The Smile Sessions

The Beach Boys

Capitol Records, 2011

REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso


In 1966, Brian Wilson, lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and The Beach Boys began work on Smile. On the heels of their groundbreaking masterpiece Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” – their biggest selling single to date – Smile promised to be even more of a landmark. Several lengthy delays didn’t come out, and the Beach Boy’s position at the forefront of pop and rock music collapsed seemingly overnight. Now, 45 years later, the vaults have been opened to release the sessions from the album material alongside an approximation of a final version of the album, and wow, is it ever a wonderful thing.

The level of depth and sophistication in these songs is beyond measure.  Songs like “Heroes And Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Wind Chimes,” and “Surf’s Up” are among the greatest of the last 50 years, and having them all together in one place to be listened to during one listening experience is almost overwhelming. Nearly every track has a delightful new twist (or ten) that only serves to improve already fantastic material. “Vega-Tables” in particular is a revelation, what was once a jaunty novelty tune has blossomed into a miniature epic.

It’s true that, thanks to its unfinished nature, much of the album remains largely instrumental, but that’s hardly a weakness since these instrumentals are every bit as engaging as the songs full of vocals, and they fit perfectly into the album’s flow. The only minor misstep are the vocals of “In Great Shape” and “Barnyard” which were synced in from a lower quality demo and sound awkward, but the producers did the best they could with what they had and I’m still glad they included them. Brian’s vocals on “Surf’s Up” were likewise synced in from a demo, but in this case they work perfectly, and make for what might be the highlight of the whole set.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Unlike most rock albums of its era, this is not guitar driven music. Smile favors instruments like harpsichord, flute, glockenspiel, harmonica, piano, horns, and banjo, making for a truly unique instrumental palate. It’s interesting how it sounds almost eerie at times. The bass rumbles, weird sounds and effects come and go, and leitmotifs recur like bizarre circus music. Wilson’s peerless vocal arranging skills are at their peak and the melodies are as unconventional as they are infectious.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Smile is one that its creators never intended. Unlike most popular music, Wilson recorded hundreds of individual snippets of music intending to assemble them into songs after the fact. At the time, he was unable to conclude on a proper order for all the puzzle pieces, but gradually fans began taking their own shots at it and soon there were more bootleg versions of Smile then anybody could keep track of. Thanks to its segment-based writing and recording style, the album has become a puzzle that anybody can take apart and rebuild. By pure happenstance, Smile became an interactive work, and this box set gives fans five disks worth of pristine building blocks to work with.

Smile was an enormously significant album in every respect possible, but for decades it languished in obscurity thanks to the simple fact that it was never completed, its legacy growing to enormous proportions only by those in the know. Everyone knows “Good Vibrations,” and this disc was Brian Wilson’s attempt to make an album where every track was as complex, multifaceted, and purely brilliant as that one (and he nearly succeeded). The problem, however, was that “Good Vibrations” took almost six months to record, and in an era where record labels expected entire albums to be recorded and released within that time, it just wasn’t possible for Brian to finish Smile in a satisfactory way. Listening to the session material on the box it becomes apparent just how difficult it would have been for him to assemble all this into a coherent whole (especially without modern audio equipment). It’s to the enormous credit of Brian, and especially co-producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, that the album recreation on disk one sounds like it is exactly that. Is this Smile as it would have been released in 1967? Frankly no, but it holds up so well that most may never even realize it.

These songs have been assembled with the benefit of over 40 years of hindsight into a cohesive whole many never thought possible, and the session material makes for a truly fascinating document of the construction of some of the most intricate material in rock history. For decades, Smile has built up a legend as the greatest unreleased album of all time, but no longer. Brian may have been trying to compete with The Beatles, but the music of Smile is worthy of Gershwin.

Rating: A

User Rating: A



© 2011 Ken DiTomaso and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.