Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brian Wilson 2: Smile

Seemingly cured of his demons—enough to remarry and adopt a few kids—Brian Wilson continued his own path through the end of the century, releasing a few solo albums and avoiding any true collaboration with the other Beach Boys. Unlike his first solo album, which was most likely created at pharmaceutical gunpoint but sounded pretty good nonetheless, his new music didn’t rise far above the “that’s nice” accolade. Basically, he was competing with his own past, via the rehaul of the Boys’ catalog and even his own reunion with onetime collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
Parks was part of the Smile project, the famously unfinished masterpiece that was destined to rival the Beatles’ best moments had it only been allowed to breathe, or so we were led to believe. Rumors began to spread around 1988 that all the music intended for it would actually be released; meanwhile, fans not content with the 30 minutes or so included on the box set in 1993 scrambled for anything said to represent the finished product as it stood in 1967.
Listening to these bootlegs, one could completely understand why the project got stalled. The existing pieces were certainly unfinished, and overlapped so much that a strict running order seemed almost arbitrary. Had the album come out back then, the standard thinking—outside of a few renegades who champion notoriously bad albums—would likely be that Smile was an overblown waste of tape. And the Beach Boys legacy wouldn’t be any different today, and Brian would still be a mess.
But it did change. Most people either love or hate the Beach Boys, and everyone hates Mike Love, but anyone who’s taken time to even try to like Pet Sounds can agree that Brian Wilson composed some pretty amazing music that just happened to fit on AM radio. And not only did he emerge from his paranoid shell, he assembled a band of devoted musicians, and went on tour around the turn of the century with them. These guys drove him to begin performing Pet Sounds in its entirety, with technology enabling the studio creation to exist on a stage. That was so well-received that Brian finally consented to “completing” something resembling Smile, with assistance from (surprise surprise) Van Dyke Parks, and performing it live. Critics raved, and then it was recorded in the studio.
Everyone related to the project was careful to say that Brian Wilson Presents Smile is not the real lost album; however, it is a stunning recreation. Comparing the new tracks to the bootlegs, the casual listen might have fooled one’s ears into thinking they’re the original tracks. While Brian’s voice is much shakier, all the elements are there.
That’s a deliberate pun; whatever was supposed to be the “Elements” suite is lost to the microdot. But with the CD format at its disposal, the piece has been separated not into two sides but three movements. It follows much of the bootlegged sequences, beginning with “Our Prayer” and “Heroes And Villains”. Most pundits usually put “Good Vibrations” at the start of “side two”, with the epic “Surf’s Up” at the end; here “Surf’s Up” closes the middle section, while a lyrically rearranged “Good Vibrations” appears as a coda. Some of the most famous outtakes appear, like “You Are My Sunshine”, “Child Is Father To The Man” and even a recreated “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (aka the “Fire” sequence).
It’s still a pretty silly record, with puns that induce more winces than wonder; most of those were added solely for this production. Issued through Nonesuch, it comes in a neat little package with embossed slipcase and booklet. Inevitably, the experience becomes somewhat anticlimactic, but there are a few absolutely gorgeous moments that could rank with the finest 20th century American music, up there with Gershwin, Cole Porter, Aaron Copland and so on.
2004 was a year where the impossible happened, from the Red Sox winning the World Series to Brian Wilson finishing Smile. Naturally, it stoked hopes for an official release of the original recordings, but if that wasn’t gonna happen, at least we’d have this.

Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004)—

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