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avatar for Tom Smucker

Tom Smucker

Tom Smucker has been writing about pop music and politics since Woodstock, and been listening to the Beach Boys longer than that. He has presented at EMP on Karen Carpenter and Lawrence Welk; Pentecostal religion and Sarah Palin; Bobby Darin; hip-hop and union organizing; and Toby Keith and Brad Paisley. Lots of his stuff can be found at tomsmucker.org or smileysmile.org. He has seen Love and Mercy six times and is currently president of CWA Local 1101 Retired Members Council. 

“Overtones and Undertows: The Functions and Failures of Vocal Harmony in the Music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys”
Beach Boys harmony vocals mix the teenage sincerity and humor of doo-wop with the dexterity and sophistication of the pop jazz Four Freshmen and the reverence and transcendence of mid-20th century mainline Protestant choral hymn singing. Because the boys voices were so close in timber, including genetically, solo voices could sound like modulations on the group voice, and the group harmonies could underline the solo voice or transcend it. The group singing together could become more than the sum of its parts.

When the subject matter was upbeat and adolescent, or later, when the subject was the group’s history the harmonies could signify group cohesion. When the subject was loneliness and loss, from high school to old age, the harmonies could describe an eerie shared isolation or again, a means of transcendence. A key, I believe, to how Brian’s at times gloomy lyrics could sound so beautiful.

At his peak he could deploy the group harmonies as layers in his pop song symphonies, in one way reducing their significance as just another pet sound and signaling his control, in another way elevating them and acknowledging their sophistication. As he lost or abandoned that control and other member’s voices emerged, the vocal harmonies remained a group signature and a musical tool at their disposal when they composed and produced songs.

The great dramas of individuals and group, siblings, father and sons, present and past got played out over the years in print, movies, concerts, and recordings using the trademark Beach Boys harmonies sometimes as a touchstone and sometimes as a millstone, present in their absence.


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