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Brian Wilson: Smile

Nonesuch, 2004

Rating: 4.8

 

 

Posted: September 30, 2004

By Laurence Station

38 years in the baking, Brian Wilson's Smile (or SMiLE, for you purists) finally reaches the masses. The renowned "lost" Beach Boys album, thought to be too far-out and non-commercial and subsequently shelved, has attained mythic status for fans. 1967's watered down Smiley Smile only whetted diehards' appetites to hear the definitive version of increasingly reclusive composer Wilson's wildly ambitious "teenage symphony to God."

Well, here it is, recorded clean by Wilson and his touring band, The Wondermints, and clocking in at a trim 47 minutes (compared to bootlegs and sundry assemblages from the aborted '66-'67 sessions). And while it may not be the ultimate symphonic confection nearly four decades of hyperbole have all but guaranteed, Smile is nonetheless an arresting, audacious, unabashedly whimsical slice of junk-drawer Americana (thanks to acclaimed arranger-lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and can-do pop craftsmanship.

Brian Wilson's great achievement on Smile is his use of modular song building. "Heroes and Villains" is an excellent example of this technique, in which different pieces butt in or aggressively segue throughout, keeping the listener off-balance. Just as a song is gaining momentum, Wilson deliberately undercuts it. While this approach flies in the face of conventional pop wisdom, which emphasizes a continuous (usually steadily rising) surge ending in a dramatically satisfying crescendo, Wilson makes it work by creating tension via unexpected tonal shifts -- mini-climaxes exploding across the span of the composition, which prove equally rewarding, though on a different wavelength than the standard approach.

Separated into three movements (Americana, Childhood, and Elements), Smile covers a lot of ground, from the historical to the personal to the abstract, without seeming bloated or pretentious. Van Dyke Parks deserves credit for keeping the bulk of the lyrics playfully lighthearted. After opening with the appropriate "Our Prayer" (this is, after all, a teenage symphony to God) and shifting into a slice of '50s doo-wop R&B outfit the Crows' "Gee," Smile offers a relatively compact, sub-five minute rendition of "Heroes and Villains" (a song Wilson ceaselessly labored over during the original sessions, resulting in countless bootleg versions of varying length and coherence). "Roll Plymouth Rock" (formerly "Do You Like Worms?"), "Barnyard" and "Cabin Essence" build on "Heroes and Villains"' take on Europe's incursion into the Americas, our subsequent westward expansion and the industrial blackening of the soil and skies.

The Childhood section explores the innocence and curiosity associated with youth ("Farther down the path was a mystery," from "Wonderful") and loss ("A choke of grief / Heart-hardened eye / Beyond belief / A broken man too tough to cry," from "Surf's Up"), while "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" is the essential Elemental piece, a blistering instrumental, with Wilson losing himself in a sturm und drang fury -- a modern Hephaestus forging brilliant, fiery notes from the deep bellows. So as not to end on too heavy a note, the record closes with the familiar pop perfection of "Good Vibrations", its multilayered harmonies, and exuberant vibe tying up the album's musical and thematic ambitions with an upbeat, affirming bow.

With Smile, Wilson and Parks validate a vision that was considered too oddball at a time when, ironically, music was beginning to take wildly experimental and psychedelic turns. Unsurprisingly, the record holds up. It sounds neither like a product of a particular period, nor like a self-indulgent excursion to the inner regions of some loopy, lysergic-skewed America. This is complex but accessible pop art, with a deceptively simple title that cleverly encapsulates the spirit and aim of the music. Frown would have been a more appropriate appellation had this charmingly unique collection been allowed to languish unfinished.

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