Smile with a Smirk
It’s a daunting task wrapping your head around The Beach Boys’ The Smile Sessions. It’s 40 tracks full of outtakes, skits, transitions, and other miscellaneous noises—that’s just part of its beauty and weirdness. To some, this is one of the best bands of all time, and super-fans will be ecstatic that these tracks have been assembled as they are here. Newbies will listen to it mystified that this is the same band that gave us Pet Sounds.
The boys were once Midwesterners surrounded by farms, and it was only a matter of time before Brian Wilson found his way to California. California’s where dreamers and artists go, and this story of his voyage is one of the best. It was 1966 and there’s no question that drugs were being used: this record is psychedelic in a pop kind of way. The original Smile record was scrapped and reformed into the dopey Smiley Smile, without many of the session tracks apart from some real doozies—”Vegetables,” “Heroes and Villains,” the infamous “Good Vibrations.”
There is so much going on in these discs; aside from thematics, the sounds are incredible. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson said it well: “Cowboy songs, cartoon Native American chants, barroom rags, jazzy interludes, rock’n’roll, sweeping classical touches, street-corner doo-wop, and town square barbershop quartet are swirled together into an ever-shifting technicolor dream.” The record does have a hazy, cinematic aspect to it. Scenes and images float before your imagination attached to mind-blowlingly strange and fascinating music. And sometimes the songs have movements within themselves.
These songs play out in movements or sides as well. Brian Wilson revisited Smile in 2004 and clumped sessions thematically, writing words for songs that didn’t have them and doing a lot of work on the recordings. The Smile Sessions puts them in a seemingly original form with some intent to make four vinyl sides (the fourth being the outtakes and demos).
The first side has two big tracks, “Heroes and Villains” and the stunning “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock).” There’s something timeless about these songs; you can hear in them everything from the vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes to gregorian chant. And “Good Vibrations” is a song that’s stood the test of time and will continue to do so. Their vocals are extraordinary—the subtle sounds, the undercurrent of psychedelia, and the simplicity of it all is truly staggering.
Other standouts include “My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine),” “Cabin Essence,” “Surf’s Up,” “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow),” and “You’re Welcome.” There’s not enough space here to completely unpack it all. Suffice it to say it’s a strong piece of art, one that might make you scratch your head and test your patience for what you think a listening experience should be. It flows, but in a curious way. The depth of The Beach Boys’ artistic vision is a bit more understood after these sessions have seen the light of day, and it is kind of twisted (but in a good way).