Friday, February 14, 2014

Beach Boys 16: The Smile Sessions

And just like that, only seven years after Brian Wilson’s 2004 incarnation was accepted and adored, the real thing came out—amazingly, with the endorsement of both Mike Love and Al Jardine. The Smile Sessions was made available several ways: a single disc of the final sequence plus bonus tracks; a massive box adding two discs of sessions and a disc each devoted to “Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations” sessions, plus a book, a vinyl version of disc one and a couple of 45s; and a double-disc edition that condenses the four sessions discs down to one bonus disc. (Whew.)

It’s a lot of music to take in, no matter what your level of familiarity. Smile as presented here mostly follows the 2004 sequence, with one slight shift and none of the updated lyrics. The music already included on the Good Vibrations box set re-appears, in even better sound and context.

We begin, appropriately, with the a cappella “Our Prayer”, rescued from 20/20, into an adaptation of the doo wop oldie “Gee” setting up “Heroes And Villains”, which itself moves as expected into “Do You Like Worms” (now subtitled “Roll Plymouth Rock”, its 2004 title). Several short pieces follow: “I’m In Great Shape” is a brief interlude attached to “Barnyard”, which abruptly shifts to “My Only Sunshine” and its introduction via “The Old Master Painter”, ending with a reprise of a “Heroes And Villains” theme. (As already demonstrated on the 1993 box, many of the components of the songs are interchangeable with others, which is how people got confused when piecing together their own versions.) “Cabin Essence” ends the suite in all its glory and splendor.

We move to the compact sweep of “Wonderful”, much better than the Smiley Smile remake. The mostly instrumental “Look” was called “Song For Children” in 2004; here it’s kept simple with some allusions to “Good Vibrations”. Some of the vocalizations reappear in “Child Is Father Of The Man”, which itself is repeated on the fade of “Surf’s Up”, rescued from the album of the same name.

The third, final movement comes closest to providing the apocryphal symphony devoted to the four elements. “I Wanna Be Around” is another oldie taken over by the sound effects of the “Workshop”. “Vega-Tables” always got more attention than it deserved, but at least this mix sounds more complete. “Holiday” presents a nice mental image of a seafaring adventure, nicely melded with “Wind Chimes”. A section previously thought to be part of “Heroes And Villains” is now restored to its rightful place at the start of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, and now the world can finally hear the “Fire” music that supposedly scared the pants off its own composer. (It actually is fairly unsettling, even if you’ve seen Eddie And The Cruisers.) “I Love To Say Dada” begins with a “water” chant to provide some relief, and it all comes down to “Good Vibrations”, heard here with its original lyrics and some other mix variations.

Which is a good place to make this statement. While Beach Boys experts are justifiably fond of “Good Vibrations”, a whole disc of sessions chronicling its development is overkill for the deluxe box. Yes, it’s a great song, and yes, it would have been included on the album (against Brian’s wishes) had it been completed at the time, but it’s about as essential to Smile as “The Ballad Of John & Yoko” is to Abbey Road. (Also: lots of people insist that the project’s correct title is SMiLE, and that’s how it is all over the graphics, but it’s annoying to type over and over that way so we haven’t.)

With the final sequence totaling 49 minutes, the bonus tracks nicely complement what has gone before. “You’re Welcome” was a B-side and a nice a cappella bookend, while “He Gives Speeches” is the original lyrics to the song that became more famous as “She’s Goin’ Bald”. Further excerpts of “Heroes And Villains” parts prove that sometimes Brian just didn’t know where to stop, but eight minutes devoted to a “Smile Backing Vocals Montage” is an excellent tribute to his long-suffering bandmates.

As with any “lost” album, Smile is not a masterpiece, or a missing link that may have changed the course of the human race had it only been allowed to breathe. But The Smile Sessions is a generous gift, long overdue, and finally in a place where what made it good, and worth hearing, can be appreciated.

The Beach Boys The Smile Sessions (2011)—4

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