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Heavy Petting

The Pet Sounds Sessions is the weirdest boxed set yet.

Released in June 1966, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was regarded at the time of its appearance as a commercial disappointment. As author Timothy White reports in The Nearest Faraway Place, his detailed 1994 biography of the band, representatives of Capitol Records, the group's label, were frankly baffled by the LP and did little to push it to the public. A single, the exquisite "Caroline, No," was sent to radio in March under the name of Brian Wilson, the only Beach Boy who was actually on it, but because Wilson's name recognition was practically nil, stations ignored it in droves; it fell well short of the Billboard Top 20. As a result, the firm demanded that "Sloop John B," a reworked folk song completed the preceding year, be issued as the Boys' next single and included on Pet Sounds, even though it had nothing to do with the themes Wilson explored on the album. A third single, "Wouldn't It Be Nice," was sent into the marketplace three months after the full-length from which it sprang hit stores, but this timing did more for the sales of Best of the Beach Boys, a new record rushed out by Capitol, than it did for Pet Sounds.

Brian responded to Pet's middling performance by sinking into a depression that served as a harbinger for his subsequent mental collapse. But in the years that followed, Pet Sounds enjoyed a critical revival. After Paul McCartney announced that the album was a tremendous influence on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which frequently tops polls to determine the finest rock album of all time, reviewers took another look at Wilson's masterwork and acknowledged its greatness. But Pet Sounds remains little-known by members of the general public, who think of the Beach Boys, if they think of them at all anymore, as purveyors of giddy tunes about surfing and girls, not as the men behind one of the most beautiful recordings ever made.

The Pet Sounds Sessions, recently launched by EMI-Capitol, aims to change that by demonstrating in exhaustive detail exactly why these thirteen songs are so tremendously affecting. But even though much of the music on it is striking (how could it not be?), the collection is remarkable for another reason. To put it bluntly, Sessions is arguably the most bizarre, most excessive boxed set in existence. Never before to my knowledge has so much space--in this case, four separate discs containing a total of more than four hours' worth of music, and two booklets, one a jaw-dropping 126 pages long--been devoted to the lionizing of an album that runs its course in a little over 36 minutes. There's such a glut of words and music here that most people who buy it will never get to all of it. And yet, as illogical as it might seem, there's something undeniably exciting about having so much stuff gathered under one umbrella. In a certain sense, Pet Sounds was an act of inspired madness; it's appropriate, then, that The Pet Sounds Sessions is just as insane.

Of course, boxed sets are not a new phenomenon. Beginning decades ago, during a period when vinyl was the undisputed format of choice, numerous companies (many associated with publications such as Reader's Digest and Time, others affiliated with organizations like the Smithsonian Institution) issued encyclopedic compilations designed as primers for specific genres; jazz and folk were frequent subjects. Major labels participated in the compilation game, too: For instance, Atlantic Records issued a distillation of its rhythm-and-blues library that was available either volume by volume or in a massive bundle. These overgrown albums subsequently gave rise to works that concentrated upon individual artists, and they were marketed to affluent baby boomers for whom the pop market was not merely evidence of passing youth, but a legitimate art form deserving of anointment. While Bear Family and other European imprints concentrated on lovingly assembling the recordings of forgotten figures of historical import, U.S. imprints generally saluted performers who had already been enshrined in the pantheon of musical greats. Typical of the latter approach were 1985's Biograph, a five-platter Bob Dylan retrospective that featured eighteen previously unissued tunes, and 1986's Live/ 1975-1985, a gargantuan project meant to establish Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as the greatest live act of its generation.

That large numbers of consumers were willing to shell out for these sets was a revelation to domestic music executives. Suddenly they saw the discards, alternate takes, unused concert tapes and assorted miscellanea taking up space in their vaults not as a burden but as found money. This revelation led to a literal avalanche of boxes devoted to entertainers of virtually every stripe: huge stars, cult favorites and more. At the same time, an aesthetic developed among set collectors--one that demanded posh packaging, extravagant booklets jammed with rare photographs, precise discographies, critical essays and appreciations, and plenty of new or remastered material.

On the surface, this doctrine is more than defensible. After all, the majority of those who purchase boxed sets are already followers of the groups in question and likely own a considerable percentage of their creative output; therefore, stuffing releases with obscurities rather than reorganizing a well-known oeuvre in order to provide context seems to impart additional value. But there's a rub. Most unreleased songs went unreleased for a reason: They weren't as good as what got out. For every lost treasure, there are a hundred rejects that are curiosities at best, time-wasters at worst. Hence, it's become all too common for boxed sets, the most expensive items in your neighborhood CD store, to be demonstrably inferior to other, far less pricey products by the same artist and, in some extreme cases, all but unlistenable. To put it another way, they're often seen but not heard.

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