Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: '33 1/3: The Beach Boys’ Smile'

There are two excellent books about The Beach Boys’ “lost” masterpiece SMiLE, both very different and both by Domenic Priore. Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! is a scrapbook of period articles and more recent essays chronicling the anticipation leading up to a release that never happened and the cultish (though deserved) fan obsession that followed. SMiLE: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece is a more straight forward biographical look at the record that takes us up to Wilson’s solo recreation of it from 2004. Since the SMiLE story didn’t end there—The Beach Boys have since did the once unimaginable by sanctioning the release of a wealth of the original sessions in a deluxe box set—a third book on this particular record is not necessarily unnecessary. The SMiLE Sessions opens the story further by providing a more thorough portrait of the music and its making than most people previously heard and finally providing some closure to this uniquely open-ended story. However, Luis Sanchez doesn’t get into that in his installment of the 33 1/3 series. In fact, his Smile doesn’t really deal with SMiLE much at all, at least not for the first 88 pages of his 118-page book. Those pages are spent with each Beach Boys record leading up to SMiLE. They are discussed with light criticism and basic history most fans will already know. When Sanchez finally gets around to the ostensible subject of his book, he gives SMiLE a bit more attention than Surfin’ USA or The Beach Boys Christmas Album but not nearly enough to satisfy. I applaud the writer for not falling into the worst traps that 33 1/3 writers sometimes tumble into. His book is not preciously personal. It is not inaccessibly academic for a book on pop music. It does not eschew The Beach Boys for tangential discussions on agrarian economics or Vampire Weekend. However, this simply is not a book about a single album, which is supposed to be the purpose of the 33 1/3 series. It’s a brief history of The Beach Boys on record from 1961 through 1966 finished off with a decent but general essay on SMiLE that touches a little on the album’s troubled history, a little on Van Dyke Parks’s consequential contributions, a little on its themes and sounds, and a little on its more recent rebirth. While it is not satisfying as a 33 1/3 book, Smile certainly isn’t bad as an early-Beach Boys primer. I don’t think Domenic Priore is going to lose any sleep over this one though.

Get 33 1/3: The Beach Boys’ Smile on Amazon.com here:


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