Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Smile Sessions

In 1967, the Beach Boys narrowly missed out on the opportunity to become the boldest, most avant garde act in the history of pop music.  Fully explaining why they missed that opportunity would take pages upon pages; it's a long and involved tale of contractual problems, drug abuse, mental illness, and personal conflicts between members of the band.  However, the opportunity certainly existed.  The previous year, the band had begun work on an album that almost certainly would have produced an impact to rival Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, months before that album was even due for release.  Brian Wilson, the band's leader and principal composer, was bound and determined to shock the world with his sound.  Forty four years later, the fruits of those labors have now been commercially released, and their psychedelic sound can still startle.

The album, Smile, didn't come out in 1967, because it was not finished.  In 2004 Brian Wilson finally settled on a running order, and enlisted his collaborator (songwriter Van Dyke Parks) to write new lyrics for tracks which still had none.  With a new band he rerecorded everything from the ground up, producing a very successful album that, nevertheless, wasn't really Smile.  Now, the Beach Boys have finally released The Smile Sessions, a collection of the most complete and most intriguing music recorded from the time.  But that isn't really Smile, either.  It's Smile with an asterisk, or a grade of "incomplete," in more or less the state in which it was abandoned all those years ago.  

None of this should detract from the beauty of the music, which has been newly remastered.   The album's key tracks (Heroes and Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful, Surf's Up, Vega-Tables, and Good Vibrations) sound excellent, and are as near to "complete" as one could ever ask.  Secondary tracks such as Do You Like Worms? and I Love to Say Dada don't carry the same impact without the lyrics added for the 2004 version, but their relative completeness is remarkable.  Painfully, you can see how, with another month or two and a clear plan of attack, Smile probably could have been finished in time to really make its mark. It wasn't, so this (generously expansive) collection will have to do.

The sound of Smile, or at least The Smile Sessions, is defined by its eclecticism.  Many songs are defined by baroque instruments like pianos, horns and harpsichords, but heavily distorted electric guitars make appearances at surprising turns.  Melodic, dynamic bass lines enhance the arrangements, and in some places even try to dominate the mix.  Of course the truly dominant sound is of the Beach Boys' unparalleled singing; except when it isn't, and the Sessions present us with long stretches where the words were either never written, or simply never laid down on tape.  Thanks to the 2004 album, we now have lyrics to go along with them, but the fact that they were written so late (who knows what the words might have been in the 60s?) helps to preserve a bit of the mystery from long ago.

Smile, as originally conceived, was completely unlike anything ever attempted in the world of rock and pop.  It was meant to be constructed like a puzzle; songs would be built from small, separately recorded pieces which could be stitched together to form larger compositions.  Pieces of those compositions could then be used to sew the songs together, allowing them to flow with few to no breaks between tracks.  The songs themselves were also unique; the bulk of it was new work with highly abstract lyrics by Parks, but mixed in among them were excerpts from classic 40's and 50's pop tunes (Gee, You Are My Sunshine, I Wanna be Around).  Put together, Smile was supposed to be serious, humorous, spiritual and spontaneous: more or less, everything at once.

Pieces of the puzzle have always been available for those willing to explore the Beach Boy's 1970s albums, as well as the tapes spread by the noble bootleggers who've kept the legend alive.  Now that they've been assembled, it's easier to see the scope of Brian Wilson's ambition, and it helps to take the edge off of mourning for the greatest album that never was.  It isn't everything at once, but it is definitely something special.

Embedded amongst the outtakes and alternate versions are tracks that, while properly belonging to Smile, weren't integrated into the 2004 version.  The merits of songs like He Gives Speeches may be debatable, but it's obscure ephemera like that that make Smile special, and add to the value of the Sessions.  The main event, however, remains the core tracks.  They are among the very best work the Beach Boys, or any band of their era, ever recorded, and it's wonderful to see them finally enshrined in their discography where they belong.

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