by Anthony Zoubek
In 1967, Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ leader, singer and key songwriter, began producing a (purportedly) worthy follow-up to his band’s groundbreaking “Pet Sounds.”
“Pet Sounds” already helped the surfers of summer ditch their button-down shirt and crewcut image in exchange for the era’s psychedelic underbelly. When Wilson announced the band’s new album title, “Smile,” rock critics said the Beach Boys were bound to become a viable competitor with the Beatles.
Alas, Wilson’s precarious mental state (he was a paranoid schizophrenic hooked on LSD and marijuana) sent “Smile” recording sessions into a tailspin. The album was given a new name – “Smiley Smile” – and released half-finished, with the brilliant singles “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” anchoring tracks that sounded like roughly cut demos. (Additional “Smile” session songs ended upon the equally incoherent, incomplete “Wild Honey” album.)
Over the years, the aura of “what ‘Smile’ could have been” turned Wilson’s would-be seminal work into one of the greatest pop albums never released.
With a non-Beach Boys backup band -and his schizophrenic visions under control – Wilson released “Brian Wilson’s SMiLE” last week to critical fanfare. (A music reporter friend informs me it’s a shoe-in for Best Album of the Year awards.)
After 37 years of mixed vibrations, frustrated, curious and long-suffering Beach Boys have a reason to smile – sort of. The results are interesting, but how could they live up to nearly four decades of hype?
“Brian Wilson presents SMiLE” contains 14 tracks and clocks in at under an hour. It opens with the prelude “Our Prayer/Gee” (an ode to the Beach Boys’ classic harmonies ) and the riotous “Heroes and Villains.” It closes with a new rendition of “Good Vibrations” (the original version of which is arguably the Beach Boys’ best song). Now if only Wilson could get the middle to sound less like filler.
As an overture and underture, “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” respectively provide solid samples of what we should expect from the rest of the album.
That’s the problem – both songs are so solid, when we hear the songs they’re either previewing or reviewing from the rest of Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God,” we can’t help but feel a little let down by the conductor’s results.
This is not to say “Brian Wilson presents SMiLE” doesn’t take us on whirlwind tour through American rock music (with touches of doo-wop, surf tunes and, of course, acid rock). But their potential seems unrealized.
Songs like “Vege-Tables” (an ode to carrots and beets) and “Old Master Painter” are – taken out of their importance in the classic rock canon and examined solely as musical compositions – mediocre at best. Some of the album tracks are as loose as they were on the Beach Boys’ demos.
“Brian Wilson presents SMiLE” is not the reconstruction of Beach Boys’ performances for which fans yearn. It makes a nice coda to the mysteries of “Smile,” but by no means does it write the saga a satisfying final chapter.