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Still unfinished, still jaw dropping, mind-bending! (VERY LONG REVIEW, but I have a lot to say), December 16, 2011
on September 1, 2012
At last, we get The Beach Boys' follow up to PET SOUNDS as a cohesive, finished work. At least, that's what Disk 1 of the set would like you to believe. Ultimately, however, this set, while precious and invaluable, just shows you how truly unfinished SMiLE always was, although Brian Wilson came tantalizing close to actually pulling the album off. Ultimately, the 2004 BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMiLE remains the definitive word on the album, and I intend to show you what I mean by that.
Before we get into the history and all the tangled details, let me just say this. Despite the incomplete nature of the recordings, it is truly amazing to hear The Beach Boys' SMiLE and how endlessly inventive and truly daring Wilson had became during the year period of late 1966 into 1967. The work is amazing, and stands head and shoulders taller than anything has that is currently out there in today's current market. If you love music and you want to be amazed, you owe it to yourself and to Wilson to hear this material (both the 2011 Beach Boys version and the 2004 solo version). For the record, I do prefer SMiLE over SGT. PEPPER
As a set, Mark Linette (The Beach Boys' main engineer for the last twenty years and overseeing their archiving project which has been going on for the last twenty years), with the consent of the band, has fully presented the "what might have been album" and all the various sessions in masterful sonic quality. Linette and his team really outdid themselves and the `finished' project sounds great.
For casual fans, the two disk set will suffice, as the second disk provides highlights of the various sessions. For those looking to dive headlong into the lore of the project should opt for the five disk set along with all the packaging and vinyl disks. However, be aware the four disks of sessions outtakes are exactly that. Much of the session tapes are Wilson talking to the backing band (Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew) working on getting the right sound. In contrast to all the stories and mythology that has grown up around the album, the session tapes reveal Brian in total control, very professional, and tightly focused on getting his vision down in sound, despite all the so called shenanigans that were going on.
A big appeal to SMiLE, and something that would be amiss if not mentioned, is the interactive nature and intellectual space the project has come to occupy. Just like Charles Dicken's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", there have been literally hundreds of fan mixes of SMiLE , attemping to bring order to the fragments left behind. The most interesting of these are often pre 2004, as after 2004 most of the mixes modeled themselves after the 2004 version. With all the new material and sessions officially released, even with a Beach Boys version now sanctioned and in existence, hopefully the fan community will keep mixing and creating their own versions of SMiLE!
Then there is also the debate on what the 1967 version would actually have been. Simply put, there is no 1967 version, nor was the track sequence decided until 2004.There have been some voices complaining in the fan community about how the real SMiLE was the notorious 12 track list provided by Capital from an unknown source (thought to be Brian) and used on the 1967 album covers. However, when shown the list in 2006, Brian said he had never seen the list before. The chief speculation is the source was either Carl Wilson, or possibly Brian's sister-in-law, Diane Rovell.
Another big issue that has come up with this release has been the "three sided" SMiLE. The vinyl version has SMiLE divided into three sides, with the fourth side as bonus tracks, which the detractors say would never have been had the album been released in 1967. While it's true SMiLE would not have been configured that way back in the 1960s, the detractors are missing a key point - the album as it stands now is only 48 minutes long. The album could easily have been put on a single vinyl record. With the exception of Bob Dylan's first album, Dylan's five albums of the early to mid 1960s were all in the forty five to fifty minute range, with HIGHWAY 61 REVISTED clocking in at 51 minutes.
Throughout history, for various reasons (death, lack of interest, external pressure, perfectionism, etc), we have been left with unfinished art. These include Chaucer's THE CANTERBURY TALES, Dickens' THE MYSTERY OF EDWARD DROOD, Kafka's novels, Virgil's THE ANEID (which is only unfinished in a few minor places), etc.
As far the rock `canon', the most famous case of this is, naturally, The Beach Boys 1967 follow up to PET SOUNDS. The story is the stuff of legend. Brian Wilson scores a smash (though not commercially) with PET SOUNDS who influences everyone from The Beatles and George Martin on down. Where to go from there is the natural question. The answer: nowhere but up. Wilson was going to use the same recording techniques he pioneered with the 1966 single "Good Vibrations", recording short "feels" or "modules", and then literally constructing the album out of these feels with tapes and a razor blade (remember, this is 1966/1967 - no Pro Tools for these guys!) Over nine months (nice gestation number, that), Wilson does over 80 recording sessions, generally loses grip with reality in a drug fueled haze of LSD and amphetamine's, shelves the entire project and goes on strike, leaving The Beach Boys to issue the bizarre (even by 1967 standards) SMILELY SMILE. That's the official story anyway. Like any good myth, it's not quite accurate.
(I have even seen a website that argued SMiLE became SMILY SMILE. The argument on that website was largely based on the 12 track listing, which when you remove Brian Wilson's name from that list the whole argument on the website crumbles).
Given the unfinished nature of SMiLE, it is, perhaps, enlightening to compare this to another unfinished work, in this case J. R. R. Tolkien's THE SILMARILLION. The differences are more marked than the similarities between SMiLE and THE SILMARILLION; however, we can learn a thing or two by comparing them.
Tolkien began earnestly writing his legendarium in 1917 in the form of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES (though there are some scattered poems dating as early as 1914, and, according to Tolkien's letters, he began creating Arda, of which Middle-earth is a subregion or continent, as early as 1908). Tolkien worked on THE SILMARILLION his entire adult life, with the exception of a thirteen to fourteen year period between 1938 to 1951 when he was busy writing THE LORD OF THE RINGS. He died in 1973 at the age of eighty one, leaving behind a massive proliferation of manuscripts, all competing versions, for his son Christopher to sort through. And that's exactly what Christopher Tolkien did. He issued THE SILMARILLION in 1977, four years after Tolkien died.
In 1983 (not counting the 1979 book UNFINISHED TALES, whose success largely spurred the subsequent posthumous volumes), Christopher began his twelve volume THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH series, which he finished in 1996 with THE PEOPLES OF MIDDLE EARTH.
This is relevant to SMiLE and Brian Wilson in several ways. The first, and to this listener the most important, is that when THE SILMARILLION was finally published, it was done posthumously, because Tolkien, like Wilson, could not bring his work to completion. For serious readers, this brings serious questions of the validity of the published text as it relates to Tolkien's work. There are also serious questions of how canonical and authoritative is the 1977 SILMARILLION, as Tolkien was not alive to make the final decisions. Personally, I feel the published text would have been quite a bit longer had Tolkien lived to see his work to completion.
THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE EARTH only compounds the problem, as Christopher admits on numerous occasions that what he discerns as his father's most likely last intent on a given subject was not actually used in the 1977 text. For example, Findis and Irimë, who are daughters of King Finwe and sisters to Fingolfin, Finarfin, and half-sister to Feanor, do not appear in the published text, though they probably should have. Christopher also admits to writing most of Chapter 22 in the book, of which most of the essential features of the story have no real authority in the elder Tolkien's work at all.
SMiLE, on the other hand, has a completely different set of problems due to its' artistic medium - music. The first, and biggest problem, is that SMiLE, in its original incarnation, simply cannot be finished.
The reason why it cannot be finished? Because it can only be edited and configured, it cannot be added too. And SMiLE (meaning the 1966-67 Beach Boys sessions) desperately needs to be added too. Simply listening to the record reveals how truly incomplete and fragmented Brian left the album in late 1967.
The album is entirely too top heavy on instrumental, or primarily instrumental tracks. For all the love for The Beach Boys' vocals, honestly the vocal parts simply aren't as numerous or as frequent, the reason being much of the vocal work was not recorded nor given a final form. A major example of this is "Do You Like Worms?". The lyrics on the 2004 version are vintage 1966 lines Van Dyke wrote but were not recorded.
Another major example is the key track, "Surf's Up", was not even given a final edit or even recorded all the way. "Surf's Up" was assembled from the pieces available. They have the piano demo and also the first half of the track. The second half, which the archivists think was recorded but are uncertain on that point, has gone missing in the intervening forty four years since it was supposedly recorded.
"Surf's Up" 2011 is not what "Surf's Up " 1967 would have been simply because Wilson would have recorded the last half and would not have to piecemeal the track from various versions simply because that's all he could do.
And really, that's the heart of the problem with the original 1960s sessions for SMiLE. Whereas Tolkien worked on his book for most of his life, Wilson only did primary work on SMiLE for a little under a year. Tolkien worked on THE SILMARILLION for almost all of his adult life. However, the medium of writing is kinder than the medium of music. If Tolkien went back to a 1930s text and worked on it in the 1960s, then probably no one would be any the wiser because the medium is so drastically different. That is another key difference between Tolkien and Wilson.
However, if The Beach Boys of today added vocals to truly finish the album, loads of fans would scream (and rightfully so) foul, because there would be such a disconnect from The Beach Boys' vocal capabilities of 2011 compared to 1966-1967. The purists were put off when Mick Jagger put on additional vocals to EXILE ON MAINSTREET outtakes in 2010 and Bruce Springsteen did some overdubbing for the release of his album THE PROMISE, comprise of material recorded during DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (they weren't really outtakes, they were just material recorded in congruence with that masterpiece of an album). Also, Brian's the only one left of the three Wilson brothers. Dennis drowned in 1983 and Carl died in 1998.
So what is the solution to this conundrum? Why, to start fresh, record all the material anew, bring Van Dyke to complete the lyrical work, and actually finish the album. And that is what Brian Wilson has done . . . all the way back in 2004.
I know there has been been debate that Darian Sahanaja, a leader of Wilson's backing band the Wondermints,, and Domenic Priore, author of LOOK, LISTEN, VIBRATE, SMILE and Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece were influences on that project, especially in the tracking sequence. Regardless of there is any validity to these concerns, the fact is Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks returned to SMiLE in 2003 and finished it, presenting it as a complete and coherent work.
And what is the main problem with the 2004 SMiLE? The fact that it is not the vintage tapes and those are not 1960s Beach Boys vocals. When Wilson released the 2004 SMiLE, a lot of fans were happy but a large faction wanted The Beach Boys' stunning vocals and harmonies, which, as wonderful as The Wondermints are, they are simply no Beach Boys, and 2004 Brian Wilson cannot compare to 1967 Brian Wilson.
Even though Wilson was able to complete the album 37 years later, the completed version of 2004 is not what everyone wanted. But if you want to know the final form of SMiLE, and how it should stand as a completed, work, the 2004 SMiLE is the logical conclusion to this famous album's story.
Listening to The Beach Boys' version of SMiLE, as opposed to the 2004 SMiLE, is like sifting through an incomplete manuscript with various lacunas and missing pages when the finished draft is sitting right next to it. The 2004 album is filled with vocals and overall the work sounds finished. What were once instrumentals (Holiday, Look) now have lyrics. There is cohesion and the logical flow. There simply is not the same narrative sweep to the 1967 SMiLE as there is to the 2004 SMiLE, and that's because the lyrics were either not written or not recorded.
The 2011 SMiLE sounds exactly like what it is - incomplete, but still wonderful. And also, what the 2004 finished version demonstrated (and the 2011 Sessions explicitly proved) is Wilson was not that far away from completing his work back in 1967, at least musically. Wilson simply reworked the material already in existence, and added the missing vocals and lyrics. Although there are new lyrics in the 2004 version, there is no new music that was not already recorded in 1966-1967.
Another piece of evidence that demonstrates the 2004 version is the definitive and finished form is the 2011 version follows the 2004 tracklisting exactly, with one minor exception (placing the linking track "I'm In Great Shape" to earlier in the album, which sequeways quite nicely into "Barnyard" and sonically sounds like a match.
So even though we now have an official version of SMiLE from the original tapes, SMiLE still remains an elusive, tantalizing "What could have been" scenario that will can never be fully answered. At least, not by the 1966-67 tapes anyway, or even the 2004 version. Though the 2004 album does present the work as finished, we can never know what would have happened had Wilson finished the project in 1967, nor what a finished 1967 album would have even been or sounded like, as so much of the vocal work was left incomplete and then the months of tape editing required to finish the project never happened. And it's quite possible the track listing would have been completely different. There were plans [there was talk] about having talking tracks in between the songs (like "Brian Fell into a Piano" and the Vegetables comedy bit). We'll never know how a 1967 SMiLE would have completed with SGT. PEPPER or if The Beach Boys' late 1960s career would have differed had SMiLE been critically acclaimed and praised. Most likely it would have been like PET SOUNDS and not sold that well.
I am glad though Wilson did live to complete his version in 2004, and he oversaw the production and release of the 2011 Sessions box. That gives both versions of the album an authority the project would never have had if Wilson died before the material was released, like Tolkien. Had he died we could have had any number of different competing versions, just like Jimi Hendrix's numerous posthumous albums all attempting to approximate what his fourth LP would have been (though reasonable FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN, despite the terrible cover, may very well be a reasonable approximation, despite the presence of the 1968 outtake "My Friend" which most likely would NOT have been on a fourth LP by Hendrix). And though we'll never know what a 1967 SMiLE would have been, we can be quite thankful Wilson finished the work in 2004 and (finally!) [even] officially released The Beach Boy's Frankenstein version in 2011!
Ultimately, SMiLE has come to symbolize the unrealized utopian ideals and what if possibilities of the 1960s counter culture. That was not Wilson's intent when recording, but that is the role the album plays in our culture's history. The album has always been perfect because it was always on the cusp of becoming, but did not fully arrive. That is why SMiLE has been such a highly personal record for so many people - it was never clearly defined what SMiLE actually WAS, so you could make and sequence to your hearts content, and that be just as valid as someone else's attempt to make SMiLE. I'm just glad Wilson's reconstruction has finally been authorized, and we get a glimpse of what could have been, though not, perhaps, for the last time. I believe the release of the Sessions has just expanded the mythos behind the album, not settled it. I feel SMiLE will live far beyond our time, simply because of the great narrative feel of the story and the amazing finish the project got. It only took us forty four years and a solo version to get there.
There are happy endings (and new beginnings) in this world after all. Bravo Brian!