Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Smile Sessions

To the point, The Beach Boys' "Smile Sessions" is worth your time and money. The Beach Boys' "Smile Sessions" might just be the best release of the year.

I'm sure I've mentioned this at some point over the last three years but I'll say it again. As much as I love "Pet Sounds," it is not my favorite Beach Boys' album. That would be "Today." And as much as I love Brian Wilson, I've never loved "Smile." Not in its legendary "lost album" days. Not the stellar sounding reconstructions. And especially not Brian's redo from 2004. Listening to the various versions  of "Smile" over the last 30 or so years, I've learned to appreciate Brian Wilson's genius and vision for the project, but I never found it difficult to understand the rest of the band's trepidations or why Brian went nuts. I like parts of "Smile," but I like parts or all of so many other Beach Boys' records more.

With this new collection, anything I've ever felt has been tossed away for good. The sound and detail, the beauty of the melodies, the complexity of the vocals and arrangements, and most of all, Brian Wilson's determination and direction, all sprawled out over 5CDs, make "The Smile Sessions" a listening experience like no other.

A casual fan or listener may find it a bit daunting to see a full 78 minute CD filled with nothing but "Heroes & Villains" takes and snippets and movements. If you were thinking of putting this on your iPod and getting on the treadmill, leave now. But, if you have even a remote interest in Brian Wilson, his brothers Carl & Dennis, and the rest of the men, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Van Dyke Parks, and the brilliant studio musicians behind this storied release, dive right in without fear.

CD 1 is the album proper, gloriously sequenced and remastered. But for me, it wasn't until discs 2 and 3, when, as one reader commented yesterday, I "eavesdropped" on Brian and the gang in session, I began to fully appreciate "Smile" as a whole.  The various themes of "Heroes & Villains," the mad scientist conducting, or "conduction," as Brian puts it a number of times, as he whips all involved into the place where they can finally hear what he hears, is all present in an audio documentary that is never, not once, anything but mindblowing.

Coming off a post where I groaned about big boxes, major label greed, and the relentless repackaging of records we've all bought so many times before, I have to say, if you can find the money, this is the best of its kind. The hardcover book with detailed info on each track and its players is worth half the admission alone.


The PopCulturist said...

It should arrive on my doorstep sometime in the next several hours. I didn't know my salivary glands had it in 'em, but you have just made me crave even more to have it in my hot little hands and ears. Thanks for getting the early word out!

wardo said...

It's the 2-disc version for me and my unemployed budget. But I'd love to have the big box, with the book and everything.

bglobe313 said...

I'm as cheap as they come. As a recovering "mindless completist," the earlier post about the general rip-offs of multi-CD limited editions is music to my ears.

But for this one (as for the Springsteen Darkness "box") I am in for the whole pile.

Part of it is non-economic thinking that since I have spent so much time and money on the bootlegs, I might as well buy the official version (this is non-economic because as they taught in Econ 101, "sunk costs are fixed" -- the fact that you spent some money before does not justify a future expenditure).

But there IS economic value in the presumably better sound. And the story of SMILE is an amazing one. And this music has meant a lot in my life at at least two separate times of personal trouble.

So, here I go (again).


FD13NYC said...

It'll probably be the 2-disc version for me as well. Now, I love the Beach Boys, one of my top 5 favorite bands of all time. But while I could afford to buy the whole shabang, making decent money as I do, I can't see playing the whole thing through once and have it gathering dust on a shelf. Once again, bait for the fanatics.

I just recently viewed a video of the remaining B-Boys praising this new release as though it was a great lost treasure. Very hypocritical, seeing as though back then they thought it was bunch of hodgepodge crap. When all they wanted was to crank out hits. This response from them is what truly put Brian over the edge, playing a toy piano in the sandbox, and they'll probably put out a box set from those sessions. Go figure. Anyway, again, it is and will always be about the money. So smile and enjoy everybody!!

Sal Nunziato said...


Normally I would agree with you. But I don't understand "bait" for the fans. I don't think any Beach Boys fan would want a box filled with M.I.U. outtakes.

"Smile" sessions have been a long time obsession with not just Brian Wilson fans, but rock and roll fans, as well. Unlike the repackaging and re-re-re-remastering of back catalogue, this 5 CD set is something more. It offers so much more.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I remember arguing with you in NYCD about the merits of SMiLE and the remake. I liked it all more than you did. I was glad Brian finally finished it, and thought it was pretty good, however I still much prefer the unfinished sessions.
How does this compare with "Unsurpassed Masters"?

Sal Nunziato said...


Don't remember specifics about that argument, but I know I never loved "Smile." Plus, I argued with everyone at the end. I wasn't a happy guy.

Not sure I can compare this new set to "Unsurpassed." I just know what I'm hearing now is better than anything I've heard prior. It's a whole new appreciation of the work. Those who've known this all along may feel different.

jeff k said...

I suppose I'm going to get the shit kicked out of me here, but I bought the two-disk set and just listened to the first disk, and I was just so tempted at the end to toss the disk out the car window. I'm sure I sound like Mike Love here, but I don't get it. Yeah, the harmonies are great, but lyrically? Shit, I wouldn't even call them lyrics: I'd say they sounded to me like the sonic equivalent of a kindergartner's finger painting, but I'd be insulting six-year-olds everywhere.

Jeez, I can't think of a better "do not do drugs" public service spot, if that's what this train wreck can be attributed to.

Ok, let me have it. I can take it.

Sal Nunziato said...


Shriner said...

I have to agree. Apart from H&V and Good Vibrations, I never got "SMILE" (and I've listened to a number of bootlegs and BW's rerecording of the material -- live and studio -- over the years...)

"Pet Sounds", it's not.

I feel like I'm on the outside here. (And this coming from somebody who has listened -- more than once -- to the entire Monkees' "Headquarters Sessions" release...)

More power to those of you who can sit through 4 CDs of snippets of how these songs were put together.

"Columnated Ruins Domino", indeed!

Sal Nunziato said...

The thing is, I can't sit here and defend "Smile," the intended release, after I just wrote how I don't love it. And I'm certainly not going to "give it to" Jeff K, though that would be fun.

But...it was/is the sessions that turned me around. I don't expect people to plop down $150 just to see if they agree with me.

It's not unlike watching an epic film or reading an epic novel. Characters develop, pieces of the story come together when at first, they may not have.

I'm not trying to sell "Smile." I'm trying to sell "The Smile Sessions" box.

buzzbabyjesus said...

To Sal:
Maybe discussion with lack of consensus is a better description than argument.

I just went to Amazon and previewed all the tracks on the 2cd version.

Sounds pretty similar to "Unsurpassed". Some sounded a little different. I have other boots and there is a fair amount of variation.

To Jeff K:
Maybe give it a little more time to sink in?
Remember it isn't finished. All these bits were supposed to be assembled into a tapestry like "Good Vibrations", but album length with "Heroes And Villians" as a centerpiece.
Obviously that didn't happen.
Maybe this stuff was more fun as a bootleg of tantalizing fragments, where you could imagine what might have been, instead of trying to experience it as finished product which an official release implies.

Shriner said...

BBJ: But that would imply Brian's solo "SMILE" release -- isn't a "finished" product.

It's really not *that much* differently arranged than the Beach Boys version when listened back-to-back.

(But, I do agree with your thesis that it's not meant to be viewed as a "finished product" -- but BW's solo release is -- and the material just didn't/doesn't feel that strong to me, to build up the myth about it.)

Sal Nunziato said...

I could be opening a new can of worms here, but I'm not sure Brian's 2005 "Smile" should be considered. It's not the Beach Boys, and it is SO not Brian circa 1966. This is what I'm saying.

I've found it near impossible to listen to any of Brian's solo work. He doesn't sound good. Period. It's sad.

To listen to the sessions, and hear a lucid, funny, sharp, intelligent vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and conductor take hold of very demanding material, nursery rhyme lyrics notwithstanding, is a whole other ballgame.

steve simels said...

I have this on order from Amazon, but having heard a couple of excerpts (thanks to the kindness of Sal and a few other folks) I have one thing to say:

In a perverse way, it may be a good thing that the original "Smile" didn't come out when it was supposed to.

Because....wait for it...it would have been in mono.

I think you can see where I'm going with this argument.

Sal Nunziato said...


It still is in mono. Only the sessions...all 5 hours of'em...are in stereo. ;)

buzzbabyjesus said...

The only thing I liked about BW's 2005 remake was the opportunity hear his take on sequence etc.
I'm in complete agreement with Sal about his solo work.
I forgot to mention I don't like "Pet Sounds" at all.

Sal Nunziato said...


KevinR said...

Stream the 2 disc set here till Monday:
Even with my dinky PC speakers, it sounds awesome. I guess disc one is the album as it was supposed to be, and it sounds really good.
Wasn't on my radar as I'm more Wild Honey and Smile was a "bunt," but this is cool.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I'm listening to a 24 bit vinyl rip and it's amazing.

steve simels said...

It's in mono?


Sal Nunziato said...

Yes. CD 1 MONO. All else, stereo. Sorry dude.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I've just finished listening to the afore-mentioned vinyl rip.
SMiLE has been in my top ten for two decades and I feel like I've just heard it for the first time.
Holy Sh*t it's good!
"Surf's Up", "Cabinessence", "Heroes And Villians", "Vega-tables", "Windchimes", "Wonderful" "Plymouth Rock", "Love To Say Dada", "Good Vibrations", are my favorite Beach Boys songs. I love all the little interlocking parts, they remind me of composers like Phillip, steve Reich, and Terry Riley Glass. A lot of my favorite vocal parts are the wordless intertwined chants. Someone said like a barbershop on acid.
The whole thing is really innovative, and I think it qualifies as finished product.
"A Teenage Symphony To God" better describes "Pet Sounds" which is why I don't like it.
I have zero interest in teenagers or God.
Jeff K- Don't bother making me that Mike Love compilation.

Peter Ames Carlin said...

Hi JeffK: As a longtime 'Smile' mythologee turned attempted-analyst/deconstructionist of the work (from inspiration thru creation thru devolution thru rebirth as strangely powerful cultural symbol, etc., I obviously feel more in that music than you do. And if it rubs you the wrong way, then by all means, listen to something (everything) else you like better. This doesn't make you a bad person -- just a guy with different tastes. No harm, no foul.

But think about giving it another spin someday. If you're interested in Brian as a person/artist, or pop culture in the '60s or whatever, you can go to my website (peteramescarlin.com) and find some stuff I've written about it (particularly the longish thing I reposted on the blog earlier this fall in 3 or 4 parts, something like 'The rebirth of Smile') and see if anything there resonates with you. It's like the beer at the Delta house: Don't cost nothin'.

It's a very different kind of work. Its pleasures are distinct from virtually every other rock/pop culture work from then, or since. But if you make yourself available to it, you may get something out of it you weren't expecting.


cmealha said...

Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!
Unlike you, Sal, I did like Brian's version of Smile a few years back but I do concede that it was like matching Mickey Mantle hit his 500th home run. It was a great moment but sad at the same time because he was a shadow of what he'd been. I gave Mickey a pass in his later years so Brian deserved one as well.
But to hear this version with Brian at the height of his powers is rapturous. His beautiful voice; his amazing arrangements! It's like watching the Mick during his Triple Crown season.
Obviously, this version has to be different than what if would have been 45 years ago but it's as close as anyone will get and is satisfying at every level. I see there's a lot of discussion about it but the bottom line is that it is a work of someone with a gift from the gods who, after all these years, with a lot of help from friends and devotees, has been able to repay the gods and give us a glimpse into a realm from which we are so far removed.

jeff k said...

Thanks Peter. I've read your work and admire it, and my affection for the Beach Boys goes back to 1965 when I remember driving down Collins Ave. in Miami Beach with the top down, and my uncle standing up on the back seat singing, "I get around" at the top of his lungs.

And while there's much that I love about Brian's solo career, I don't love Smile. I listened to it again until my wife threatened to divorce me if I didn't take the disk out of the cd player. She didn't get any arguments from me. I love my vegetables but songs about them or choruses that go "Plymouth rock roll over" just don't do it for me. I'm happy it works for you and Sal and the others but I don't think my dislike of the music is because I'm somehow missing something in the interpretation as a result of my less than stellar intellect or that I"m not "available" to it.

I'm available and I'm not an idiot. I just don't "Smile' is all that it's cracked up to be. You might not like the 1910 Fruitgum Company. I'm not going to suggest that my dissertation on the allegorical context of Yummy Yummy Yummy is going to change your mind.

cmealha said...

Jeff K.,

Lyrically I would equate Parks' lyrics to some of Lennon's. They paint aural pictures that may not make literal sense but have a beauty that compliment the music perfectly.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Jeff K
maybe it's a right brain-left brain thing and you are whichever it isn't.
Not meant as an insult.

jeff k said...

not insulted at all, just amused, as that would be a rather pointed left-brain, right-brain issue: not liking a specific Beach Boys album, no? I'd love to read the scientific research on that.

Albert said...

No sir...no no...no to the naysayers, sir...this is a must have...sure, for fanatics mostly,of course,but not exclusively...however you can get it...and I DO mean the actual Smile album proper...outtakes and basic tracks notwithstanding, the album as intended for release decades ago is as wild a ride as we imagined it, when all we heard was Brian claiming "I burned the tapes"...."bait",yeah....the best kind...

France said...

This box set is fantastic! All the music together as it should be, at long last, plus extras on disc two that prove Brian Wilson was the master of his domain, the world of pop music. Brian's Smile album in 2004 was also wonderful music, but I believe this tops it, just because the musicians and the voices of the Beach Boys were the best ever, better than anyone else in history.