BRIAN WILSON: PRESENTS SMILE (2004)
1) Our Prayer/Gee; 2) Heroes And Villains; 3) Roll Plymouth Rock; 4) Barnyard; 5) Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine; 6) Cabin Essence; 7) Wonderful; 8) Song For Children; 9) Child Is The Father Of The Man; 10) Surf's Up; 11) I'm In Great Shape / I Wanna Be Around / Workshop; 12) Vega-Tables; 13) On A Holiday; 14) Wind Chimes; 15) Mrs. O'Leary's Cow; 16) In Blue Hawaii; 17) Good Vibrations.
Only the most battle-hardened Brian Wilson fan would state these days that this album has not completely outlived its purpose. In 2004, when Brian rattled the musical world by restoring the classic Smile project, this was not just an important personal step (a rather brave one, for someone as mentally unstable as Brian to return to the project that had already once cost him much of his sanity), but it also gave the world its first «officially sanctioned» access to Smile in all of its glorious (in)coherence, rather than having people hunting for bootlegs or making clumsy playlists out of everything that got scattered on four years' worth of different LPs.
However, with the eventual release of The Smile Sessions half a decade later, the basic point of this version was gone — no offense, but who would really want to keep on listening to a 60-year old Brian Wilson faithfully reproducing the classic old recordings when you can now listen to the original young Beach Boys? More importantly, who would you want to have chewing on your carrots and celeries — some anonymous whippersnapper, or Sir Paul McCartney? (Not to offend percussionist Nelson Bragg, who sounds perfectly fine on the re-recordings, but he just isn't quite as convincing, melodic, or idiosyncratic with his munch).
Seriously now, the re-recording sounds wonderful, and Brian's backing band gets into the spirit of Smile as perfectly as they got into the spirit of Pet Sounds. But this is a very loyal recreation, and although there are minor differences from Smile Sessions, they are mostly of a structural nature — a couple brief links here and there are placed in different locations, and a couple tracks are brought to completion: ʽIn Blue Hawaiiʼ, in particular, which used to be the instrumental ʽLove To Say Dadaʼ, now features a brand new set of lyrics, commissioned from Van Dyke Parks, and sounds more like a real song than just a mood-setting «watery» instrumental. From that point of view, you could perhaps argue that this version of Smile is more «complete» than the old one, but the argument would be just a wee bit dorky.
Of course, the clinching argument is not the «sacrality» of the old recordings, but simply the fact that those songs were written with the original Beach Boys in mind — Carl, Mike, Al, and particularly the young Brian; the old one, even downtuning stuff to accommodate it to his current singing voice, still runs into problems (see ʽSurf's Upʼ, where he relegates the highest parts to his backup singers). It's all smooth, and you wouldn't notice any major flaws if you weren't well aware of the original versions — but why settle for the less-than-perfect if you actually have access to perfection itself?
I may be missing some nuances here, but on the whole, these nuances should rather be explored by obsessive fans who live and breathe Smile and would rather spend valuable time dissecting all of its links and pondering over their musicological and philosophical interpretation than on something of more use to themselves or society. It may be amusing and/or instructive to give the new version a spin or two — if only to see for yourself just how well Brian has managed to coach his new band and infect them with his original inspiration — but that's about it. On the other hand, he himself may still regard this as an important step in his life: after all, this is the only official completed Smile that there is, so perhaps there's this checkmark somewhere in his brain («must complete Smile! must complete Smile!») that was finally checked, and now the man is ready to look St. Peter straight in the eye, because once you've completed the entire journey from ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ to ʽGood Vibrationsʼ without missing a single stop, you got yourself an assured reservation in God's own little pops orchestra.