November 14, 2011

Test Spins: The Beach Boys, Smile Sessions

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I am not sure what the act and art of writing can achieve — my young mind has seen much yet so little to conclude: “a lot” — but to communicate the perfection of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys is out of its grasp. Yes, the lyrics are as central to its wonder as any other detail. The language is so simple and honest, with its pledge to love’s vitality only that much stronger by surviving past that questionable opening line, “I may not always love you….” But those surging horns and harpsichords, that abrupt transition to the bridge resolving into wordless chants of euphoria, the layered calls to God that might as well repeat forever … every element equals the other to an effect that can only be expressed through song. That I contradict myself to attempt to describe it just shows my fawning admiration. At the time, “God Only Knows” was praised for its unique arrangements. It speaks today for the value between those lines. The Smile Sessions, recorded 45 years ago but properly released just this month, bears both sides of praise.

The struggles leading to this day are legendary, for Smile was the album that never was. When The Beatles released Rubber Soul in 1965, their American counterparts (or, more accurately, bandleader Brian Wilson) summoned all their might to top them. Pet Sounds was the result, and in the opinion of many, including yours truly, they succeeded. Well, in response those wily Brits released Sgt. Pepper, which threw plans for their followup, Smile, into chaos. Wilson’s mental collapse — he believed his music was responsible for a number of local fires — cancelled the ambitious project. In 2004, Wilson finally completed the album as a solo act, though about 40 years past his prime. But now the remaining Beach Boys have agreed to release what they did record all those years ago, mixing and mastering the tracks after the fact, but the long lost work is here.

The Smile Sessions may not contain Wilson’s exact, original vision, but it is the closest anyone will ever hear. “A teenage symphony to God,” Brian calls it, with adolescence and faith as the two dominating themes. “Our Prayer” opens, an acappella hymn rift with beautiful harmonies and a divine presence. A far cry from the “Fun, Fun, Fun” days of the past.

That is not to say Smile lacks those innocent, fresh-faced ditties, for they are here and many. The difference is in perspective, a much more somber tone and an experimental approach. The titles are blatant and playful: “Wind Chimes” contains more shifts in instrumentation than the simplistic name would suggest, and “Vega-Tables” sounds like The Beatles’ “Piggies” on acid — or I guess even more acid (McCartney apparently chomps celery into a mic here for the sound effects; wouldn’t surprise me if he was tripping). Tracks like “Child Is Father of the Man,” though, with lyrics simply repeating the title over and over and ominous trumpets setting a rather frightening atmosphere, suggest Wilson and writing partner Van Dyke Parks have reached a new, serious appreciation for the youth they have passed. The scariest rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” I have ever heard attests to this. Many young bands dedicate an album to looking back at what they have left behind. Perhaps it is due to the liberal LSD use, but never has a tribute to youth sounded so solemn and, even, desired. Wilson was battling some demons of his own at the time.

While many of these tracks never saw a proper release until now, when the studios saw single potential, they released the best of the bunch independently. Thankfully, this release contains extended, rare versions of even these hits. “Heroes and Villains” still churns like a baroque candy assembly line, but with an added verse endorsing good ol’ inebriation. The original single now feels rushed — and with too few drunken verses — compared to the flow of this version. “Good Vibrations” is even here, and its avant-garde style sounds at home amongst such odd company.

“Surf’s Up” stands tall as the best song on Smile, and among the greatest of the band’s entire catalog. Written in one night on the piano Wilson situated on a sandbox, “Surf’s Up” moves freely from one sound to the next, grand pauses here and there to best even the madness of “Good Vibrations.” How serene the song is really, with Brian’s beautiful falsetto — admirable but lacking in his 2004 effort — peaking on the equally gorgeous but ambiguous line “Columnated ruins domino.” Decoding all the images of Van Dyke’s aesthetic lyrics takes the insight of a Heraclitus scholar, and even then you’re throwing darts at a dictionary. Enjoy the song like a natural wonder, grateful to witness and bask in the grandeur beyond your cognizance. As Wilson swoons, “I heard the word/wonderful thing/a children’s song” (I believe we have struck a theme!), and descends into a fading “na na na” spiral, even he fails to find words for its beauty.

There reaches a point in every music lover’s career when the surprises and hidden gems hit less and less. Little ground is left to cover. How pleasing, then, to hear a bonafide classic for the first time in 2011. The direct sincerity of Smile’s lyrics may be lost in our postmodern and ironic outlooks on the past, present and future. Be humble; The Smile Sessions presents songs dripping with equal cheer and melancholy. Wilson and Van Dyke’s compositions progress untraditionally even for a modern day Sigur Rós and Flaming Lips fan. But it is that awe, that inner essence behind the bar lines that resonates to this day, still defying words. The mythical Troy you heard from blogs, books and bards does exist, and it is downloadable through iTunes.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos