Animadversions.

The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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SMiLE.

September 22nd, 2004 · 2 Comments · Art

Nearly forty years ago, The Beatles and The Beach Boys were in a neck and neck race for artistic primacy in the world of rock and roll music. Both had been - for lack of a better term - pop “boy bands” early on but had gone on to develop into more substantial musical forces. The Beach Boys had shown promise with Pet Sounds and the Beatles had begun to shine with Rubber Soul and Revolver. In 1967, the world was waiting for the next - seemingly inevitable - evolutionary releases from both. Paul McCartney actually stopped in with Brian Wilson in April of that year and contributed to one of the recording sessions for Vegatables - set to appear on the upcoming Beach Boys album - SMiLE.

The Beatles stepped up and gave us the immortal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - widely regarded as one of greatest rock and roll albums of all time. On the other side of the pond, fans waited for the Beach Boys’ response.

But something went wrong.

Returning from a successful tour of Europe (with Wilson’s live replacement), the Boys found Brian working on tracks that were wildly different from the commercially successful songs of their previous albums. They weren’t comfortable with the profoundly experimental sound or the crazy lyrics (written by Van Dyke Parks). The situation deteriorated - Wilson went more than a little crazy - Mike Love moved on to other things and SMiLE - though essentially finished - vanished.

Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains - two radio-friendly singles - managed to wind up on later releases and other bits and pieces leaked out over the years, but SMiLE-proper seemed lost forever.

For nearly four decades, SMiLE has remained rock’s greatest archaeological curiosity. Obsessive fans made countless bootleg versions of what they THOUGHT the album would have been like in an attempt to reconstruct what was supposed to be Wilson’s masterpiece.

And then something unexpected happened.

Wilson pulled himself together, began to rebuild his life and his career and then - beginning with live performances to work out the kinks from the decades-old content - set out to release SMiLE at last.

And so he has and the results are knock-you-on-your-ass good.

The first bands I loved as a kid were the Beach Boys and their surf-rock contemporaries Jan and Dean. Adults found it quaint and amusing that a fourth grade kid was into what they regarded as “teeny bop” from THEIR childhoods, but something about that music resonated with me in ways that the hair band glam-rock of the mid and late 80s didn’t. My friends liked Wanted Dead or Alive. I liked God Only Knows.

Even though I moved on to enjoy other musicians more, the Beach Boys always held a special place of honor in the heart of my musical pantheon. I’d never become a wild-eyed fanatic, so much of the “mystique” of SMiLE remained an abstraction to me. I was aware of it in the way that I was aware of things like lost treatises by Aristotle or evidence of the Loch Ness Monster - neat to think about, but pointless to pursue.

So when I heard that Wilson had started recording early this year, I didn’t really know what to think. Some of the live performances that leaked onto the Net seemed promising - but were a far cry from being “The American Sgt. Pepper.” Skepticism took hold and I prepared myself for the kind of let down that usually accompanies the illumination of deep, dark secrets.

With this in mind, I sat down to listen to SMiLE last night. Then I listened again. And again. And again.

It’s weird. It’s beautiful. It’s funny. It flows unimaginably well. There are thematic, lyrical and musical elements that repeat and help to make a coherent whole.

Unexpected elements like full orchestral strings, theramins, xylophones, and deep, jazzy brass punctuate deceptively simple rock melodies. They pop in, complicate matters and then disappear into the aural ether. Wilson’s voice is goofy and then uplifting and then utterly somber and then goofy again. He shifts back and forth effortlessly and the listener is helpless to resist following.

But trying to get into the specifics of what makes this album great is like trying to vocalize what makes a Da Vinci painting beautiful. You don’t explain it, you just experience it and know.

SMiLE is - hands down - the best album of the year. It is, without much risk of hyperbole, one of - if not THE - best albums of the 21st century. For my part, I feel more than comfortable saying it gives Sgt. Pepper the run for its money that people expected so many decades ago.

Anyone with even a shred of affection for rock and roll anywhere in their soul owes it to themselves to get their hands on this album as soon as it comes out (Sept. 28).

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 SomeLoser // Sep 28, 2004 at 2:39 am

    It might look out of place sitting next to Holy Wood or You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, but this sounds like one album I wouldn’t mind having in my collection.

    Good Vibrations and California Girls are two tunes I frequently find myself humming, usually for no percieved reason.

  • 2 Kettlechips // Jan 2, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks for the reccomendation. The first side is definatley the better half: a series of forgettable tracks that sound great together. I liken it more to Revolver than Sgt Peppers.

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