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Edan vs. SMiLE -or- Holy Shit Did Everyone Drop the Ball on this Record Come Year-End Time, Shame On You All

By Scott Reid | 27 December 2005

Over at Metacritic.com, they’ve got this terribly convenient collection of year-end Top 10s, from both print and internet publications, all in one spot so we can avoid our geekish tendency to track them down and complain about what they got wrong. Besides making it easy to know which rags we can dutifully ignore for many years to come, it brings two shocking, and one not-so-shocking, catastrophes to light:

1) Q has the worst fucking taste. I mean, every publication makes mistakes—we’ve had our share, take your pick—but even Rolling Stone had the sense to leave Coldplay and JAMES FUCKING BLUNT off their list. Take a look at this trainwreck:

1. X&Y by Coldplay
2. Demon Days by Gorillaz
3. Employment by Kaiser Chiefs
4. Don’t Believe The Truth by Oasis
5. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes
6. Back To Bedlam by James Blunt
7. You Could Have It So Much Better by Franz Ferdinand
8. Funeral by Arcade Fire
9. Eye To The Telescope by KT Tunstall
10. Stars Of CCTV by Hard-Fi

Ouch. But good news, L.A. Times’ Kevin Bronson, you don’t have the worst Top 10 on that page, even with the Livings Things beating out both Wolf Parade and Bloc Party. Better luck next year, guy.

2) Akron/Family got robbed. Two top 10 spots? Let’s put this into perspective: judged on these lists alone, Trail of Dead’s latest progressive turd has just as many votes (but fares better in ranking, as does Crooked Fingers’ tremendous flop Dignity & Shame and Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute); X&Y holds twice as many spots, as does Death Cab’s godawful Plans; Neil Diamond even more than that; and Franz Ferdinand over four times as many votes. I could go on like this, but I won’t, because I’m depressing myself enough just mentioning those.

3) Even more fucked is the (very near) complete omission of Edan’s Beauty and the Beat, CMG’s #4 album of the year (almost no. 3, I’ll point out), only landing on one other Top 10 list. One. So, I mean, right on Onion A.V. Club’s

Nathan Rabin, but what the fuck happened here?

Pitchfork picks up the pieces of their slapstick "Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme" half-star dismissal with some lip service praise, then promptly forgets it exists. Tiny Mix Tapes praised it as well, giving it one of their several hundred 4/5 ratings of the year… so maybe it’s not surprising it didn’t end up on that list. But Stylus, come on guys—you (well, Rollie) drop the highest rating on MC, calling it a "strong stab for early album of the year bids," but then your entire staff spaces on it, ending up on a ridiculous two individual lists. And you’ve got a crew the size of Canada’s ground fleet, for christ’s sake.

So, what’s the deal? Did no one get around to hearing it? If a bunch of pubs/zines/glorified blogs collectively wet their pants over the same sampled-based hip hop album by an immensely talented white guy with a psych-rock slant (and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of his genre(s), at that) does it all just boil down to empty lip service? Maybe everyone just forgot about the record —- but that would kind of imply that the it’s that shallow, that a critic who’s supposed to be paying closer attention could listen to it a couple of times (it’d only take an hour) and take it in, know all they need to know about it before moving on to fucking David Banner or something. It begs the question: are we just continually jocking an album that everyone else has the better sense to ignore? Is Beauty and the Beat even that good?

Yes. Of course it is. And I could spend paragraphs reiterating every point that Chet, Aaron, Clay, and Conno have stressed over this thing, but I’ll keep the generalities to one: Edan’s created an immaculately produced psych-hip hop gem with dense, layered samples, echo chambers and hash resin gluing together a set of thirteen cuts that destroy any linear notion of time or genre. The production doesn’t back Edan’s remarkably vivid imagery so much as intertwine with it, embrace it and converse, coming to a mutual agreement that, yes, you should, as he tell us a couple of dozen times on opener "Polite Meeting," LISTEN. Not half-assedly, either; this isn’t a dinner party soundtrack or background noise. His rhymes are enunciated violently, with purpose and bravado (Clay’s right, he spits hard), so each metaphor, each intricately detailed scene and history lesson stings, scars, presses into your mind while the music actively warps it.

He aims—like the best psych-pop/rock innovators of the ’60s, and other namedrops like Prince Paul before him—to melt genres and themes and people and history and sounds into a unique and enjoyable whole that acknowledges what came before it while pushing the concepts forward. It’s a massively daunting task, but Edan succeeds, and he’s succinct about it, too (dude, please, teach us), cramming all of that into a mere half hour.

The correlation to ’60s art-pop and psych isn’t a hard one to make. The record is packed with the trademarks— Hendrix fuzz creeping in and out of the manipulated samples, wave after wave of mangled echo, surrealistic imagery, trippy cover art, an overarching, ambitious production that’s as important to its message as a single word. I mean, it’s obvious enough for NME to get it half-right, which is kind of shocking in and of itself (though again, forgetting it in turn for Babyshambles come list time), dubbing it "like ‘Pet Sounds’ born and raised in the Bronx." They’re close—the ambition is there, the tedious attention to detail, the, uh, "Bronx"; but the parasitic, unifying psychedelic filter is missing, the themes, the conceptual obsessions and approach to the sound and role of production in psychedelic music. That’s not Pet Sounds, that’s SMiLE, and Beautybleeds it though almost every cosmic break and crack, every syllable-stressing popped vein.

And, since this is the part of the article that gives me an excuse to spend 2000 words reiterating how great a record this is, let me explain.

Beauty and the Beat doesn’t try to copy SMiLE‘s psychedelic barber-pop and it certainly doesn’t even come close in terms of ingenuity or quality. But the aesthetic, the embracing of popular, music and drug cultures, and drugs, and producing in puzzle-piece segments, the love of boundless, enveloping reverb… I’ll go on in second, though I think my point is already made: parallels runs deep. Not that this is an exclusive kind of inspiration; he wears at least twenty others on his sleeve, but the other easily connected dotslike admitted psych-rock influences Hendrix and Floyd, or the innumerable traces of his rap forebearers—mostly just offer insight to the soundof this record, not the "classy decisions" ("throwing tuxedo on the wax," as he also puts it) behind it. And those decisions do, if you take the time to compare, have a lot in common with Wilson’s infamous lost-but-then-found masterpiece.

Not that I’m not saying the two albums connect on every level, or that Edan purposely mapped out this record as a companion piece or something ridiculous like that. Van Dyke Park’s lyrics are miles away from Edan’s, in style and delivery, so I’m not going to start tying together "Do You Like Worms" with "Torture Chamber," or defend the lack of five-part harmonies on "I See Colours." But the themes —- history, conquest, spirituality, innocence, beauty, health, the founding elements of earth and existence—- that permeate and define SMiLE were Brian’s, and they’re all over Beauty and the Beat. Like Wilson’s attempt to audibly represent, if not recreate, the earth’s four basic elements, Edan’s always thirsting for the bigger picture, for what’s behind what our minds can instantly grasp. It’s why his "favorite color is math" instead of something normal like "blue" or, you know, an actual colour; why "[the] whole lexicon is what I’m interested in. Every word at once … I’m into the mathematics that allows for all these different shades as opposed to the one shade."

I could keep going like this (and trust me, I want to, this article could easily be twice as long, don’t tempt me) because a lot of these themes do overlap —- check the duality of beauty and lost innocence in both "Wonderful" and "Beauty" for another quick example —- but then I’d just be stretching out the same basic point (again: both artists share themes and fundamental outlooks to their music, but not just their music, and that goes a lot way to explain the form and depth of what comes out) without taking into account the key overlaps in structure and production, as well. It’s all related, of course; both of these artists imagine and create their music as a whole, not as separate elements —- lyrical themes are musical themes, they’re part of the same gelled whole.

Couple of quick examples: First, one of Wilson’s most interesting obsessions during the recording of SMiLE was the use of other people’s songs in a new context that fits his conceptual whole. Placing "You Are My Sunshine" in a past tense and minor key (again, blending of music and lyric, bent by their surrounding narrative) was one of SMiLE’s most obvious attempts to stress this idea, mourning into its own self-pity after another mollified cover ("The Old Master Painter") fades out suddenly. There’s no separation or distinction between the two, sequenced like most of these two records with compounding, fading echoes and quick, rough edits that play out like a succession of connected thoughts.

Wilson meshed each song’s own personalities and messages together as a single, distinctive statement that was all his own.

Pay enough attention to Edan’s production and you’ll begin to notice similarities not only in the use of older tracks (covering exchanged for straight sampling, of course), which isn’t exactly new, but in the way they’re edited and fit into the conceptual whole as well, used thematically instead of just for a cool sound effect or hook.

Edan, like Wilson, uses his samples to his own means, to fit his own record’s larger context—mixing keys, fidelity and time signatures to fit the mood and/or story he’s producing.

And because he’s talented enough to do this successfully in the first place, he’s also too talented to merely copy the blueprint. The guy’s a hugely imaginative, obnoxious artist with his own ideas, and just because he shares similar aesthetic starting points with an album like SMiLE doesn’t mean they aim to end up in the same place. He’s got his own history, his own modern reference points, and while Wilson did use a lot of these techniques back in ’66/‘67 —- shit, he even got into sampling, recording hours of spoken word and "comical" gibberish to later piece in (i.e. "You’re under arrest!") —- Edan just takes it to another extreme, using hip hop as a base to expand on specific elements of that style. He understands the style well enough to work with it, consciously moving it forward instead of merely paying homage. This is the way it’s supposed to work.

If you having trouble following any of this, I can’t really blame you, especially if you haven’t heard one, or both, of these records. I make a lot of assumptions writing this to keep it under 10,000 words, but, at the same time, I’d like to think it’s not completely centered around theoretical fanboy bullshit. Even without dissecting the basic building blocks of writing and production technique —- a ton of which you could certainly tie into a hundred other records without sweat —- there are a slew of direct connections to SMiLE that take a significantly smaller leap of sanity. For your sake, I’ll go with the two most obvious and (hopefully) convincing:

Exhibit A: The "time warped space-capade" (thanks, Connor) bridge on "Making Planets" is an obvious nod to/rip of Brian’s infamous "Workshop," one of the most boisterous examples of Wilson attempting to expand the role of production in pop music —- right up there with the Element’s "Fire" section, where he shirtlessly conducted musicians "asked" to wear fire helmets in order to "get in the mood." On SMiLE, Wilson used "Workshop" to literally piece back together the protagonist from "I Wanna Be Around’s" heart. Edan’s, well, making planets, creating a parallel universe that Mr. Lif masterfully steps out of and obliterates. The use is different but the trick is the same, and there’s no way a guy who puts so much effort into understanding the music he creates doesn’t know about one of pop music’s biggest influences going apeshit and bringing saws and hammers and shit into the studio. Hell, it might even be a direct sample of an old "Workshop" session for all I know (that’d just add another layer; the Beach Boys themselves would later sample the sessions for the ending of 20/20‘s "Do It Again"). Either way, Edan knows what he’s doing, this can’t be a complete accident.

Exhibit B: There’s this song near the end of the record called "Smile." Which seems petty to hang a theory on, especially when it can be explained by the "smile painted on upside down" Hollies sample (which you could also turn around on Wilson; titling an album SMiLEduring the onset of a mental breakdown is kind of hopeful, almost desperate). But check Edan’s description of the track when CMG’s Clayton Purdom caught him between sandwiches: "["Smile’s"] about an artist who’s at the height of his fame, and is super-talented, but isn’t really impassioned and is depressed and is going through internal turmoil." Hmm.

Still a bit of a stretch, maybe, but couple that with the title, and some of the specific lyrics ("negative thoughts destroyed what he did best … prodigy performer, musically divine, classical composer, innovative huge time"), the "Workshop" homage, the painting in the potent, connected segments, the parallel themes, etc., etc… I mean, if Edan didn’t do this on purpose, dude’s got a new favorite album waiting for him, no?

It is possible, I suppose; "Making Planets" and "Smile" might just be coincidences, freak connections to the sound and mythology of rock’s great lost album that just happened to slip past the guy. Maybe it’s just too easy to make connections between Beauty and other ambitious psych records; this thing’s a bottomless pit if you want to start digging, you could probably wing a convincing link to A Night at the Opera if you wanted to badly enough. Still though, whether you think all that Wilson stuff is bullshit, this record’s exceptional for many of the same reasons, and way too imaginative and exciting and accessible to get shown up by Death Cab and fucking Frances the Mute.

Beauty and the Beat is exactly the kind of record that belongs on year-end lists instead of those lame retreads or gimmicks; it’s spontaneous, it sounds kinetic and unpredictable, virtually limitless in its creative scope, not only making the record nearly impossible to get sick of, but also leaving endless possibilities for the artist’s future projects (he’s hinted about borrowing a guy from Dead Meadows and furthering his pop/folk side). And music publications, the "serious" (ha) ones that take music seriously enough to rate and list it, are supposed to let you, their patient and diligent readers, know about these kinds of records, right? The forward-thinking, genre-eclipsing, "best new music," grade "A," "9/10" albums, ones created with "awe-inspiring imagination" by an artist who’s "no longer an impersonation of his idols, but one of their peers"? Doesn’t that qualify as "best of year" on nearly every level? Or at least, like, top 10? 15? 20?

So, uh, guys, feel free to let us know: what happened?