Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions (1965-67)
I started collecting Smile bootlegs when I was fourteen years old. Originally I had cassettes sent to me by very kind internet forum members; those are long gone unless they're lurking in unopened boxes someplace. At the moment I think I have three illicit versions of the supposed record, not counting Brian Wilson's solo effort from 2004, on disc and digitally: the Vigotone version (nearly canonical for years, found at CD Alley here in 2003, tipped off by employees at another record store across town), the less well-constructed but better-sounding Sea of Tunes edition, and Purple Chick's latecoming addition to the faux-Smile canon. On top of that I have CDRs of the SOT three-disc boxed set of Smile sessions, and moreover their other three-disc boxed set devoted entirely to "Good Vibrations." There are countless hours of Smile material in this fucking house. Man, I wish I liked that album.
Without hesitation, kudos to Capitol and the Beach Boys for allowing this release to exist in the first place. Seemingly absent of label and producer meddling, this seems as legitimate a release of Smile as could ever be mustered up: it dilutes the evolving idea into an awkward Frankenstein creation, inevitably, but also provides context and doesn't really come across as a failure of imagination: no "this is this, and that is that." It runs the record in the sequence posited by Sea of Tunes and Brian's 2004 solo version, as closely as possible while using extant Beach Boys recordings. This sometimes comes across as very compromised -- the five-minute "Heroes and Villains" stops in its tracks, much like the single, whenever the "bicycle rider" chorus starts, and sharing that trait with "Do You Like Worms" doesn't help -- but is as legitimate a stab at completing decades-old incomplete thoughts as we could expect. No question that reconstruction and the presentation of raw materials (four discs of tracking and vocal sessions, plus various other fragments ranging from psychedelic vignettes and chants to completely discarded song ideas to some wonderfully painful thing called "Teeter Totter Love") are tasteful and immersive, with lots of material I can't say I recall ever hearing in my days of bootleg plundering. (Certainly I never remember catching Brian yelling to his dad to get off his back during the "Child Is Father of the Man" sessions.) Whether such sonic stuntwork and minutiae is worth the trouble and the delving will depend on how you feel about the Smile music itself.
It's not easy to review an album that doesn't exist in finished form, however much closer it may be than was once thought; and despite the way that Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile has been used as a template for interpretations of the material ever since, it seems unfair to transfer aspersions cast at the problems of that album to any attempt to decipher and criticize the Beach Boys' Smile. At any rate, if we can assume that the individual tracks would have resembled what we know of them and that the direction in which the record was headed at the start of 1967 was a real indication of what it was going to sound like, the biggest problem is the same problem with most of the Beach Boys' pre-Pet Sounds records: too much filler. The strongest songs are the ones everyone knows: "Wind Chimes," "Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up," "Good Vibrations," "Cabin Essence," "Wonderful" and "Vega-Tables." Those are the seven "real" songs in the package; not insignificantly, all seven of them had been released in some form by the Beach Boys by 1971. Everything else on the purported record revolves around those selections, and most of it rings with a bit of desperation. There are some lovely moments on the many instrumental fragments associated with the project, and some nice little tidbits of inspiration on some of the more incidental pieces Brian and Van Dyke wrote together or that Brian simply appropriated and arranged (I've always been partial to the Dennis-sung "You Were My Sunshine" that accompanies the lovely cello-driven "The Old Master Painter"; and "He Gives Speeches" is a blast, but eclipsed easily by the even weirder rewrite "She's Goin' Bald"). But listening to almost anyone's version of Smile in whatever sequence, you get the impression that it's a handful, maybe an EP's worth, of good to great songs interrupted constantly by noodling nonsense like "Do You Like Worms" and "I Love to Say Da Da." Despite the fact that the "Good Vibrations" prelude "Look" has been in my head for approximately twelve straight years, "Fire" is the only Smile instrumental that rises anywhere close to the standards of Brian's Pet Sounds chestnut "Let's Go Away for Awhile."
A separate issue altogether is the lyrics. Van Dyke Parks would maintain credibly that he was a musical as well as a lyrical collaborator so this is not to dismiss his contributions to Smile, but "Wonderful" and "Vega-Tables" are the only songs on which his wordy contributions click with the band's delivery. The former is just a beautifully written paean to innocence, the latter seems more tuned in to Brian's unpretentious comic sensibility than to Parks' so it works; in both cases Parks stretches himself to try to fit the Beach Boys' existing identity as a band, a self-correction that doesn't seem to be made on most of his other lyrics. Some of the lyrics in "Surf's Up" and "Cabin Essence" are indeed beautiful and well in keeping with the Smile concept, but some of them are overzealous word salad or downright bad -- in "Surf's Up" particularly, it varies literally from line to line -- and while Brian takes to them well enough, the other Beach Boys sound absolutely lost, like Keanu Reeves in a Shakespeare movie. It may sound anti-intellectual, but the Beach Boys' lifelong emotional directness had been a good fit for them for a reason, and so it would remain; in a sense, Mike Love was right to question Parks as a Brian Wilson collaborator. This is not to advocate the endless "Kokomo" retreads Mike would someday participate in and encourage, but just to say that his lyrical work with Brian on, for example, the Wild Honey album resonates more strongly than Smile's strained poetics, which -- who knows -- might have sounded better coming from a source besides a band whose stock in trade and area of expertise was the painful honesty of "Don't Worry Baby" and the like.
The definitive recordings of a lot of this material remain those which found their way to the Beach Boys' actual follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile -- not merely a better record than Smile, but a better record than any painstakingly overworked Theory of Smile. Fragmented, vapid, absent of emotional depth or human lingering, the record as constructed by the engineers in charge here -- basing much of their work on the 2004 Brian Wilson concoction, in turn based on various bootlegs since there's no earthly way a guy like Wilson is going to remember much of what was going through his head when he was twenty-four years old -- is an unholy mess that only works in small doses. There's no doubt that Smile is important to pop mythology (the appeal was always its mystery, and as more mystery is stripped away, it's revealed just how incomplete a notion it really was -- and it's thus hard to listen to it when you can just as easily listen to Friends or something), and extremely influential toward modern indie rock from Sufjan to Panda Bear, but it's a drugged-up collection of limited conceptual notions and musical licks that does nothing to endear itself, providing little time to concentrate on each surreal quirk before moving along with breakneck speed to the next half-baked notion. This has nothing to do with the Beach Boys I love -- I accept that people truly believe Smiley was a failure and an embarrassment, but I will tell you frankly that I cannot bend my mind enough to comprehend that. Smiley is so sweet and deeply felt and beautiful in a small, intimate, oddball manner -- Smile is a tower of labored overreach. Wilson was right to abandon it in progress.
Hardcore fans who've never been part of the bootleg market, especially those who enjoyed the session material on earlier official releases like The Pet Sounds Sessions, are likely to find plenty to get excited over here. It's great that such a contingent was considered important enough to have a release catered to them, though one wonders how long they'd have waited if the record business didn't seem to be choking on its own history at this point. Disregarding my personal biases, The Smile Sessions is an endearingly exhaustive archival release. I just am pretty much past the point when I can spend five hours happily deconstructing music that's only peripherally related to music I actually care about.
But goddamn if I wouldn't still rather listen to this than the new record by the Carl/Dennis-free "Beach Boys." That's one of the things about these guys -- for years I considered them my favorite band of all time (no longer really there, but that's another story), yet every time they're getting a whole bunch of press I feel incredibly alienated from everything about it. I was quoted in the press release for this boxed set last year, in fact, an irony I couldn't help relishing -- though I wasn't named, it was my first-ever pull-quote -- because whenever a lot of people are talking about the Beach Boys I begin to wonder why it seems that what attracts me to them is so different from what everyone else is hearing. The cushy weirdness of the late '60s albums, the simple perfection of the classic singles, the frayed genius of Love You, the extremely odd sense of humor, the angelic emotional range they exhibited at their best, and for heaven's sake, "Surfer Girl" -- those are my Beach Boys. It's probably a compliment to them that they can be so many things to so many different people, so don't think I'm being a spoilsport here, but: I could have listened to the Surfer Girl and Summer Days albums both in full in the time it takes to get through the full freaking hour of "Good Vibrations" outtakes here. Did I mention I don't even like "Good Vibrations" as much as everyone else does? It's all right. Fuck, I'd better stop writing now.