It’s difficult not to look at Jan Berry and Brian Wilson as spiritual twins. Berry was a budding studio genius, starting raw with doo-wop bands but eventually teaming with Dean Torrence. They fell into the company of Wilson and the result was the surf-pop classic “Surf City.” They would stay with that sound for a long stretch, but Berry wanted to expand his creativity a little further. Things hindered both Wilson and Berry — a near-fatal car crash on Dead Man’s Curve for the latter, and tyrannical father Murray Wilson for the former. It’s hard to say which was more devastating.
The parallels are further enforced by Wilson’s tour de force Smile not seeing the proper light of day until many decades later — as a solo effort and not the Beach Boys vehicle it was originally intended to be. At the tail end of the 1960s, Berry was also working on a game-changing effort that would not soon be available to the masses, though it never reached the mythic proportions of Wilson’s effort. Essentially a solo album, but credited to Jan & Dean contractually (with Torrence’s blessing,) Carnival of Sound is finally available from the mischievous shoe-making elves at Rhino Handmade.
Reviewing both the previously mentioned discs require putting the reviewer’s mind in a retroactive state. Yes, Smile was recorded in 2004, but was written in 1967 and sounds like it. Carnival of Sound arrives already a relic of sorts, so you have to give it some slack, particularly in the flower-groovy lyrics and sitar-guitar of the title track. Tributes to gum (“Fan Tan”) and “Laurel And Hardy” and the questionable judgment of remaking “Little Old Lady From Pasadena” into “Tijuana” aside, there’s a nice sense of fun about the recording. A cover of “Stay” isn’t as essential as the original, and the pro-Vietnam War song “Only a Boy” comes across almost like a middle finger to the burgeoning anti-war movement. The best track on the album is a throwback to Berry’s doo-wop days, a cover of “In The Still of the Night” despite an awkward spoken sentiment in the bridge.
Is Carnival of Sound the lost masterpiece Smile was? In a word, no. It’s a neat listen, and for fans of pop music from the era, you’ll have a good time with the album, but the reality is that it fell on the wrong side of history. If it had been released way back when, Jan Berry would have been clobbered and his label would have been kicked squarely in the ass for — well — being square. Even so, you can hear in the stereo mixes how people could come to the conclusion that Berry was another studio wizard. The first 13 tracks are in mono and, as such, don’t really knock the listener out. The stereo mixes follow after and, sonically, blow the monos out of the water. With 29 tracks and nearly 80 minutes to account for, the disc is the final word in this lost release.
For packaging nerds like me, the vinyl edition is particularly awesome. It features what would have comprised the original release and sounds terrific; it sounds like an album from the 1960s, but is clean and sonically crisp. Packed up in an oversized hardcover gatefold, it reminds me of Warner Bros. “Loss Leaders” collections from the early Seventies. The design work provided by Torrence is suitably trippy, the exhaustive liner notes are welcomed and, yes, the package includes the CD too. In the end, Carnival of Sound is an interesting curio but reveals itself to be far too out-of-touch with what would have been the zeitgeist, and likely would not have been talked about for years after. If you’re a fan of the surf-pop sound, you’ll probably really appreciate the album. If you’re looking for a lost classic — despite all of its good qualities — this isn’t it.