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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Beach Boys: The SMiLe Sessions


THE BEACH BOYS: THE SMILE SESSIONS (2011)

CD I: 1) Our Prayer; 2) Gee; 3) Heroes And Villains; 4) Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock); 5) I'm In Great Shape; 6) Barnyard; 7) My Only Sunshine; 8) Cabin Essence; 9) Wonderful; 10) Look (Song For Children); 11) Child Is Father Of The Man; 12) Surf's Up; 13) I Wanna Be Around / Workshop; 14) Vega-Tables; 15) Holidays; 16) Wind Chimes; 17) The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow); 18) Love To Say Dada; 19) Good Vibrations; 20) You're Welcome; 21) Heroes And Villains (stereo mix); 22) Heroes And Villains Sections (stereo mix); 23) Vega-Tables Demo; 24) He Gives Speeches; 25) Smile Backing Vocals Montage; 26) Surf's Up (1967 solo version); 27) Psycodelic Sounds: Brian Falls Into A Piano; 28) Capitol SMiLE Promo;

CD II: 1) Our Prayer "Dialog"; 2) Heroes And Villains: Part 1; 3) Heroes And Villains: Part 2; 4) Heroes And Villains: Children Were Raised; 5) Heroes And Villains: Prelude To Fade; 6) My Only Sunshine; 7) Cabin Essence; 8) Surf's Up: 1st Movement; 9) Surf's Up: Piano Demo; 10) Vega-Tables: Fade; 11) The Elements: Fire Session; 12) Cool, Cool Water (version 2); 13) Good Vibrations Session Highlights; 14) Psycodelic Sounds: Brian Falls Into A Microphone.

Sooner or later, this was bound to happen. After several years of «teasingly» slapping re-recorded and re-arranged shards and slices on incoherent LPs, somewhere in between Carl Wilson's soft rock ballads and Mike Love's pseudo-experimental oddities; after several decades of heavy reck­less bootlegging, filling a Beach Boy fan's life with sense and emptying a Capitol executive's po­cket of moolah; after Brian Wilson's brave and critically respected 2004 attempt to resurrect and mate­rialize the original concept in its entirety, unfortunately, marred by the hoarseness and seni­lity of his vocals, as well as the lack of original Beach Boy harmonies for pleasant authenticity; in brief, after more than fourty years of this strange fantom life lived by the original SMiLe, here we are — finally presented, under an official seal of approval and in shiny optimistic packaging, with what we should have been presented with in 1967. Back when it actually mattered, that is.

We are supposed to understand, however, that the nineteen tracks on the first CD of this archival release are not the «real» SMiLe. The «real» SMiLe, throughout 1966 and early 1967, was well organised within Brian's head, but not within any particular set of tapes. Brian's 2004 version is actually closer to «reality», although it should also be obvious that, over thirty seven years, that «reality» could not help but become slightly altered. Still, do we really care all that much? At the bottom of it, both the 2004 version and this «reconstruction» are fine additions to our catalog, and neither of the two could be explicitly called «disjointed», «messy», or «lacking artistic vision». For all I know, these fourty-eight minutes of music are SMiLe — that planned conceptual fol­low-up to Pet Sounds, that «teenage symphony to God» that Brian had announced before falling victim to his own unbridled ambitiousness and inability to adapt it to the actual surroundings. Smiley Smile, in comparison, was not SMiLe — not even close. This one, regardless of any de­ficiencies that Beach Boy historians and Brian Wilson's spiritual twins may detect, could just as well be SMiLe. Why the hell not?

From a «basic acquaintance» point of view, even if you have never heard any bootlegs and are a strictly «official release» kind of person, there will not be any major new-song surprises here if you already know Smiley Smile, the Beach Boys' entire catalog of 1967-1971, the anthological archive releases, and, of course, Brian's 2004 reconstruction. What matters is the coherence of it all: from the very fact that yes, a reconstruction from the original tapes is possible, to the joy of discovering the original, fully inspired recordings, and multiplied by the lovingly executed remas­tering — each single vocal part here, in particular, sounds clearer, cleaner, closer to home than could ever be achieved in the old days. (One way to relive your Sixties experience anew).

So — always the tempting question — could the album, as it is now presented, be the supposed equivalent of Sgt. Pepper? Clearly, it would have been less accessible. There is simply too much going on here: with most of the songs consisting of several parts, plus additional instrumental links tying them together, the kaleidoscopic ambitiousness would have been too much for most people — at times, it seems as if Brian were competing not so much with Lennon/McCartney as he was with Frank Zappa (Absolutely Free is comparable in terms of the sheer number of unpre­dictable leaps and twists, even if it leans far closer towards the avantgarde side of things and, thus, could not hope for commercial success at all). Sgt. Pepper cleverly knew where to stop; SMiLe knows no limits, which is why it will always be adored much more by eccentric «poetic souls» and relentless musical omnivores than «normal people».

On the other hand, SMiLe does correct what I have always thought of as the biggest mistake of Pet Sounds — it is much more dynamic, with the melancholic, introspective mood, slow tempos, and gentle musical flow replaced by head-spinning psychedelia, turbulence, and jarring stops-and-starts a-plenty. It is not «rock» at all (the electric guitar barely registers at all as an instru­ment among all the carnivalesque trappings), but it is energetic for much of its duration, and, some­times, even becomes aggressive (ʽMrs. O'Leary's Cowʼ, Brian's musical equivalent of a raging fire destroying everything in its path). Ever yawned at the languid­ness of Pet Sounds? Once or twice, at least? SMiLe gives you no time for yawning: open your mouth and something attention-drawing will happen before you close it.

But it is no coincidence that ʽGood Vibrationsʼ became the only SMiLe song to enter each and every household — it is the Beach Boys' equivalent of ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ: behind all of its fabulous complexity lies a very simple, very basic, and very easily understandable message. Mu­sically, it belongs fully to Brian's «mature» period, but spirit-wise, it is like a perfect link between the early fun-in-the-sun days and the later transition into the realm of strangeness and charm. Be­yond ʽGood Vibrationsʼ lies the strange and charming, too strange and charming, perhaps, for the average musical listener to swallow. Personally, I think that the people at large would not be rea­dy for SMiLe in 1967, just as they are not all that ready for it now.

Which should not prevent critics, fans, and musical omnivores, of course, from holding their ground — SMiLe is, indeed, one of the finest achievements of pop music in the XXth century, and now we have the near-perfect package to prove it without having to do all that extra work for ourselves. In the long run, it is a more rewarding listening experience than Sgt. Pepper: the pay­off is smaller at first, with all the different links and overdubs and stops and starts and reprises and modulations and special effects dazzling and confusing the listener, but larger on subsequent listens, when all the flourishes start sinking in and you start to realize how well they all belong to­gether. It does not have its own ʽDay In The Lifeʼ — a sort of ultimate, mind-blowing, cathartic peak with a cleverly engineered mix of comic and tragic overtones that forces you to realize how small you are in relation to the universe — although the magnificent ʽSurf's Upʼ comes close, its solemnly mannered baroque flow, ungrammatical lyrics (I still think that Van Dyke Parks was one of the weakest links in the chain), and intentional coldness still stir up a very different kind of emotions. But apart from that, it still reflects a grand vision, dressed up in some of the most in­ventive clothes ever designed by a pop musician.

Regarding the package, I have only heard the «standard» 2-CD version, which includes about twenty extra tracks from the sessions, all of which are well worth listening to — SMiLe was such a fascinating project that even the demos and interrupted studio takes are exciting on their own, as you watch these songs unfurl before your eyes. Even the eight minute-long «montage» of acca­pella backing vocals for the project is jaw-dropping — these are, after all, some of the most un­usual and non-trivial harmonies the band had ever designed, and some of them do get lost in the background when you are listening to the completed takes. Heck, even the «silly bits» — such as the little staged comic-absurdist scene in which ʽBrian Falls Into A Pianoʼ are charmingly hila­rious this time. Why couldn't they think of something like that in the times of ʽBull Session With Big Daddyʼ?...

There is, however, an enlarged 5-CD boxset version as well, with a whole disc given over to the story of the development of ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ and another one given over to ʽGood Vibra­tionsʼ. For me, this is technical overkill, but I am fairly sure all of that is worth listening to at least once — if only to understand how much time, work, energy, and spirit had been invested in these creations. If you can afford the big boxset, by all means, do so: even a self-proclaimed ha­ter of SMiLe could be objectively convinced, I believe, that this is one of the few albums that does merit a whole boxset of such length all to itself. Thumbs up to all of the versions out there — and especially to the amazing fact that, now that the enigma has finally disclosed itself as fully as possible, it has not become the tiniest bit less enigmatic than it was before.


Check "The Smile Sessions" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Smile Sessions" (MP3) on Amazon

11 comments:

  1. Your review, as interesting as usual, reminded me of the emotion of listening to ambitious rock music, thanks George.

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  2. Excellent review on all fronts. I personally feel Smile betters even Sgt. Pepper, but I'm totally aware that I fall fully and completely into the "relentless musical omnivores" category you speak of. It certainly bests Brian's solo version on all fronts aside from "completeness".
    I only bought the 2-CD version but I did have the opportunity to listen to all 5 disks of the box-set. For the most part it is fascinating stuff. The Good Vibrations disk was perhaps the least interesting for me since that song was fully completed and I'd heard many outtakes from it's sessions before. But the H&V disk is really neat, there are so many sections to that song (including ones that didn't make the cut) that a whole disk of it doesn't get tiring at all. The other disks have tons of interesting stuff as well. There's a version of "Do You Like Worms" that has Brian humming a snatch of vocal melody for the verse that is completely different than what it ended up as. You can listen to how "Love to Say Dada" gradually morphs into "Cool Cool Water" as the sessions go on. It's also really eye opening to the amount of work it must have taken to assemble the "final" versions on disk one. I adore the solo "Surf's Up" from '67 which just blew me away when I first heard it.
    And of course the album recreation on disk one is just stellar. The main criticism I have for the version on disk 1 is that it follows a little too closely to BW's solo version. the original probably would have been significantly shorter (no BBs album in the 60s broke 40 minutes, and most were barely 30) which would have meant some major cuts (Holidays and Look would have ended up on the floor almost certainly for example), and the track order probably would have been different (Good Vibrations likely would have opened side 2 taking the same role as Sloop John B). But that's all nit-picking really, and the great thing about Smile is that because it's unfinished and because there are so many different bits and pieces you can recreate it any way you please. It's the original "interactive album"! Even if someone disagrees with some of the choices they made here they've still given fans a truck load of incredible new versions of songs to work with.
    There's tons more I could say about Smile, but I'll just leave it there for now. But damn, it's so great that this has finally been officially released (and as extensive as it is) after all this time.

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  3. I believe Brian made a statement regarding the running order and inclusion of specific tracks on side 1 that summed up to (paraphrasing): "I did not have a specific, finalized running order or set of songs in mind when I set aside the SMiLE project. This is the final order of the SMiLE project, as completed in 2004 with the solo version". Such as it is, regardless of whatever other compilations may be made of it by fans, it is a heckuva body of material. Thank you, Brian, for creating it with Van Dyke Parks; and thanks to all of the Beach Boys, even those who disliked the project, for giving it those wonderful vocals.

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  4. After loving the Brian Wilson solo version for the past few years, this (incomplete) version supplants it - on the basis of, perhaps, one thing alone: the vocals!

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  5. I have to say that I found Smile to be a far more accessible album then Pet Sounds although i wouldn't necessarily rate it higher than Pet Sound.

    You are absolutely right about the dynamics of the album and how it is far less monotonous then Pet Sounds which I had a lot of trouble getting into.

    I listen to Smile and I loved it the first time I've listen to it as I love their brand of complex but catchy pop song. I then went back and listen to Pet Sound which I thought was overrated and I never really loved it or believed the hype behind the album. Suddenly that album made sense as I was used to the Beach boys sounds.

    I probably now rate Pet Sounds slightly higher then Smile (although I would rate both a high 13/15) album as I'm not entirely convince with some of the experimentation of the album (The Elements come to mind). However I don't think I would have ever loved Pet Sounds if it wasn't for Smile.

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  6. Who would have thought that Brian would liked to be in the Moody Blues circa days of futures passed.

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  7. Nice review. As a lover of the earlier Wilson project, my only complaint is that I like the lyrical and vocal additions to the more recent Elements suite. I haven't read this anywhere, but I assume that Wilson and Parks intended to add those parts to the original project. Were they never finished or did the Beach Boys abandon the project before they bothered to record them? I can't imagine it would have been as strongly instrumental as it's presented here.

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    1. Van Dyke had lyrics, either complete or incomplete written for parts of the elements suite and no doubt other lyrics for other parts of the album now lost to time. He found some of these for the 2004 version of Smile. The reason they weren't included on the original was Van Dyke left the sessions due to Brian's increasing instability. Without his key lyric writer couple to the stresses Brian was facing, it was inevitable the album would never see the light of day during the era for which it was intended.

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    2. Van Dyke had known lyrics for Do You like Worms?, Cabin Essence (additional ones that didn't get recorded even in 2004), and Holidays (anything else on the 2004 project isn't known as to when it was written). As well, Look seemingly had proper vocals from studio records we have from the time, and various earlier versions of Heroes and Villains have had their vocals wiped to make way for the one we have now (the Cantina version you can find comes from an acetate). It seems likely that Child is Father to the Man and Love to Say Dada were going to get more vocals as well, and that I'm In Great Shape and Barnyard were going to get proper band vocals, too. Surf's Up is seemingly incomplete both musically and vocally, and there are studio records for a "Surf's Up Pt. 2" tape that hasn't surfaced yet, though that could be anything.

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  8. I'm rather surprised that this came to light. I thought that Brian had laid to rest "Smile" when he recorded it in 2004. He stated that the original sessions would never be released, due to their incompleteness. I suspect that part of the Capitol deal with releasing their new album required them to also create this.

    Well, one thing I do have to say is that you're too harsh on Brian's vocals on the solo version. Far from sounding "hoarse and senile" (try "15 Big Ones " or "Love You" for that), for the most part, Brian did a surprisingly good job singing on "Smile".But I will concede something that you alluded to in your review of that one -- Brian's 21st century voice, to a certain extent, sounds out of place when singing the songs.

    The other point is that the 2004 disc sounds like a modern, stereo production. Which is why I'm glad we have this attempt at a reconstruction. With Brian's original voice, all of the Beach Boys and the original backing tracks, this version far more captures the mood of 1967 than the remake.

    That makes it easier to appreciate the album in that context. Even for the time, "Smile" was mind-blowing. As you said, "Good Vibrations" was the perfect meeting point of Brian's California commercialism and his pushing production boundaries to the max. But Brian went even further, both with the music ("Fire", "Surf's Up") and Parks' alternately whimsical and abstract lyrics.

    By the way, the standard line is that Brian wanted to "Smile" to be about the "healing power of laughter". But with the exception of "Vege-Tables", "Heroes and Villains" and "Holidays", I don't hear that much happy music or playful lyrics. "Sgt. Pepper" and "Magical Myster Tour", actually, had more of that than "Smile". Instead, "Smile" is sort of stepping through the looking glass -- a trip into the weird and the wonderful, almost like if "Tomorrow Never Knows" had been extended to album length, but without the dark undercurrents that would later infect "Smiley Smile".

    Mike Love might have been right about one thing-- this might have been too much for the Beach Boys' audience to handle. Another mind-boggling things is that "Smile" sounds almost nothing like "Pet Sounds", just as the latter sounded dissimilar to "Party" and "Summer Days" -- and "Pet Sounds" had been rejected by a portion of the BB's fans already.

    For what it's worth, I think that if "Smile" had come out when it was scheduled (12/66-1/67), it would have made the Top 10 based on the presence of the "Good Vibrations" single. (which should have been included here, not a new edit based on 2004). A stronger version of "H&V" released at the same time would also have been a Top 10 single.

    But I think releasing "Smile" would have only postponed Brian's problem. Where could he have gone from here? "Sgt. Pepper" still would have upped the ante. Even the Beatles couldn't beat their own hand. "MMT" was "Pepper, Part 2", and then they just took off in a new direction. And Brian would hardly have been prepared for the coming of Hendrix, Cream and "John Wesley Harding". Groups like the Airplane and the Byrds could adapt, but the Beach Boys? Perhaps the inevitable was just postponed...

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  9. Dean "I Love SMiLE" LaCapraraJanuary 2, 2014 at 8:17 PM

    Just received the complete box on the 25th and it's pretty great, despite having already heard a lot of it before. Variations help although that "Good Vibrations" disc is the least interesting. Cool hardcover book, double album (heavier than average one) and 45s. A must-have for Beach Boy fanatics.

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