Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: The Beach Boys' 'SMiLE Sessions'

In 1966, the burgeoning pop press became aware of a project promised to be unlike anything the world had ever heard. An avant garde comedy album. A “teenage symphony to God.” A record that would “make Pet Sounds stink.” The teasers were plentiful, but as we all know, The Beach Boys’ SMiLE never materialized. In its place was a thin interloper called Smiley Smile, which sounded more like a collection of hastily made demos than the operatic record on which Brian Wilson had been working for close to a year.

Over the next several years, bits of the original sessions started to leak out. “Cabin Essence” and “Our Prayer” appeared on 1969’s 20/20. The title track of 1971’s Surf’s Up. In the ‘80s, the bootlegs began bobbing to the surface. If The Beach Boys were never going to release the largely unfinished music Wilson recorded during the SMiLE sessions, fans were going to get their hands on it by other means and assemble their own versions of the album. This is the main reason SMiLE is so unique: it is the first album that forced fans to interact with it directly. They had to make their own edits and running orders on cassettes. They enjoyed debates on how it was supposed to be heard and what tracks were really intended to be included in the mythic “Elements” suite that (supposedly) would have climaxed the album.

Years before I became aware of the bootlegs and the cult and the myriad fan mixes, I first heard about SMiLE in The Beach Boys: An American Band. And what did I do as soon as I finished watching that 1985 documentary? I took my only two post-surf/hot rod Beach Boys records—20/20 and Good Vibrations: The Best of The Beach Boys—and made my own “SMiLE” tape. The result, which mostly consisted of non-SMiLE era stuff like “I Went to Sleep” and “Friends”, had little to do with The Beach Boys’ lost album, but it shows how hungry even new fans like myself were for that magical, spooky, thrillingly experimental album we’d never really get to hear.

Yes, we will never hear a completed album by The Beach Boys called SMiLE. There are the bootlegs, the 30 minutes of SMiLE tracks on 1993’s Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys box set, the 2004 solo album Brian Wilson Presents Smile. All consolation prizes. The newly released five-CD, two-L.P., two-45 box set called The SMiLE Sessions is really another consolation prize. Although the producers offer their own high-tech SMiLE mix on disc one, it isn’t what The Beach Boys would have released in ’67 had Brian Wilson been able to complete his vision. But as consolation prizes go, it is beyond anything we SMiLE obsessives could have ever expected. I certainly never counted on this release. Even as the other SMiLE Sessions reviews started flowing in, I wasn’t convinced of its existence until I actually held its magnificently designed box in my hands. Content-wise, it is more than we could have ever hoped. This set contains some of the most dazzlingly imaginative music ever made, and it sounds better than it ever did in its previous official and unofficial incarnations. When the “Bicycle Rider” section of “Do You Like Worms?” kicks in, the bass will throw you up against the wall. More poignantly, The SMiLE Sessions is evidence that the men who made it 45 years ago have finally made their peace with its weirdness, its brilliance, its divergence from the surf/hot rod formula Mike Love so valued, its power to disturb chief-creator Brian Wilson.

There are revelations in every crevice of The SMiLE Sessions. Take the “Heroes and Villains” 45. In most deluxe sets, the single is a neat little bonus not much more integral to the overall content than a fold-out poster or lapel button. However, this single provides further proof of how The Beach Boys could be just as innovative at 45 RPMs as they were at 33 1/3. Side A: the relatively radio-friendly—but still pretty weird (that cantina section!)—pop version. Side B: an extended series of variations on the “Heroes and Villains” refrain, edited together in pleasing but decidedly avant garde fashion. No other pop single from a major act was structured like this in 1967. Had it been released during its own time, the “Heroes and Villains” single may have revolutionized the 45 in the same way SMiLE probably would have revolutionized the L.P. Those familiar with the “Heroes and Villains (Sections)” piece from Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys will immediately recognize the Side B edit. But halfway through it diverges from the box-set track, introducing new splices and unfamiliar snatches of music. The piecemeal track on the Good Vibrations box is transformed into a fully realized piece of music. And that’s just the “bonus” single!

The disc-one approximation of the unfinished album is pieced together similarly to the famed “Purple Chick” bootleg, which used Brian Wilson Presents Smile as a blueprint to fashion a SMiLE out of The Beach Boys’ original recordings. This new one does not follow Wilson’s solo album as slavishly. It revises the running order slightly and uses sections of music very different from the ones Wilson and his backing band mimicked. The “Twelfth Street Rag” quote is restored in “Look”. “I’m in Great Shape” is totally unique from the solo and “Purple Chick” versions. “Vega-Tables” utilizes some funky percussion and mallets. An unexpected melody appears in “Love to Say Dada”.

That first disc will likely be the one to earn the most repeat spins from listeners, but the deep sessions discs that follow are also rewarding and surprising. Despite the titles on disc two, it isn’t quite 78 minutes of “Heroes and Villains” sessions. The tracks we now know as “Barnyard”, “I’m in Great Shape”, “Fire”, “Vega-Tables”, “Wind Chimes”, and “Love to Say Dada” are listed as “Heroes and Villains” sessions, probably because that is how Brian labeled the original tape boxes since he hadn’t figured out where these pieces of music would end up in his opus.

There is a certain downside to peeking behind the curtains and listening to how all this mystical music was made, but it also allows us to better hear the magical details muted or lost in the completed mixes on disc one: the sparkling pizzicato string runs on “The Old Master Painter”, the above-neck dobro plucks in “Cabin Essence”, the discordantly buzzing slide guitar in “Do You Like Worms?” We can hear the tack piano hammers clicking against strings in “Wonderful”, which is also presented with odd doo-woo harmonies. We can hear the jangling jewelry in “Surf’s Up”. The vibes and scraps of percussion reach out of “Child Is the Father of Man”. It’s amazing how beautiful and strange this music remains even when broken down into its most basic elements.

In a reissue-crazy environment that sees new “deluxe editions” and “director’s cuts” appear on a weekly basis, the release of The SMiLE Sessions is something else. It is not merely an opportunity to hear some amazing music for the first time. As noted above, a lot of fans have been listening to a lot of this stuff on bootlegs for decades. Receiving the official The SMiLE Sessions is more like meeting an estranged sibling for the very first time. For those of us who’ve accepted Rock & Roll as a more meaningful religion than any supernatural one, this is our holy grail, our shroud of Turin unearthed. It’s the discovery that the Loch Ness Monster exists, proof that whirring UFOs actually do abduct farmers and spirit them into the sky. The SMiLE Sessions is mythology made real.

The SMiLE Sessions is available in a number of formats. Get the one of your choice at Amazon.com with the links below:

The Smile Sessions Box Set

The Smile Sessions (2CD)

The Smile Sessions Vinyl (2LP)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
All written content of Psychobabble200.blogspot.com is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.