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