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Vinyl Tap: Cindy Lee Berryhill – Garage Orchestra

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #51: 

Garage Orchestra, from 1994, starts off with a siren on the first song, “Father of the Seventh Son,” in a clarion call that evokes the Beach Boys’ abandoned 1967 SMiLE project when a mentally fragile Brian Wilson, having handed out toy fire hats in the studio, reportedly got so spooked by passing fire trucks racing to a fire in the hills that he discontinued the sessions and destroyed many of the tapes.

“Father” — a song with impressionistic Van Dyke Park-like lyrics mixed with skewed fun-fun-fun allusions to “the surf at Malibu” and “a house at Newport Beach” — sets a tone for much of Garage Orchestra’s ramshackle Pet Sounds-and-kettle drums core, though the musicians, including members of the San Diego Symphony, are offset and complemented with Cindy Lee Berryhill’s loosey-goosey vocals and upfront electric guitar.

A harmony-tinged tune of introspection like “I Wonder Why,” lyrically reminiscent of something from the second side of Beach Boys Today!, the 1965 Pet Sounds precursor, demands the orchestra be brought out of the shadows of the garage and the cellos and tympani cranked up to eleven in counterpoint to a wistful singer who poignantly ponders:

    When I was a kid sitting in the backyard
    Pulling out the summer chart
    And finding my star
    I’d ask it why
    He’d live so far away.

    I love those great big things
    That make you wonder
    And feel so funny inside…

So many things to wonder, too. In another song, San Diegan Cindy Lee, who produced along with Michael Harris, names names and gives her heart away: “Though I know this is just a stupid song … I met you Brian and we fell in love last night!” She can’t help but marvel about an idealized dream she had about the Beach Boys’ leader — “He kissed me on the black lounge chair!” — in the whimsical wall-of-Wilson “Song for Brian,” punctuated with percussive Spectorian flourishes, vocals by turns wailing and lilting.

Reflecting later periods, the audacious and less pop-prone track, “UFO Suite,” intriguingly and ambitiously, and a tad wackily, combines Wilson’s astronomical bent, such as on his “Solar System” (“If Mars had life on it I might find my wife on it”) — from the ragged pop glory The Beach Boys Love You (1977) — with the more conceptual slices of Americana traced on the SMiLE remnants and on the Brian Wilson solo tracks such as “Rio Grande” from the 1985 self-titled debut. In leisurely and fascinating fashion, Berryhill makes effortless transitions between the “hovering cigar-shaped extraterrestrials” and the more earthbound barking dogs, banjos and “Buffalo Gals” snippets – not to mention a scared Midwestern denizen on the run, perhaps the subject of the aliens’ amusement when they “Picked up a farmer just for kicks.”

Since Berryhill has developed enough of her own folk-rock singer/songwriter characteristics and quirks since her 1987 debut, Who’s Gonna Save the World?, Garage Orchestra is not given over completely to Brian Wilson-esque song styles and sonics. The stark and ominous “Scariest Day in the World” might keep you peering around every corner in anticipation. “Every Someone Tonight” is an infectious standout, offering the hope that everybody can “Come back to every somewhat body," along with the solace that "Rand McNally’s got somewhere for someone tonight.”

Whatever the case, Cindy Lee Berryhill, to reiterate, loves those great big things that make you wonder. And maybe if, to murmur a few encouraging pet sounds, “we think and wish and hope and pray [they] might come true,” they will for every someone tonight.

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