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Beach Boys, ‘Smile Sessions’ – Album Review

Beach Boys Smile
Capitol Records

It may have taken 45 years, but the legendary recordings known as ‘The Smile Sessions,’ which the Beach Boys began in 1966, have finally made their way to the public at large. 

What began as perhaps an overambitious endeavor by the group’s songwriter, a young musical visionary named Brian Wilson (just 23 years old when he began this album), eventually turned into a journey fraught with mental anguish, unanswered questions, broken dreams and hours of some of the most incredible music ever made. In the process, it became the most legendary unreleased album in rock history.

After four years of chart-topping hits culminating with the 1966 landmark album ‘Pet Sounds,’ the Beach Boys had emerged as an artistic force to be reckoned with. Fueled by humor, spirituality, LSD and a desire to push the boundaries of popular music, Brian ventured boldly into uncharted waters to create ‘Smile.’

The public got their first glimpse of what was to come when ‘Good Vibrations’ (still perhaps the most amazing, not to mention costly, single ever made) hit the airwaves in October of 1966. As it hit No. 1, the anticipation grew. The new album, originally titled ‘Dumb Angel,’ was to be issued in January of 1967.

Of course, that did not happen. It’s a long long story, but the abbreviated version is that as days turned into weeks and months, Brian simply couldn’t finish the album in a manner that matched his grand vision.

There was also resistance from within the band, largely centered around the avant garde nature of both the music and the lyrics (penned by L.A. hipster/songwriter Van Dyke Parks). In a nutshell, ‘Surf’s Up’ was a long way from ‘Surfer Girl’.

Eventually, time won the battle and the Beatles won the war, in Brian’s mind anyway, when they released ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in June of ’67, thus beating the Beach Boys to the new frontier.

Feeling defeated, Wilson shelved the album. An album called ‘Smiley Smile’ was issued later that year, but other than a few of the songs and the hint of the title, it had very little to do with his abandoned masterpiece.

Over time, a few more of the songs made it onto subsequent Beach Boys albums, albeit in different form, but time marched on. The Beach Boys made more (sometimes great) records, and Brian grew more and more isolated. Any hope of him ever reaching for such bold creative ground again was long buried.

While the tapes gathered dust, over the years the legend of ‘Smile’ grew. Rabid Beach Boys fans helped the fable along by imagining what could have been. Bootlegs surfaced, cassettes were traded and stories swapped. Then, two major events happened that put fuel in ‘Smile”s tank.

First, there was the 1988 release of the ‘Look Listen Vibrate Smile’ book by Domenic Priore, which covered the story in greater detail than had ever been done before. Five years later, the ‘Good Vibrations: 30 Years Of The Beach Boys’ box set, which included a handful of unreleased tracks from the album’s sessions, were released.

Over the years, as Brian regained control of his own destiny (a story unto itself) he dove back into making music, and eventually assembled a band that was sympathetic not only to his sometimes erratic ways, but more importantly, to his musical history. This group pushed Brian to revisit his past in ways he had never thought possible.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Brian & band hit the road in 2003 performing this lost work live. Audiences ate it up, to the degree that in 2004, he released ‘Brian Wilson Presents Smile’, a re-working of ‘Smile’ with all-new recordings. The album received a truckload of accolades and even won a Grammy award.

Early in 2011, there was an official Capitol press release that said the Beach Boys’ version of ‘Smile’ would be released this year. Now, we had heard this story before. At various points from the 70′s through the 90′s, word would spill out that an official version of ‘Smile’ was imminent. Each time, nothing happened! So why should we believe this time would be any different? Well, to paraphrase the old line, yes Virginia, there really is a ‘Smile!’

The newly released five CD, two LP, 2 7” deluxe box set (or for the novice, a two-disc edition) is a reality! Covering ground not trampled on by bootlegs over the years, this is as close as we will ever get to the real thing.

Disc one features the closest approximation of what “would have been” that we will ever get. Assembling the songs (in some cases, unfinished pieces) into the running order conceived by Brian and subsequently used on his 2004 version, this is, for all intents and purposes, the album that never was.

Songs like ‘Heroes & Villains’ and ‘Cabin-essence’ shine brighter than ever, while ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Surf’s Up’ have never sounded more beautiful. The galloping rumble of ‘Do You Like Worms?,’ with its “Plymouth Rock roll over” refrain is still unlike anything else in popular music. The bass guitar alone on ‘Mrs. O’ Leary’s Cow’ will shake your floorboards loose.

From the opening spiritual invocation of ‘Our Prayer’ to the vastly different mix of ‘Good Vibrations’ that ends the album, this entire record is simply jaw-dropping. The ever-present, beautiful Beach Boys vocals absolutely soar on top of the majestic music created by Brian along with his hand-chosen musicians, the cream of L.A. session players of the times (Carole Kaye, Hal Blaine, etc).

The remaining discs cover a lot of ground from a variety of sessions, fragments and alternate versions, painting a picture with more colors than any palate usually holds. You get a glimpse into Brian’s working method at the time; piecing together various takes, edits and fragments into an incredible multi-faceted puzzle.

We take something like ‘Good Vibrations’ for granted since we have all heard it so many times over the years, but when you realize not only how it was made, but what it took to mold it into shape, especially with mid-60′s technology, it becomes even more of a wonder.

The sound quality and packaging of this collection are also well done. The casual fan may want to dip a toe in the water with the two-disc version, but the obsessively faithful will want to jump right into the big box. For those even more fanatical and wealthy, there is a another, even more limited edition version that among other things, actually comes with a surfboard!

If all you know of the Beach Boys are the standards like ‘Fun Fun Fun’ or ‘Surfin’ USA,’ this probably all sounds like a lunatic’s ravings. But, there is just so much depth to the story of the Beach Boys and ‘Smile.’  For many, this music may seem miles out to sea. It is avant garde, yet it is pop. It is classical and Americana. It is also truly psychedelic in ways no other artist has ever been able to assimilate.

It is as radical for 2011 as it was for 1966. It truly is a thing unto itself. It truly is a thing of great beauty.

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