Sunday, June 30, 2013
Smile - The Beach Boys
Smile [The Smile Sessions]
The Beach Boys
Capitol T 2580 [Capitol T-27658]
For many years my most treasured CD has been a bootleg reconstruction of the lost 1967 Beach Boys album, "Smile." Like many Beach Boys fans, I've been fascinated by this album ever since I first learned of its existence. I'm not going to go into the background of this album because it is way too complex and mysterious for my humble blog (there is an excellent book about it by Domenic Priore if you are interested.) Nonetheless I think it is the most crucial event in the Beach Boys' long, turbulent history and I've longed for it to come out on a legitimate release on vinyl. Of course much of it was on the Beach Boys" "Good Vibrations" CD box set and various tracks were reworked for some of the Beach Boys albums that followed its non-release (most notably on "Smiley Smile") but that is not the same as a unified album. Then Brian Wilson decided to release his own version of "Smile" re-recorded by his new band and as much as I enjoyed that album, it also made me unhappy because I figured that now he would never sanction a release of the original recording. But then to my amazement and joy, this album was announced and I happily bought it the day it was released. I knock Capitol Records often, but this one they got right. It is in mono just as Brian intended and even has the original catalog number assigned to it back in 1967 as well as a 1960s rainbow inner label. The album itself is gorgeous. Frank Holmes original artwork was retained for the cover and the booklet inside the gatefold cover. It has a facsimile of the original back cover intended for the 1967 release and a back cover that shows the true running order of the album with the additional tracks added to the album for its modern release. There is some question of what the original track sequence for "Smile" was supposed to be, but there is universal agreement that "Our Prayer" is the proper opening track. It is a gorgeous a cappella song with wordless vocalizing from the group that segues into an excerpt of the old doo-wop song "Gee." It is followed by the masterful "Heroes and Villains" which shows Wilson at the height of his creative powers. He takes his catchy riff through numerous permutations in a tour de force of arranging and marries it to brilliant lyrics from Van Dyke Parks evoking the myths of the old west. It is among the greatest of all Beach Boys songs. It leads into the oddly titled "Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)" which features more impressive arranging from Wilson including a reprise of the riff of "Heroes and Villains" along with Hawaiian themes and enigmatic lyrics that refer to Native Americans. "I'm In Great Shape" is barely even a fragment of a song lasting less than 30 seconds as it describes farm life. "Barnyard" expands on the farm theme complete with animal sound effects. "My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine" offers slow string driven fragments of the two old pop songs mentioned in the title.) "Cabin Essence" features amazing lyrics from Parks describing growing wheat on the Great Plains and building the transcontinental railway. This was apparently one of the songs that the other band members objected to as being too obscure to understand but it seems pretty clear to me. Musically it is very strong, alternating between bucolic countryish segments and a harder section driving the line "Who ran the iron horse." This ends side one and the first movement which depicts American history and life on the American heartland. Side two opens with the chamber pop song "Wonderful" which is beautifully sung by Brian. In a delicate and poetic manner it describes a girl losing her virginity and growing up. "Look (Song For Children)" consists solely of the word "child" (with an occasional "the" added) paired with a bouncy tune with carnival elements to it. "Child is Father of the Man" expands on this adding the phrase "father of the man" to the "child" chant. These two songs go on for over 4 minutes combined but are never boring thanks to Brian's arranging skills. The side concludes with the magnificent "Surf's Up." I first heard the song on the Beach Boy's 1971 album of the same name which I picked up as a teenager. It blew me away and was the genesis of my interest in the lost album it was intended for and gave me a life long respect for Brian Wilson's musical genius. This is another one of the songs that the other band members ridiculed for being incomprehensible. I beg to differ. In stunningly poetic language Parks describes upper class emptiness and a night out at the theater which ends with the song's unhappy hero finding redemption in the magic of a child's song which reprises the musical theme from "Child is Father of the Man." The song is blessed with more arranging wizardry from Brian as well as a moving, heartfelt vocal from him (joined by Al Jardine for the concluding polyphonic finale.) I consider the song a pinnacle in pop music art, a triumph in every aspect of songwriting. Brian would never write a better song than this. It ends the second movement which deals with childhood. The third movement on side three explores the theme of the elements of the planet: wind, water, fire and earth. It opens with "I Wanna Be Around/Workshop" which links a jazzy instrumental version of the Johnny Mercer song with the sounds of tools in a workshop. It is followed by the childlike "Vega-Tables." I have to admit that the first time I heard the song (on "Smiley Smile") I disliked it, but now I find it completely charming. The song may seem silly but there is some clever wordplay from Parks and it is lavishly arranged by Brian with complex vocal harmonies supporting Jardine's lead vocal as well as Sir Paul McCartney loudly chomping celery in the background. "Holidays" is a simple bouncy instrumental that also has a childlike flavor to it. It leads into the gorgeous melody of "Wind Chimes" which is beautifully sung by Carl Wilson. The first part of the song is played on a marimba or vibraphone type instrument which replicates the sound of a wind chime and then there is a more elaborate instrumental passage with multi-part vocal harmonies and a full band. "The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow)" is often cited as evidence of Brian's mental deterioration since he apparently came to believe that performing the song led to actual fires breaking out in Los Angeles. The song does sound kind of sinister, probably the creepiest thing Wilson has ever written. It is a swirling instrumental driven by a propulsive siren-like musical pattern. The session excerpts from this song (not included on the record) are quite astonishing and well worth seeking out. "Love To Say Dada" is a return to a childlike tune with the repeated refrain of "water" and "wah wah" delivered over an exotica style melody. There is a brief reprise of "Our Prayer" and then the side concludes with the band's immortal "Good Vibrations" arguably the greatest single of all time. The album version is basically the same as the single until towards the end of the song where a tropical vocal passage (sounds like they are singing "hum de dum") is inserted and there is a different, prolonged outro as well. This is the end of the reconstructed "Smile" album. Side 4 features assorted bonus tracks beginning with "You're Welcome" which was recorded during the "Smile" sessions and originally appeared as the b-side of the "Heroes and Villains" single. Many "Smile" fans feel like this was meant to bookend "Our Prayer" on the album, presumably slotting near the end as it does on some "Smile" bootlegs. It resembles "Our Prayer" vocally and is largely percussion driven. It is followed by stereo mixes for "Vega-Tables" and "Wind Chimes" which sound terrific. There is a five minute plus track of session highlights and a stereo backing track for "Cabin Essence." It is interesting to hear the way the song was put together and to get a clearer idea of all that is going on beneath the vocal. The side concludes with a brief session excerpt and a beautiful stereo mix for "Surf's Up." I'm happy to hear it again, I never get tired of it but I would have preferred to have Brian's demo version which I really love and don't have on vinyl. I'm thrilled that this album has finally come out, but I'm not pleased with the sequencing. The potential track order of "Smile" is something fans like to speculate about, Brian Wilson has maintained that there wasn't a definitive order when he abandoned the record. This album follows the sequencing that Wilson and Van Dyke Parks came up with for Wilson's re-recorded version of the album which comprises three movements. It is hard to argue with the creators' wishes, but like a lot of "Smile" fans, I think the album was originally designed for just two movements. One side for the Americana songs and one side for the elements songs. The second movement is so slight (barely 10 minutes long) it could easily be folded into the other two. The problem with the second movement is that it moves "Surf's Up" into the middle of the album, whereas it ought to be the concluding song, it sums up all the themes of the record and its majestic melody makes it an ideal concluding number. Even with the questionable sequencing, this is still a magnificent record, it amazes me that Brian chose to shelve it after all that work. Reportedly the release of "Sgt Pepper" caused him to think that "Smile" would be overshadowed by its success. I suppose that is true, "Sgt. Pepper" was more in touch with the zeitgeist of the era and would have inevitably had a bigger cultural impact, but artistically I think this album is equally strong. 1967 saw a lot of great albums released, but I think only "Sgt. Pepper" and Love's "Forever Changes" can approach this in songcraft, originality and artistic vision. It holds up amazingly well, a timeless masterpiece. Its boldness and inventiveness take my breath away and I'm so happy that it has finally come out. Recommended to people whose favorite Beach Boys' album is "Pet Sounds." That used to be mine too, but now it is this.