Beach Boys - Smile Sessions (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Beach Boys

Smile Sessions (2011)


In contrast to its front cover, back cover and CD sleeve, this release is not the long lost Beach Boys album Smile. In fact, this isn't even an approximation of that album, a partial sampling of that album or a reconstruction* of that album. Smile does not exist and it never did.

As the removable paper flyer shrinkwrapped to the back of this package and actual CD label inconspicuously list in tiny letters, this album is the Smile Sessions. That is, in the opinion of the set's curator Mark Linett, it is a collection of the best parts of the boxes and boxes of tapes which head Beach Boys writer Brian Wilson stacked around his sandbox piano as he was composing his follow up to the masterpiece Pet Sounds. This is as far as Smile ever got to completion, which roughly speaking, is maybe halfway through the race.

Most accurately, it is a collection of the demos of demos of demos which may have been used to create what may have been the greatest album ever made had it actually been completed. And that's what makes this set so frustrating.

There is pure genius in these reams of "songs," yet despite the electrifying and groundbreaking nature of these songs, they get jumbled and mashed either by Wilson's extraordinary abilities or his rampant drug use (or both). To Wilson and all of the Beach Boys' credit, they sound phenomenal on this release. "Opening Prayer" exhibits the bits in classic Beach Boys six part harmony, yet it is improved by the maturation of their voices and the distanced melancholy of Wilson's own tenor.

The music itself is light years beyond nearly all contemporary composers and probably even out weirds and out experiments the Beatles. While 1967 found pop bands experimenting with the concept of civil protest, domestic abuse, and metaphysics, Wilson launches past such…trivialities…and ponders if he is even real on "Wonderful," only to step from the macro scale to the micro and ponder why he likes vegetables on "Vega-Tables" only to subvert and praise traditional songs on "You are My Sunshine" only to wink back to the band's older days in "Good Vibrations."

Yet, for all the genius exhibited on Wilson's grand scale, he can't seem to stay in one place long enough for any of these grand topics to get their due. While the set proper is 19 tracks, there are probably about 40-50 songs crammed in the set. Just as Wilson establishes a clever phrase or riff, he jumps to another movement that is tangentially related, or even wholly unrelated, to the starting point, and never returns back to the original thought. At points, it seems as though he almost opened an album of unreleased Beach Boys masterpieces, and then only recorded the first line of each song, and then put those lines together as one song, creating a disjointed piece.

Now, it could be that Wilson is such a genius, that he has moved beyond the traditional need of pop music to repeat itself, and that to a genius such as himself, repeating a phrase or riff more than once is maddening, whereas to regular people, repletion is necessary to appreciate the value of the pieces as well as the slight differences between each chorus.** But then, as a piece of music for anyone except Wilson, the piece fails simply because no one but Wilson can understand it.

Indeed, even subversive avant garde composers, such as Frank Zappa, would whip from piece to piece, but they would return to previous themes, giving albums a cohesiveness, as well as detours into doo wop or soul to give the listener a chance to catch his or her breath. But, the Smile Sessions never break from the rapid tune jumping and never circle back around, making it seem more rambling and LSD induced than deliberately chaotic.

What makes the release so frustrating is that with just perhaps a little tweaking, it really could have been the masterpiece. To suggest that Wilson needs an editor would be heretical, yet if someone sat down and said something like "Repeat that chorus two more times" and "Break this into three separate songs," Smile could not have only been a digestible masterpiece, but there's enough material here to make two or three Smiles.

Of course, Capital's packaging doesn't help matters much. Even the baseline package, which retails for $30, comes with loads of bonus material that adds nothing to the already fractured affair, and includes meaningless doodads like a button and small poster than enable the label to charge an extra $5 for the release. But, most damningly of all, the release is almost false advertising as it presents itself as Smile when really, it's just some guy's favorite picks from Brian Wilson's giant box of old tapes. For completists and deep pocketed adventurers only.

*Indeed, Smile has already been reconstructed twice! First in 1967's Beach Boy's LP Smiley Smile and second in Brian Wilson's 2004 solo Smile.

**I find there to be an interesting parallel between this and Rudimentary Peni's Cacophony. Like Smile, Cacophony was written and recorded while its author, Nick Blinko, was rapidly descending into incoherent madness. In place of standard songs, Cacophony features dozens of fractured segments as well, that address sounds and topics not previously seen before in its respective genre. Yet even the Rudimentary Peni album, as frantic as it is, features an underlying strand that ties the piece together in the form of references to H.P. Lovecraft and returns to previous topics, as wispy as each individual address may be. I wonder why it is that mad genius seem so often to only be able to think or record in short fractured thoughts.