Review: The SMiLE Sessions

The original cover of Smile.

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In the list of things I never thought we’d see, it was a complete SMiLE, the legendary lost Beach Boys record.  In 2004 that came; Brian Wilson had re-recorded it, working with co-writer Van Dyke Parks on finishing the album.  That proved to the world that SMiLE was indeed a masterpiece, but it just reworded the list slightly:  A complete SMiLE by the original Beach Boys, circa 1966.  The new version was great — but a little too clean.  It sounded less like the original Beach Boys and the world’s slickest and most talented Beach Boys cover band.  At the time, I thought to myself that if we can’t have the original tapes, it would have been better to have a band of Wilson devotees like the Apples in stereo do the record — the same music (“Heroes and Villains” was the first song the Apples even learned how to play as a band), but with a less-reverent attempt to recreate the original sound.

I still think an Apples in stereo SMiLE would be amazing (and if anyone wants to pass that idea on to Robert Schneider, that would be just dandy) — but we now have as close as we’re going to get to that adjusted dream.  At the first of the month, Capitol released The SMiLE Sessions, a mammoth box set of the best of the SMiLE tapes.  5 CDs, 2 LPs and 2 7” singles, plus a big hardbound book, a smaller book of photos, a poster and a supercool diorama of the sleeve art: The collection is better than anyone probably could have imagined.  (A 2-CD version is also available for the less hardcore and/or money-wiser.)

Of the five discs, the first is the most important — a re-created album with the best takes, mixes and edits available.  This is probably the one anyone’s going to listen to the most.  As it turns out, even unfinished, SMiLE is pretty damned amazing.  We knew that going in from the 2004 album, but to hear the actual Beach Boys on it (and the army of 1966 Hollywood’s best session musicians) is jawdropping.  There have almost always been bootlegs of the album’s sessions floating around — I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they existed even before Brian Wilson started recording in the first place — but to have these mostly unheard versions is something special — not to mention how CLEAN they sound.  No more nth-generation tape hiss.  Just the standard tape-hiss from Wilson’s constant track-pinging to get as full of a sound as he can. And most of that is masked out anyway.  If SMiLE had been finished, rock history would have been changed.  I don’t know how, exactly, but it’d be different.  At the very least, Beach Boys history would have changed, and, I don’t know, maybe they would have been able to smack Mike Love around a little.

Speaking of Mike Love, the hardbound book comes with writings from all the Beach Boys (new essays from the surviving members, interview excerpts from the ones who have passed on) about SMiLE — Mike Love’s essay is probably the funniest, wherein he insists that he always loved the album and never hated it at all… which is negated by EVERY OTHER ESSAY IN THE BOOK which mentions how Love hated it and thought it was too arty and dumb and that Wilson was fucking with the formula.  And not just in the recent essays — even in the posthumous interview snippets.  Though not as hilarious as Mike Love’s attempts to re-write history, every piece in there is worth reading — some pieces about the history of the album, the sound of the album, the design of the artwork and liner notes of what would have been the original release, even a sessions list tracking the recording of all the individual bits of each song.

Those individual bits make up most of the other four CDs.  One disc is devoted to “Heroes and Villains”, one is just “Good Vibrations” outtakes, and the other two are sessions from each of the other songs — plus a couple of previously unreleased full songs.  As soon as I got this, I listened to the ENTIRE SET, which is six and a half hours (it took two or three sittings).  It’s not something I’m likely to do again soon, but it’s so incredibly interesting to hear how the album was written and recorded.  If anyone is interested in doing studio work, or songwriting and production — I cannot recommend these discs enough.  If I were a teacher of audio production, the full box would be one of my textbooks.  To hear parts of different songs and find out they were originally earmarked to be in a wholly different song is surprising as well.  The “Do a lot” bit from “Vega-Tables” shows up in the sessions for “Heroes and Villains”, as just one example.  The writing style for SMiLE was unorthodox, with the recording of many, many separate bits and then stitching them together in-studio by editing the tape makes this so amazing that Brian Wilson could be carrying and juggling so much music at once and coming so close to having a finished product.

The SMiLE Sessions is amazing.  I can’t say that enough.  Capitol Records really put together a great project with this one.  Too bad it took 50 years.

 

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