The Beach Boys: SMiLE Sessions
Capitol / EMI

The mythology surrounding SMiLE is almost as convoluted as the mythology of The Beach Boys group itself, given a tumultuous history dotted with interpersonal clashes, premature deaths (Dennis and Carl Wilson), drug-related derailment, and landmark creative triumphs (and collapses). A key part of that history involves the non-release of SMiLE, the 1966-67 album that was aborted just as it neared completion and that instead emerged, in part, through a variety of other channels (even though Brian Wilson, in the notes he contributed to the booklet accompanying the release, states that it was record company pressure and the challenge of competing with The Beatles that led him to shelve SMiLE, legend also has it that a spooked Brian put a halt to the proceedings when a fire broke out near the studio as the group was recording “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow)”). A number of songs ended up on Smiley Smile and Surf's Up, while others found their way into fanatics' hands by way of a steady stream of prized bootlegs. The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations, a five-CD box set issued in 1993, whetted fans' appetites for the possible release of SMiLE by including a number of unreleased tracks from the album's sessions, and the 2004 release of Brian Wilson's own newly recorded version, a well-intentioned though ultimately not wholly satisfying re-creation, tantalized in suggesting that we might possibly be inching closer to the release of the original album itself. And lo and behold, nearly a half-century after its creation, it's finally here.

The release has been made available in multiple physical and digital configurations, from a relatively basic two-CD set to a limited-edition box set that includes five CDs, two LPs, and two seven-inch singles. In addition to the core album's nineteen pieces, the release features additional session highlights and bonus tracks, including demos and stereo mixes (hence the choice of SMiLE Sessions as the title). There's a largesse to the contents (of the five-CD set, in particular) that verges on overwhelming, and clearly the release is intended to be the final word on the SMiLE saga. Whatever one's feelings on the excess of bonus material, it's nevertheless fascinating, even if on just historical grounds, to hear Brian guiding his brothers Carl and Dennis, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and the session musicians through the complex stages of the album's creation.

It goes without saying that the vocals are a marvel—look no further than the complex, multi-layered weave coursing through “Heroes And Villains” and “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” as two examples of many. We're repeatedly reminded not only of Brian's songwriting talent but also the splendour of his and the other members' vocal gifts. Hear, for example, how much his lead on “Wonderful” complements so perfectly the song's classically tinged lilt. Carl's gorgeous voice, on the other hand, is front and center during the verses of “Cabin Essence,” in contrast to the chorus where a vocal collective chants with seemingly peyote-fueled fervour. Let's also not forget that Van Dyke Parks's allusive lyrics are as much a part of the equation as Brian's music, even if it's the latter that one notices first. One can't help but be struck by the baroque and enigmatic brilliance of their collaborative efforts, especially in songs such as “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” and “Surf's Up.” The arrangements are striking, too, with their wealth of sounds a mirror of Brian's fecund imagination. In their completed form, the songs teem with the sounds of harmonicas, harpsichords, sleigh bells, whistles, honky-tonk pianos, cellos, banjos, flutes, marimbas, glockenspiels, and, of course, that infamously warbling theremin (on “Good Vibrations”) and become endlessly enticing sources of pleasure for the ear. Note, as one example, the inventive way the mallet instruments are used to not only voice patterns but generate mini-glissandos behind Brian's lead during “Wind Chimes.”

The album begins, of course, with the a capella majesty of “Our Prayer” and the more light-hearted “Gee,” a natural segue-way into the rollicking “Heroes And Villains.” The music continually astonishes, whether it be during the more familiar songs (“Good Vibrations”) or the lesser-known, such as the largely instrumental “Look (Song For Children)” (with its incorporation of the high-spirited “Twelfth Street Rag”) and “Love To Say Dada,” within which the basic strains of “Cool, Cool Water” (included on 1970's Sunflower) can be heard. Let's not forget that there's ample joy and humour in this music, too, as the animal and munching noises in “Barnyard” and “Vega-Tables” and the sawing and hammering in “I Wanna Be Around / Workshop” attest. Drowning in sirens, “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow)” is as primal and raucous as one would expect it to be, but it's “Surf's Up” that's the album's crowning achievement. Certainly Van Dyke Parks's famously obtuse lyrics are ear-catching, but it's the melodic progressions that are most haunting. The gorgeous upward ascent that occurs at the “I heard the word—wonderful thing! A children's song” section and that precedes the robust final episode is particularly exquisite.

Naturally, the bonus tracks are generally less polished and often sketchy in nature, yet they're also consistently illuminating in bringing the painstaking nature of the project's evolution into focus. On the two-CD set (the one reviewed), the bonus tracks offer everything from in-studio silliness (“Psycodelic Sounds: Brian Falls Into A Piano”) and vocal pieces (“You're Welcome”) to transcendant beauty (Brian's solo version of “Surf's Up,” where his falsetto on the words “Columnated ruins domino!” soars atop nothing more than his piano). Bonus tracks such as “Smile Backing Vocals Montage” lend support to the idea that, beginning with “Good Vibrations,” Brian had turned to a more modular approach to song construction by crafting individual sections (vocal and instrumental) that would be later edited together into their final song form. For the record, the track listings for discs three to five suggest that they're encyclopedic in nature, compiling as they do a huge number of session highlights for “Heroes And Villains,” “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock),” “Cabin Essence,” “Wonderful,” “Surf's Up,” “Vegetables,” and especially “Good Vibrations” (disc five is entirely devoted to sessions for the song).

Is SMiLE greater than Pet Sounds? Long and deep familiarity with both clouds judgment and prevents such a comparison from being easily made, but, even if it were possible, why would one bother? What matters is that Brian and the group gave us both recordings and for that alone we are grateful. In a brief statement in the booklet, Brian writes, “And I hope this music makes you smile, too.” Yes, it does, Brian, and so much more. That we can finally bask in the genius of SMiLE's compositions and arrangements is truly “one, one, one wonderful.”

December 2011