By Mihke Chanay
This is the album that all fans of The Beach Boys have been wanting to hear for the last 44 years. And when I say fans, I mean everyone who would count the 1966 classic “”Pet Sounds”” as one of the greatest albums ever created. Finally we all get to hear what could have been, had this music been released when originally intended back in 1967.
First and foremost it should be made clear that the album was never actually completed in ’67. Recording was eventually abandoned for a number of reasons, so some of the tracks on this release are missing vocals or other embellishments. What does exist are all the blueprints and most of the pieces for an album that would have made “”Pet Sounds”” sound like a monkey trying to play the piano.
Another point that should be made is that like “Pet Sounds”, this album is not about surfing, cars, or girls. The lyrics written by Van Dyke Parks, complete with surprisingly complex puns and a wonderfully whimsical beat, paint a beautifully abstract picture of a dreamy Americana. You can take these words at face value, or you can read several layers into them.
For the aforementioned fans the long and troubled story of SMiLE has been a frustrating journey. For anyone not familiar with the amazing music Brian Wilson had been conjuring during the fabled and ultimately doomed recording sessions, there is quite a bit of musical history to be learned here.
Wilson had just spent an unprecedented amount of time and money recording what would become The Beach Boys highest charting single at the time, “Good Vibrations.” Predating modern recording by several decades, the techniques used for recording the song included only laying down certain sections at a time and then painstakingly splicing together all the pieces of tape into a 3:39, “pocket symphony.”
Partly because of the overwhelming success of “Good Vibrations,” Wilson decided to continue his newfound studio strategy by recording an entire album in the same modular way. Originally called “Dumb Angel,” the project was eventually retitled as “SMiLE” and was described by Wilson as, “a teenage symphony to God.”
Unfortunately for The Beach Boys and for all of us, the album was shelved. Reasons included increasing recording costs, Wilson’s obsession with perfection, and the release of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But it seems that the biggest reason had to do with opposition from the label and most importantly, the rest of the band themselves. Some of the boys couldn’t understand why Wilson wanted to wreck the formula of girls, cars, and surfing.
While some of the songs were eventually re-recorded or supplemented with new overdubs to fill out later albums, most of the material on “SMiLE” has never been officially released as it was originally conceived. One of the reasons is simply because no one new exactly how all the pieces were supposed to fit together. Wilson himself stated that the finished running order hadn’t been decided on until 2004.
2004 was the year that Wilson and Parks reunited to complete what they had started 37 years before. The result was the solo album “Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE”, essentially a complete re-recording of the famous lost album. The fact that anyone could revisit and finish a work of art that long after it was started is completely amazing in and of itself. Fans were finally able to hear what “SMiLE” could have sounded like. But while BWPS was absolutely stunning in so many ways, it was lacking the youthful voices and enthusiasm of its key contributors. This is ultimately what makes the release of “The SMiLE Sessions” so special.
The release itself comes in two versions. Firstly a 2CD set with the album and a disc of outtakes. This is the version that should be acquired by anyone with even a passing interest in The Beach Boys, or just good music in general. Then there is the box set with 5CDs, 2 LPs, 2 45rpm singles, and a 60 page hardcover book with liner notes and photos. The 4 extra discs are all packed with bits and pieces of all the songs, with an entire disc devoted to “Good Vibrations.” This is the version for the real fans, such as myself, and it is well worth the price tag. I actually bought the 2CD version also just so I wouldn’t put too much wear and tear on the box set because I know I’ll be listening to these songs over and over again for a very long time. Smile Beach Boys fans. Our long wait is finally over.