Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews
The Beach Boys – Smile Sessions Box Set – Capitol (5 CDs + double LP + 2 singles)
Published on November 17, 2011
The Beach Boys – Smile Sessions Box Set – Capitol 509990 27658 22 – CD1: 79:22, CD2: 79:25, CD3: 79:35, CD4: 79:39, CD5: 79:47 + double-LP + two 7″ record singles of “Heroes and Villains” and “Vege-Tables” + Poster + 60-p. case-bound 12″ sq. book with liner notes, plus essays and anecdotes [$140 online] *****:
(Brian Wilson – vocals, piano, harpsichord, tack piano; Mike Love, vocals; Dennis Wilson, vocals & percussion; Carl Wilson – vocals, guitar, bass; Al Jardine, vocals; Bruce Johnston, vocals & percussion; Van Dyke Parks – celeste, tack piano, marimba, piano; Carol Kaye, bass; Hal Blaine, drums & percussion; Tommy Morgan, harmonica; Jay Migliori – tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, etc; Jim Horn – flute, saxophone; Bill Green, clarinet & tenor saxophone; Arnold Belnick, violin; Jesse Ehrlich, cello; and many, many more)
The legend of the Beach Boys’ Smile album looms large in popular music. Until 2004, when Brian Wilson released a new version of the album with the band, The Wondermints, Smile was considered the greatest album never released. Fans compiled their own versions of the lost album using bootlegs, and bands cited the idea of the album just as much as they did the recordings. The stories of the recording of the album made Wilson sound like a pop music Kurtz, a tortured genius lost in a jungle of sound, holding musicians captive in search of an impossible musical ideal. Who else but a madman would build a sandbox in his home to house his piano or believe that recording a song called “Fire” had caused a fire a few blocks away? Sure, drugs were involved, but most bands did drugs back then; it was Wilson’s brilliance coupled with stories of epic drug use that created the myth of Brian Wilson the Mad Pop Genius.
What’s so funny about the story of Smile is that it’s ultimately a story of technology. Nowadays, recording a series of song snippets (Wilson called them “modules”) and pasting them together would be almost effortless, something software like Garageband or ProTools can do for you in a couple of easy clicks. But back in 1967, you had to cut tape with a razorblade and splicing tape and pasting bits of it together took a long, long time. Couple this painstaking process with a perfectionist mind like Wilson’s and you have a recipe for severe burnout. The reason we can now listen to this “album” of Smile is that technology has advanced to the point where cutting and pasting music and picking the best takes doesn’t have to mean losing your mind.
The CD and LP that are The Smile Sessions have been created using the blueprint of Wilson’s 2004 album. And while that album has been almost universally praised, it doesn’t sound like The Beach Boys. Hearing the group’s vocal blend on songs like “A Prayer” and “Child Is the Father of the Man” is truly a religious experience. The album’s concept, a kaleidoscopic journey through early American history viewed through the prism of ecology, familial and romantic love, and appreciation of the Native Americans, is an ambitious and strange one, but the melodies and arrangements are so beautiful and so full of musical history that it never feels like Wilson and his group were overreaching. Of course, a huge amount of credit must go to Van Dyke Parks. His lyrics (which he wrote together with Wilson) and musical eclecticism are a huge reason that Smile was such a huge step forward for The Beach Boys.
For audiophiles, the LP may be the best single document of The Smile Sessions, but be forewarned: With the exception of stereo mixes for “Vege-Tables”, “Wind Chimes”, and “Surf’s Up” (the latter’s harmonies sounding incredible in stereo), everything else is in mono. What the LP does capture better than the CD is the incredible low end provided by bassists Carol Kaye and Chuck Berghofer, and drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon from LA’s famed “Wrecking Crew.” Also, while overall sounding sharper than the CD, the LP sometimes brings out loud percussive sounds (like woodblocks, duck quacks, and toy train engines) that sound softer and easier on the ears on the CD.
The other four discs of the box set are compilations of highlights from various studio sessions, including alternate and botched takes, studio chatter, and backing tracks and overdubs. The main takeaway from these tracks is that Wilson was indeed a perfectionist, though at least a cheerful one. Over and over, he corrects his group and the sessions musicians on their singing and playing, clearly in search of nothing less than the exact realization of his vision.
The 60-page case-bound book included in the set features liner notes from Wilson, Mike Love, and Bruce Johnston, as well as anecdotes about the album from musicians, engineers, and hangers-on. Many of the anecdotes address Love’s rumored dislike of the album, with many claiming his resistance to the album hurt Wilson’s confidence. Love, for his part, claims that he enjoyed the album’s music, but found the lyrics too psychedelic for a mainstream audience and worried that it would alienate many longtime fans.
It’s rare that you hear a long-lost album and instantly know that you’re listening to a classic, but then again, Smile is a rare album. Bursting with gorgeous melodies and endless musical treats, Smile also has a real emotional core to it. While it seems on the surface to be full of childlike joy and naivete, it also reckons with death, genocide and family trauma. Now that we can hear the album in some sort of definitive way, it’s clear that Wilson’s slightly mad methods were not in vain.
[Gee, no mention of the amazing cover on this set? Capitol describes it as their own unique “3D” cover, and it certainly is highly original. Artwork by Frank Holmes. No optical stuff here, just several layers of cut-outs that will surely become a collage/artpiece on many a wall...Ed.]
Disc 1: Our Prayer, Gee, Heroes and Villains, Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock), I’m in Great Shape, Barnyard, My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine), Cabin Essence, Wonderful, Look (Song for Children), Child Is Father of the Man, Surf’s Up, I Wanna Be Around/Workshop, Vega-Tables, Holidays, Wind Chimes, The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow), Love to Say Dada, Good Vibrations, Bonus Tracks: You’re Welcome, Heroes and Villains (Stereo Mix), Heroes and Villains Sections (Stereo Mix), Vega-Tables Demo, He Gives Speeches, Smile Backing Vocals Montage, Surf’s Up 1967 (Solo version), Psycodelic Sounds: Brian Falls Into A Piano)
Discs 2-5 each have around 25-30 tracks of alternate takes, flubbed takes, and overdubs, far too many to list all here!
Side 1: Our Prayer, Gee, Heroes and Villains, Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock), I’m in Great Shape, Barnyard, My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine), Cabin Essence
Side 2: Wonderful, Look (Song for Children), Child Is Father of the Man, Surf’s Up
Side 3: I Wanna Be Around / Workshop, Vega-Tables, Holidays, Wind Chimes, The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow), Love to Say Dada, Good Vibrations
Side 4: You’re Welcome – Stereo Mix, Vega-Tables – Stereo Mix, Wind Chimes – Stereo Mix, Cabin Essence – Session Highlights and Stereo Backing Track, Surf’s Up – Session Excerpt and Stereo Mix)