Monday, June 25, 2012

Beach Boys 7: Smiley Smile

After 45 years, the legend of Smile, the unreleased follow-up to Pet Sounds, has grown into something larger than its creator. One thing that can’t be expressed is the context of the time, so we won’t do that. But suffice it to say that once upon a time, it wasn’t as easy as it is today to hear recordings that haven’t been officially sanctioned by a distribution channel, so for the longest time, fanatics had to rely on rumor and secondhand accounts. Basically, several months of recording a seemingly bottomless pool of ideas had no unforeseeable end, so in order to stay commercially viable, the rest of the Beach Boys corralled Brian long enough to get him to complete something, anything that could be their next album.
They never pretended that Smiley Smile was a worthy replacement for Smile, which is good, because it’s not. While each of the songs—save one, but we’re getting to that—had their roots in that project, the released album consisted nearly entirely of new recordings, with no outside musicians involved, captured at Brian’s home studio.
The album begins with “Heroes And Villains”, the big production number that was always going to be the next single. An extremely complicated song, it was much too adventurous for Top 40 radio. “Vegetables”, about the joy of eating them, has minimal accompaniment other than a quietly pulsing bass pedal and “crunching” percussion that may or may not include Paul McCartney. The instrumental “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter”—subtitled “W. Woodpecker Symphony” for the familiar cartoon theme played at the end of each phrase—seems out of place in the middle of the side, until you hear the two truly odd tracks that come after. “She’s Goin’ Bald” is an attempt at comedy, with wacky sped-up voice effects, while “Little Pad” seems to be an attempt to demonstrate how cool they were by getting high and releasing the results.
The label insisted on including “Good Vibrations”, the big hit single from the summer before, and it’s possible that it may have actually helped sales, but its inclusion here still underscores how far away the Beach Boys had traveled from fun and sun, before and since. “With Me Tonight” is a pleasant yet unfinished idea, showing off the harmonies, pretty as ever. “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” were both Smile songs, but appear here in eerie, stoned renditions, stripped of all innocence. In the middle is “Gettin’ Hungry”, a collaboration with Mike Love, who was still happy singing songs about the sun. The chorus should have been reserved for a better song than the one with these verses. “Whistle In” is yet another unfinished chant that sounds like the other ones on the album.
There’s definitely something missing from Smiley Smile. Mostly it’s a real drumkit, which is hardly heard anywhere except for mostly tapped percussion. And while it was recorded in Brian’s house, it sounds more like it was recorded in a closet, with everyone singing and playing quietly so as not to disturb any babies napping upstairs. It all combined for an album that was incredibly hard to like, but you kept trying anyway.
The 1990 reissue campaign paired the album with Wild Honey from later the same year, with liner notes that hinted more tantalizingly at what could have been. With room to spare alongside two short albums, the bonus tracks included alternate takes of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villains”, along with another seven minutes of “Good Vibrations” session excerpts that would eventually turn up on the Pet Sounds Sessions box and the B-side “You’re Welcome”.

The Beach Boys Smiley Smile (1967)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus Wild Honey album and 6 extra tracks

1 comment:

  1. I disagree that Smiley Smile is hard to like. It has real lo-fi charm, and has influenced plenty of bands. It can be a stoner album, but the songs are not eerie, just weird and funny. It's also an insight into the making of Smile, although it should be enjoyed on its own merits. The BB's were so talented that even their toss-off's were still good.