The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions
The sticker on the front of the record says “The most anticipated album in Rock n’ Roll history.” It’s not kidding.
As the leader of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson had always been a very competitive songwriter and producer, trying to create the best songs, the best sound and the greatest album. That album was called *Smile*, and in the years since its inception, it has become the stuff of legends.
Here’s a brief back story: Inspired by The Beatles’ Revolver, Wilson set out to create the next Beach Boys album in the same style, one very different than the surf rock they were known and loved for. The result was Pet Sounds, released in 1966, one of the most important and groundbreaking albums of the 1960s and currently number two on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list (Revolver is number three).
By the time the Beach Boys started recording Smile the next year, The Beatles were already working on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their follow up to Revolver. The story goes that in early 1967 Paul McCartney played a tape of “A Day in the Life” for Wilson and it broke his brain. Recording of the *Smile* album fell apart quickly after that until it was abandoned completely. Sgt. Pepper’s went on to be considered the greatest album ever made by many critics.
Over the next 10 years, parts of the Smile album were rerecorded, usually in very simplified versions, and released on later albums. The *Smile* album itself became a music legend.
In 2004, Brian Wilson completed and recorded a new, full version of Smile, which was met with public and critical acclaim. It had confirmed all the rumors of its brilliance, but also fueled the fires once again for the original recordings. Finally, in late 2011, 45 years after being recorded, The Beach Boys’ original recording of Smile was released. Simply put: It is incredible.
Officially titled The Smile Sessions because it was never officially completed, the album released is substantially intact, with all of the instrumental tracks finished and almost all of the vocals added as well.
My reaction, after listening for the first time was: “Smile is brilliant, but it is a mess.” Most of the songs are made up of distinct sections, recorded separately and then assembled by Wilson. This technique, pioneered by Wilson and first used on the song “Good Vibrations,” gives a sometimes jarring effect as songs jump from one part to the next. The songs grow to have sections that relate and play off each other in very interesting ways.
As always, the highlight of the album, and all Beach Boys albums, is the beautiful and complex five-part harmonies sung by the five Beach Boys: Brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love. From the moment the album starts, it is clear that the vocal melodies are the most advanced and difficult the Beach Boys had ever recorded.
Many of the styles and genres represented on the album were far ahead of their time. For example, my favourite song on the album, “Cabin Essence,” is a song that could have been released last week by any current psychedelic band such as Animal Collective. The song features a banjo and harmonica verse followed by an intense layered and repeated chorus. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were never limited by their musicians, and were free to hire the best and most talented session musicians available at the time. Including the five members, 19 people are listed as musicians on this song alone.
For anyone who is a fan of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, psychedelic music and just music in general, this album is required listening. The innovation, attention to detail, and just pure beauty of the music will make anyone smile.