Beach Boys – SMiLE Sessions (review)

Beach Boys – SMiLE Sessions (Capitol / EMI) CD review

Brian Wilson’s beautiful, fractured mess is finally pieced together with stunning results

You may have heard about the Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions, yet you’re a little confused as to what it’s all about.  Don’t worry – even some of the group’s biggest fans never heard of the project.  It was abandoned 44 years ago and is just now seeing the light of day.  In order to understand SMiLE, we need to put it back in its proper context.  It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the mid Sixties, the Beach Boys rivaled the Beatles in both popularity and influence.  Each new release was eagerly anticipated, and leader Brian Wilson was commonly referred to as a “musical genius.”

The band had just released their biggest single ever in “Good Vibrations” – less a traditional song, and more a series of fragments, recorded at multiple studios and then spliced together for the final product.  It was a landmark in pop music, taking six months and a staggering $50,000 to complete.  When Brian promised an entire album, to be called SMiLE, fashioned in a similar manner, anticipation was at its highest.   But if “Good Vibrations” took over a half a year to finish, how could an entire album, done the same way, ever be possible?

Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t possible – the project was scrapped amid record label pressure, and Brian’s own drug-induced paranoia.  Yet, make no mistake, this wasn’t a mere flight of fancy – there were over 70 recording sessions tracked, most using the top session musicians of the day, and featuring intricately woven vocals from all six Beach Boys.  The unfinished material that remained in the archives was some of the most sophisticated music ever recorded in rock n’ roll.  With expectations so high, and so much time and effort invested, abandoning the SMiLE album was a huge blow to the Beach Boys’ career.  What further complicated matters, was that because the album was recorded in pieces, there was never a proper running order, or even, in some cases, proper song structures.  As time went on, the legend grew; every new year seemed to bring talk of its release.  Eventually, the material became widely available on the bootleg market.  But, it wasn’t until Brian Wilson, at the urging of his touring band, finally revisited the material in 2004 for Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, a complete re-recording of the old tracks, adding new lyrics and sequencing the songs for the first time, in a cohesive album.

Now that there was an “official” track listing for SMiLE, producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd began scouring the archives to round up all the hundreds of song fragments.  Disc one of the SMiLE Sessions is the result of their hard work – an “estimation” of what SMiLE could have been.  What distinguishes these recordings from Brian’s in 2004, is that these are the original tracks from 1966-67, featuring the young Beach Boys, at the top of their game, accompanied by the hottest session musicians in the land.  No offense to Brian or his band, but compared to the 2004 version, the one on the SMiLE Sessions blows it away.  Imagine Paul McCartney going back today and re-recording his most famous Beatles songs with his new band – it would be good, but would it be better than the Beatles?  No way.  Same goes for these classic Beach Boys’ recordings.

The album is both beautiful and bizarre, innovative and ridiculous, mature and childlike; the fact that it still sounds fresh 44 years after its original slated release is testament to the talent of Brian Wilson, his fellow Beach Boys vocalists, and the session musicians that surrounded them.

SMiLE opens with “Our Prayer,” no instruments, just the six Beach Boy voices, fluidly stretching wordless phrases into a melody that careens up and down – 60-second proof that no one has ever come close to their harmonic intricacy.  That’s followed by the ambitious “Heroes and Villains”; driven by a pulsing bass line, the song is a dizzying array of snippets, with frequent tempo changes and background vocals that seem to fall like rain in a thunderstorm.  Set in the Old West, there’s even a saloon piano at one point.  You can see why Wilson spent so much time working on this incredibly intricate piece of music.  The familiar piano melody from the song is used to link the remainder of the tracks on the first third of the album; as it’s played over and over, it begins to take on a maddening quality.

Much of SMiLE’s legacy has stemmed from the wacked-out, drug-fueled oddities that have shown up in bootlegs for years.  “Barnyard,” “Do You Like Worms,” and especially “The Elements: Fire” are all among the strangest songs the band ever recorded, with “Fire” being quite possibly the most sinister sounding rock song ever.  Yet, somewhat overshadowed by all this experimentation is that SMiLE is also full of wondrous beauty.  The harpsichord-led “Wonderful” is gorgeous and could’ve been included on their previous triumph, Pet Sounds, while “Wind Chimes” begins in a subdued manner with a muted Carl Wilson vocal and marimba, before exploding in a mass of near-insane vocals.

The most-impressive piece on SMiLE is also quite possibly the finest song they ever put on tape – “Surf’s Up,” with its dense lyrical wordplay sung over a lush, orchestrated backing track, is hauntingly exquisite  The ending, with Wilson’s high falsetto soaring over his solo piano, invokes unbelievable sadness and longing – it’s as if he knows this project is doomed to fail.

The remainder of the SMiLE Sessions features alternate takes and session highlights of each song, showing the incredible amount of care that went into every track. Amazingly, the instrumental versions of the songs could easily stand on their own – there’s just that much going on.  You get a whole new appreciation for the Beach Boys as singers as well; several sections feature just their vocals – you realize how focused they had to be to pull these off.  The producers have edited and sequenced these highlights in a manner that is surprisingly listenable.  Each song is presented in an “in progress” form – shedding light on how Wilson molded each track into its final version.  What you also see in these extra discs is, no matter how ill-fated it became, everyone involved seemed to be having a good time.  There is a great deal of laughter in the studio.

It’s impossible to know just what impact SMiLE would’ve had if it had been completed in 1967 – it could’ve been a runaway hit or complete flop, deemed too weird for consumption.  It’s a good bet it would have changed the course of the Beach Boys’ career, for better or worse.  Now, over four decades after its original release was canceled, we can once and for all enjoy the genius that was Brian Wilson.  –Tony Peters