Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Review: Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys - Smile

 I had a listen to Brian Wilson’s version of the Smile album today, the one I bought at the record fair last week. The album comes with a beautiful booklet that details the story of the album and includes all of Van Dyke Park‘s amazing lyrics, festooned with lovely (and strangely appropriate) Victoriana images. I happily read along to the lyrics as the music washed over me. Brian and his group of superlative musicians and singers recreate the original and possibly surpass it. Bear with me, people, it’s only my first run-through of this particular album, so I’ll need time to process it. But on first impression: what an astonishing piece of work! The version of Surf’s Up here may well be the best. I’ll need to study and ponder and compare. Let me get back to you on this…

I had another listen to Brian Wilson’s Smile. So good. I think I’m ready for the Beach Boys’ version. I have a good Uncut Ultimate Music Guide magazine dedicated to the Beach Boys, and in it there’s a section on Brian’s solo work, including this album. It gives the album 5 stars and describes how Brian set about ‘rummaging through the Capitol archives in search of the master tapes and then set about creatively recreating them, with Van Dyke Parks filling in the gaps and completing the lyrics.’ In this second go-round I focused a bit on the connective tissue between each of the songs and the overall concept. There’s a lot to unpack, and although there seems to be a tension between Parks’ heavy literate, almost baroque words and Wilson’s lighter, at times whimsical intentions, the whole thing does gel. I especially like how the song Vege-tables is such a silly song (‘I’ll jump and down till you toss me a carrot’ is so Brian) but it’s about literally the earthiest food group. The only song that sits slightly uncomfortably for me here is actually Good Vibrations. Although it feels like a good ending song, ‘the vibe’ as such takes me out of what has preceded it, probably because the lyrics are largely those of Mike Love. No doubt a thesis could be written about all this (and probably has), but I won’t go into one here. Maybe later…

Had a listen to the Beach Boys‘ original version of Smile. I’m slowly getting a sense of the differences between this version and Brian’s version of 2004. I think his version of Child Is Father Of the Man is better. The Boys’ vocals, especially the ‘child’ chant is more like a trial run to Brian’s version, where the vocals are more melodic and better arranged. I also prefer his Cabinessence. The ‘lron horse’ section sounds clearer, whereas the BB’s version is a little grating on the ears. Brian’s solo take on Good Vibrations is great, but really nothing can beat that original version by the Beach Boys. I’m really liking the ‘cantina’ section of Heroes and Villains. ‘You’re under arrest!‘ Is Margarita a woman or a drink? Probably both. And which version of Surf’s Up? Gee, that’s a tough one. Maybe it would be an interesting idea to do an A/B analysis of each song, if I can be bothered to be so trainspottery. And maybe when I’ve decided what I think are the best versions of each song I’ll make a compilation of those versions. Bit of Brian here, bit of Beach Boys there. The possibilities are endless. But no matter which version you listen to, it’s an amazing album. With its modular, cut-up techniques where songs bleed into one another, I think there’s also an argument to be made that Smile was a precursor, if not direct influence on, side two of the Beatles‘ Abbey Road. Just a thought.