishing albums you’ll ever hear. And when he followed that up with That Lucky Old Sun, a song suite that can stand toe to toe with his ‘60s and ‘70s work, it was like lightning striking twice.

Since then, Wilson’s been doing pretty well, by my reckoning. His Gershwin and Disney albums were both better than they had any right to be, and the Beach Boys reunion album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, was at least half-great. Wilson is 72 years old now, and I don’t know what we expect from him. He still arranges vocals like no one else on the planet, and his records still sound like his records, even if there’s always a question of how much he’s really participating in them. I’m happy to support whatever he puts out – he’s already given me enough joy for one lifetime.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it much, and I don’t really like No Pier Pressure, his tenth solo album. I mean, it’s fine, and it’s certainly better than the dross he used to churn out (remember Gettin’ In Over My Head?), and overall it beats Mike Love’s contributions to the last Beach Boys record. But I have a lot of problems with it, and chief among them is the endless parade of guest stars. I’m good with Al Jardine and David Marks making several appearances – many of these songs were written for a new Beach Boys record, so they belong here.

The rest, though? I’m not sure how many of these people Wilson asked to work with, and how many were just brought in by producer Joe Thomas. Has Wilson had a burning desire to duet with Nate Ruess of Fun., for example? Or Zooey Deschanel? Or Peter Hollens? Or Sebu, who makes the first guest appearance on the horrifying dance-pop disaster “Runaway Dancer”? I have no proof, but I sort of doubt it. Several of these guests have spoken about these sessions, and they say Wilson was active and engaged and having a great time. I hope that’s true. The finished product is kind of a hodgepodge, though, and the guests make Wilson seem even more removed.

The songs, by and large, aren’t bad. The ones intended for the Beach Boys, including “Whatever Happened” and “The Right Time,” are right in line with what you’d expect – pleasant grooves, wood blocks, harmonies. The instrumental “Half Moon Bay” is nice. And there are several songs that feel like Wilson was truly invested in them, most notably “I’m Feeling Sad” and the swell closer, “The Last Song.”

But others just feel like things Brian wouldn’t do in a million years. I already mentioned “Runaway Dancer,” the worst offender. Kacey Musgraves co-writes and sings a country ditty called “Guess You Had to Be There” that, until those Wilson harmonies come in, sounds like it’s from a different album entirely. “On the Island” is like a parody of Wilson, with its Jimmy Buffet feel and Deschanel’s disaffected vocals. The synth-heavy “Sail Away” is embarrassing, the Ruess-starring “Saturday Night” only a little less so.

As usual, it’s the vocals that keep this feeling like Wilson. When he takes lead, he sounds energized and engaged, which is great. There are harmonies everywhere, many of which he also sang, and there ain’t nothing like a Brian Wilson harmony. There are strings and muted trumpets in places where Wilson would put them. This is a pure pop record, full of kitschy and stupid lyrics, but Brian generally wouldn’t have it any other way.

And of course, there is “The Last Song,” written to close what would have been the final Beach Boys record. It’s remarkably pretty, Wilson’s tender voice sending chills, and it revolves around a sentiment this album makes me feel: “There’s never enough time for the ones that you love.” That's why I’m sad when Wilson makes an album like this – everything he does might be his last. I don’t hate No Pier Pressure – the worst thing about it is its title – but I won’t be playing it very often, either. At times here, Brian Wilson is still Brian Wilson, and that is always a joy to hear. I just wish this album contained more of those times, because I want as many as I can get.

* * * * *

Similarly, you have no idea how much I wanted to like Kintsugi, the new Death Cab for Cutie album.

This one’s the death knell. Founding guitarist Chris Walla, who has been responsible for sculpting the band’s sound since 1998, announced his departure after Kintsugi was completed. This is the first one Walla did not produce – that honor goes to Rich Costey – and the last one on which he will appear. It’s been a rough road for Death Cab lately, as they’ve dropped a notch with each album since 2005’s Plans. 2011’s Codes and Keys was, until now, the worst Death Cab record, flirting with electronic sounds but remaining pretty lifeless.

So with Walla’s departure and singer Ben Gibbard’s public divorce from Zooey Deschanel, one might hope that the personal stakes for this new album would have been raised. Instead, everyone involved seems bored. This is the most inert-sounding record the band has made – the whole thing is almost completely devoid of inspiration, and while it’s pleasant enough, it just sits there, unmoving, for it’s whole running time. Gibbard even sounds disinterested, singing the lines but not injecting them with any emotion at all, and he’s off his game lyrically to an almost laughable degree. He seems genuinely proud of couplets like “why do you run, for my hands hold no guns” and “when you’re so far beneath the floor, everything’s a ceiling” – he made them the centerpiece thoughts for their respective songs.

The first three songs are the strongest, in descending order. Opener “No Room in Frame” fires a bit of snark to Gibbard’s famous ex-wife (“Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you? No room in frame for two…”), set to a skipping beat. “Black Sun” has a nice melody and some nice guitar tones, and the chorus of “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” is the only moment on Kintsugi that almost comes alive. The rest of the record is just… there. “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” is a pale shadow of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” “Everything’s a Ceiling” and “Good Help is So Hard to Find” try on those ill-fitting dance beats again, and you’re better than I am if you can remember anything about “Ingenue.”

“El Dorado” tries to inject a little life near the end, with its double-time beat and thick, reverb-y guitar tone, but it’s too late. Things peter out with the piano dirge “Binary Sea,” a song whose last line is its most ironic: “There’s something brilliant bound to happen here.” That’s the last phrase you hear on an album on which nothing brilliant does happen. Kintsugi is named after the Japanese technique of fixing broken pottery in a way that makes the breaks part of the art. I wish the record were that interesting. I wish you could hear the breaks. All I hear is blandly pleasant music made without much care.

* * * * *

Next week, definitely some music I like more than this. Let’s see, I’ll have Josh Garrels and Passion Pit and They Might Be Giants and Built to Spill and a killer live record from the Eels. So some of those, I expect. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.