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coverpic flag US - California - Full Moon 98 - 09/28/04

Brian Wilson
SMiLE
Nonesuch Records

It's about 37 and a half years late. Now finally... In 1966 24 year old Brian Wilson was making pop history, strived for pop revolution, but the result was pop tragedy - and pop legend. Until now, that is. In 1965 the Beach Boys sang "Went to a dance, Looking for romance" (from the hit "Barbara Ann" by Fred Fassert, released in December of that year). By early 1966 Brian and the Boys had reached another level: "If you should ever leave me, Though life would still go on believe me, The world could show nothing to me, So what good would living do me, God only knows what I'd be without you" (words by Peter Asher, from "God Only Knows" of Pet Sounds, released on single in July 1966, the most perfect pop tune ever to originally be released as a B-side). By late 1966 the Boys sang: "Canvas the town and brush the backdrop, Are you sleeping?", the (sort of) chorus from "Surf's Up", one of the centrepieces of SMiLE written by Brian's new lyricist at the time Van Dyke Parks. And Brian's music and arrangements progressed along the same paths as the lyrics. Beach Boys hadn't the nerve to release the song until 1971. Then it was too late, today it's not.

Brian has recorded the album anew along with his faithful, enthusiastic and excellent young (relatively!) musicians centered around the Los Angeles band the Wondermints, long time Beach Boy sideman, axeman and vocalist Jeffrey Foskett and the Stockholm Strings 'n' Horns. 19 musicians all in all, the very same that are making the triumphant world tour centered around SMiLE these days. The recordings only lasted five days(!) in April after the world premiere of the SMiLE live shows at London's Festival Hall in February. Originally Brian struggled for almost a year in 1966/67 before he abandoned the project. And only two years ago he didn't even want to talk about anything to do with SMiLE; his and the Beach Boys millstone and tragedy...

The central songs are familiar. They have all been released in various versions earlier. The aforementioned "Surf's Up" is probably my ultimate favourite, written by Brian and Van Dyke in only one hour, the saying goes. I haven't the faintest idea what Van Dyke is trying to say, but coupled with a lonely piano, then strings & horns and the choirboy harmonies it sounds superb, hand in glove... "Wonderful" is the most wonderful ballad ever about loss of virginity - or maybe the only one? "Roll Plymouth Rock" earlier known as "Do You Like Worms" is a tasty soup with orchestral and choral speaking sections, the melancholic "Bicycle Rider" and sliding guitars or voices of the Hawaiian part. "Cabinessence" is the playful mid-Western stop on the ironhorse journey across America, it's 'time for a change' and 'home on the range' with mandolins and energetic string section and all. "Heroes And Villains" and "Vega-Tables" are other humours well-known songs, not my dearest of the album but essential. "Good Vibrations" with partly new lyrics, is another quite well-known song. It's debateable if it was originally planned to be part of SMiLE, one of the many mysteries concerning the project. Now it concludes the album, having traded place with "Surf's Up" compared to earlier supposed running order of the original album.

But there are shorter and bolder and funnier stuff in here, too. The waltzy statement "I'm In Great Shape" coupled with "I Wanna Be Around" and "Workshop" is particularly elegant, with revereberations of old musicals or the merry and melancholic 1920s' dance halls until the joiner's tools take over on a Friday Night. "Barnyard" includes animals sounds, whereas "On A Holiday" is as merry and dreamy as a summer holiday can be for a pirate at the age of about eight. "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (Fire)" would've shocked contemporary musicians had it been released back in 1967. It's a strange instrumental, quite merry at first with funny whistles all around until the flames grow higher and the music grows scarier, recorded with the musicians wearing toy firemen's helmets, of course.

Two of the songs are new to me. "Song For Children" is an elegant bridge between "Wonderful" and "Child Is Father Of The Man" with elements from them both and a merry clarinet driven original instrumental outtake called "Look" or "I Ran" with new lyrics, I guess, and all. It's the same with "In Blue Hawaii", with elements from a 1960s outtake called "Water" (after the "Fire", you know) and an extended "I Love To Say Da-Da" with brand new words by Van Dyke Parks.

If you compare the new recordings with the original SMiLE recordings available on the 5 CD box Good Vibrations, Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys from 1993, some of the tracks sounds completely similar, especially the opening acapella hymn "Our Prayer". Some lack the light finishing touch and elegancy of the originals to some extent, especially parts of "Heroes And Villains", the fragile piano of "Roll Plymouth Rock", the heavier parts of "Wind Chimes" and the piano of the "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow/Fire Intro". Maybe the album would've gained with a little less rush in the studio. On the other hand "Wonderful" sounds more complete now than ever, though I miss the original's sombre harpsichord. Brian's voice sounds great for a 62 year old, but, well, the 24 year old voice used to be somewhat fresher and cleaner.

To summarize: SMiLE is 'a teenage symphony to God'; the 2004 version divides the songs of the symphony into three movements. It's also trying to fathom America from Plymouth Rock of Cape Cod on the east coast into the west of the indians and prairie of the farmers, a trip down the Mexican way and on to Hawaii. It's about the four elements fire, water, earth and air and includes several complex, playful, hilarious, beautiful and humorous sides. If you're unfamiliar with the SMiLE story, the informative article in the voluminous booklet of the album is a great start. You can also find lots and lots more about the myths, legends and music out here in cyberspace. Several articles, short stories and books have been written about the rise and fall of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys during the SMiLE period. To these ears SMiLE is better than Pet Sounds (that includes the annoying "Sloopy John B") and better and bolder than Sgt. Pepper. I guess the Beach Boys might've been bigger than the Beatles if SMiLE had been completed and released in early 1967 and Brian had continued the friendly musical combat with the Beatles after the release of Sgt. Pepper....

Now there's only one piece left to fulfill Brian's creative rehabilitation and to chase the last sceleton out of his closet: the completion of the original recordings and release of the 1966/67 album. Everyone but the bootleggers will be happy if a follow-up of the Pet Sounds box is completed. Theres's enough relevant material out there, I guess, for a 5 or 6 disc box. Anyways, we have to be happy for a while with the eventual fulfillment of an entire SMiLE album. Look for it, listen to it, vibrate along to the music and give us a big SMiLE!. It's timeless, it's a classic...

Copyright © 2004 JP e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Brian Wilson articles/reviews: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, No Pier Pressure, Smile, That Lucky Old Sun, That Lucky Old Sun.

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