FINALLY, BRIAN WILSON AND 'SMILE'
Of the Post-Dispatch
October 14, 2004
The backstory: Brian Wilson, no longer touring in 1966 and losing ground to the effects of drugs, demons and depression, begins his follow-up to the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and his answer to the Beatles' "Revolver."
He starts writing and recording a "teenage symphony to God" with lyrics, many of them abstract, by Van Dyke Parks. The Beach Boys come home from a tour playing "Surfin'," "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Help Me, Rhonda" to find that their next project is called "Smile" and includes "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" -- and that these are the most accessible of the new tunes. The songs change form, key and time. Some are vocal pieces. Some are instrumental.
The band rebels, with Mike Love, especially, condemning the music as weird and unperformable. Wilson gives up, and the project is shelved, becoming the most famous "missing" album of the rock era. But pieces dribble out over the next 37 years, tantalizing fans. Half of "Smile's" 17 tracks end up in different versions on several Beach Boys albums through the early '70s, and many original pieces of "Smile" are bootlegged or released on box sets.
Fast forward to the mid-'90s, and Brian Wilson begins recording and, remarkably, performing solo with a band of soul brothers, the core of which is LA's Wondermints. With new health, new confidence and a new wife, Wilson is persuaded to resurrect "Smile," and he performs it in its entirety last year in London to critical raves and lengthy standing ovations.
Now a new studio recording is here, and Wilson, his band and Parks have re-created Wilson's masterpiece. It is a "symphony" in three "movements" -- America, childhood and the elements -- with musical themes that ebb and flow, a bass line or drums foreshadowing the closing "Good Vibrations," snippets of melody echoing earlier statements.
It is by turns exhilarating, goofy, profound, childlike, silly and unsettling. The animals of "Barnyard" and the celery munchers of "Vega-Tables" balance the aural fire of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" and the aching beauty of "Surf's Up." And some of the lyrics still defy literal analysis: "columnated ruins domino"?
The layered vocals and harmonies are exquisite, although the Beach Boy voices of Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and Wilson's late brothers Carl and Dennis were more distinctive. And Wilson's ability to make disparate sounds and instruments blend remains unmatched.
It is a work that lives up to its title.
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