Smile Sessions – A Considered Review

I *will*, as promised, have some non-Smile material up here later today, but I realised I’d never posted a considered view of The Smile Sessions, just my linkblog.

For disc one, which is what most casual listeners will care about, Mark Linett and Alan Boyd had to reconcile two irreconcilable objectives. Firstly, they had to make an album that was listenable to the people who would be buying just the one- or two-disc sets and expecting a great Beach Boys album. Second, they had to follow the template laid down by Brian Wilson Presents Smile, Brian Wilson’s 2004 re-recording.

This is problematic because Brian Wilson Presents Smile was much longer than an actual 1960s album would have been, and contained a lot of material that was never recorded in the 1960s. It had lead vocals on six songs – a third of the album – that never had vocals recorded in any form when Smile was originally recorded. It also had newly-composed linking material to segue between the more fragmentary tracks.

My own choice would have been to make a much tighter, ten or twelve-track, album for disc one, and not follow Wilson’s sequence at all. I’d probably have chosen a tracklist something like:

Our Prayer
Heroes & Villains
The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine
CabinEssence
Wonderful
Child Is Father Of The Man
Surf’s Up
Vegetables
Wind Chimes
Fire
Love To Say DaDa
Good Vibrations

Everything else I would have made a bonus track – still available, still on the CD, but not part of the sequenced listening experience for the casual fan.

But I can see why they chose this route – the 2004 line-up is the closest thing to an actual finished Smile there can ever be, and was signed off on by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. Especially given Parks’ understandable refusal to be involved in this box set, that’s as good as you’re going to get.

And given those two conflicting choices, Linett and Boyd have done a remarkable job. By flying in bits of vocals from demos, or in some cases from other songs (the ‘child’ vocals added to Look from Child Is Father Of The Man and the vocals from the Smiley Smile version of Wind Chimes and Fall Breaks And Back To Winter), they have made these pieces sound far more finished than they ever have before.

It will still, frankly, be a bit of a slog for the typical non-fan listener to get through the third movement – always the weakest and least coherent, and far scrappier than the first two – but they’ve done a remarkably good job.

As for the music itself… Smile has five songs (Good Vibrations, Heroes & Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful and Surf’s Up) which are the equal of any music ever made. It’s not hyperbole to place them with the best of Bach, or Stravinsky, or the Beatles or Duke Ellington. There are a couple of utterly lovely little mini-tracks too – You Are My Sunshine and Our Prayer – and Fire, which is not *quite* up to the level of those five, but is still a stunningly impressive piece of music.

The rest of the album can be split roughly into silly fun songs like Vegetables and Holidays and backing tracks that hint at greatness but are clearly unfinished (Do You Like Worms, Child Is Father Of The Man).

Possibly the best way to explain this is to compare it to the Beatles’ Abbey Road – a similar combination of repeated themes and motifs, big experimental pieces, and small silly fragments. Imagine if side one of Abbey Road was pretty much complete except for the vocals on I Want You, but the long medley on side two had never been completed, and had been reconstructed with Lennon’s demos for his songs, an instrumental version of Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End, and the live version of You Never Give Me Your Money where McCartney pretends to forget the words – and none of George Martin’s orchestrations had been recorded.

If you stack this semi-completed Smile up against something like that, it emerges far and away the better listening experience, and its high points, with the pristine Beach Boys voices of 1966 and 1967, are as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard, but it’s not a finished album and really can’t be reviewed as such.

The sessions recordings that make up the rest of the box set are invaluable for anyone who is interested in the way music is made. Hearing Wilson guide the musicians and singers through take after take, subtly altering the music each time, and hearing the isolated parts, is a wonderful education. The bulk of that material had been available before on bootlegs, but never in sound quality anything like as good as this. Linett and Boyd have also done a great job of editing out the longeurs while still preserving the essence of the sessions – nobody really needs ten minutes of tuning, but it can be instructive to hear Wilson explain to Jim Gordon or Hal Blaine how to change their snare drum pattern. We get the latter, but not the former.

On sound quality – there have been some complaints on various message boards about some fairly minor problems with the sound (an increase in hiss on the choruses on Cabinessence, a click in Heroes & Villains, an electronic whine in Love To Say DaDa). I don’t want to dismiss these problems – they could affect some people’s listening experience – but most of them are *incredibly* minor, and won’t be audible to people listening on normal equipment with normal ears. I still can’t hear some of them, even knowing what I’m listening for (though I don’t have wonderful hearing).

The ones I can hear, though, are all on the original recordings, not things that have been newly introduced for this release. 1960s recordings were far noisier, and far more likely to contain bad edits, tape hiss, and background noises than anything recorded in the last couple of decades. Given that Linett and Boyd were working with materials of hugely varying quality, ranging from at one end professionally-recorded multitracks in good condition, to at the other rough mixes that had been mixed down to acetate and then left in people’s garages for decades, the overall quality is nothing short of miraculous.

The packaging for the box set is extraordinary, too – a beautiful box, with a 3D die-cut version of Frank Holmes’ original artwork, a double vinyl album in a reproduction of the original sleeve from the 60s, a copy of the photo booklet that would have been included with the original album, a sixty-page hardback book with interviews with almost everyone involved (no interviews with Parks or the session musicians, but everyone else, down to Brian Wilson’s ex-sister-in-law) and a complete sessionography detailing who played on what and which bits were used for the finished tracks.

The very nature of this project makes it hard to rate – the full 5-CD, 2-album, 2-single box is not something anyone but the most obsessive fan or scholar will ever want. But anyone who *does* want something like this will *really* want it.

The single or double CD sets should probably get, on an objective rating, four out of five stars for a casual listener – it contains some of the best music ever made, but it’s necessarily fragmented. Brian Wilson’s 2004 reconstruction, by comparison, would get a clear five on that basis.

But for collectors, Beach Boys obsessives, and anyone interested in the making of music, the box set is a clear five-star, best-release-of-the-year slab of pure joy. It sets a new standard for what an archival release should be, just as the best music on it set a new standard for what pop music should be.

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6 Responses to Smile Sessions – A Considered Review

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    So I hesitate even to ask this question, but …

    For someone wants to listen to a single CD of “Smile as it was intended”, which is the least inadequate option? Smiley Smile, the 2004 live versions or the one-CD version of Smile Sessions?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      The 2004 album. The CD version is a studio recording, the DVD is live. Smiley Smile is nothing like “Smile as it was intended”, though it’s a very good album in its own right.
      The vocals on the 2004 version aren’t great – Brian’s nowhere near the singer he was in the 60s now, although they used a lot of studio tricks to get him sounding as good as possible – but it’s a complete, proper album. The second movement, in particular, is just heartbreakingly beautiful.
      The 1-CD Smile Sessions should only be bought if you like Brian Wilson Presents Smile but would like to hear a few tracks with better lead vocals.
      If you visit NPR’s site there’s a free streaming Brian Wilson concert, including a full live performance of Smile. Just listen to hour two – that starts with the full performance of Smile. That way you’ll know if this is something that interests you at all – it’s entirely possible it wouldn’t.

  2. TAD says:

    Did you ever find out why Van Dyke wasn’t involved with this box set release?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      People are being very tight-lipped about it. It seems to have definitely been *his* decision, rather than one from anyone in the various Beach Boys organisations, but other than that no-one’s saying. I’ve heard hints that the box’s release interfered with some project or other of VDP’s, but I’ve no idea what that project could be, or how true that is.
      I would just ask him, but he’s refusing to talk at all about Smile in interviews, and I have too much respect for the man to want to bother him about it.

      • TAD says:

        It might be a money issue. These things usually are. Perhaps he wanted a consulting fee and they wouldn’t pay it, or something like that. Or he isn’t happy about his share of the royalities for co-writing the Smile songs. I’m sure the truth will come out sooner or later.

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