Friday, September 20, 2019
Revisiting this often misunderstood disc requires equal measures of patience, open mind/ears and some understanding of the events that preceded the sessions. Ultimately, the listener may want to indulge in a dollop of "Mother Nature's Finest" to get in the head space of the gentlemen who recorded it. Not necessary, of course, though the Beach Boys were admittedly wreathed in smoke during this time, as were many of their contemporaries. Something to keep in mind when you first take in Smiley Smile.
The backstory here is critical. Without going too far down the proverbial rabbit hole, the project that the group was immersed in prior to this one needs to be addressed.
A seemingly endless series of online write ups, audio reconstructions from fans, videos and books have been issued to try and capture the story of Smile. Brian worked tirelessly on this , with the intention of taking his compositions to another level. Aided and abetted by Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics, members of the famed Wrecking Crew and the vocals of his bandmates, this concept LP was intended to be his magnum opus. He shut down the sessions in the spring of 1967, refusing to do any further recording. Because it did not see official release at the time, Smile achieved legendary status in the intervening years. Certain tracks dribbled out on subsequent Beach Boys albums (including Smiley Smile), though they were reworked by the band.
Finally in 2004, a re-recording/release of the project itself was undertaken by Brian Wilson (as Brian Wilson presents Smile). This was followed in 2011 (with Wilson's blessing) by The Smile Sessions, which presented the project content as it would have been originally sequenced along with outtakes.
Back to summer, 1967
Smiley Smile is an important record for a number of reasons.
The Wilson brothers along with Mike Love and Al Jardine handle the instrumental parts as well as those impeccable vocals. With session players no longer filling these roles, the final product was far more of an actual group effort. They didn't exactly roll the clock back to 1962, setting up as they once had to capture a track, though democracy was (sort of) restored with production credits going to all five members.
This set also prefigured the "lo-fi", home recording movement by a few summers, with the bulk of material taped at Brian's home studio. In this instance, the final mix was light years away from industry standard. After the release of Sgt. Pepper, artists started down the path of lavish, big budget productions. The Beach Boys went in the opposite direction, which was a fairly bold move during this period. The decision wasn't calculated as much as it was born out of necessity, though it put them in the vanguard of the "return to basics" movement that would emerge in 1968.
JUST LISTENING AND RE-LISTENING...
Both sides of the vinyl version of Smiley Smile begin with songs that have elaborate production values. No surprise that both were originally tracked the previous year. "Heroes and Villains" was released as a single in July of '67 and "Good Vibrations" was a massive hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic after it was issued in fall 1966. The rest of the disc is austere by comparison, utilizing spare instrumentation and emphasizing vocal harmony. Curiously, the sequencing of these tracks sets the listener up for a pay off that never happens. It almost seems that their placement is a deliberate cover for some of the offbeat insanity that follows. The prime source of the charm that oozes from the grooves here is quirky humor, with the "smiles" generated from both an innocent and subversive perspective. Are they pulling your leg? Sure, though we'll explore that later on.
Heroes and villains, just see what you've done now
There has been much conjecture around what iteration of "Heroes and Villains" should be considered as the definitive version. As mentioned, it was dangled before consumers as a trailer 45 that summer, charting respectably. That exact mix was chosen to open the album. The complexity of the vocal arrangement is stunning and it boasts one of Brian's most haunting melodies. Van Dyke Parks' lyrics are poetic, referencing the conflicts that took place between indigenous peoples of California and the state militia spanning the period of 1850 to 1880. The historical context is not explored in granular detail, but provides the background for a series of vignettes. Recording was a glacial process. Taking place at various times from the initial attempt in May 1966, going well into spring/summer of 1967, multiple mixes and edits were undertaken. Inscrutable as it is beautiful, the final outcome is sublime. What didn't make the grade was the yearning, majestic instrumental outro, which is a shame as it serves as a wonderful summation to a standout cut. (Wilson wisely restored this piece when he re-recorded it in 2004). The unexpurgated Beach Boys take is worth a listen, running nearly five minutes.
Transitioning from this to "Vegetables" is jarring, with an insistent bass line serving as the lone support to those ever-tight harmonies. The tune and lyrical subject matter is deceptively simple, but extremely catchy. Actual vegetables get chomped, with group chewing recorded for posterity. Brian also flies in a segment that had been done during the Smile dates toward the end. Harmless fun, yet damn near impossible to dislodge from the brain. Before you can name your favorite vegetable, we have seasonal change in the ultra-cool, slightly trippy "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter". Managing to sound light and ominous all at once, this interlude packages stacked harmonies that float over percussive noises with a squeeze box deployed to intermittently imitate the laugh of Woody Woodpecker. Setting the table for what follows, things manage to get stranger with "She's Goin' Bald". This bizarre confection starts off fairly straight with a narrative about a girl who quickly becomes "follicly challenged". The Eltro Information Rate Changer then provides a drastic pitch change of the "sha-na-na-na" harmonies midway through, which allowed them to achieve this effect without manipulating the actual speed of the tape. Taking a page from the Silhouettes 1957 hit, "Get a Job", there had to be a lot of spoiled takes and laughter in realizing this one. Savagely cutting the elfin doo-wop insanity dead, a spoken word passage takes over briefly before all is resolved in jazz guitar figures, with a final reminder to the girl that any remedies for her condition are futile.
You're too late mama
Ain't nothin' upside your head
No more no more no more no more
Side one closes on a gentle note with "Little Pad". Announced by a snippet of audio verité, the lads break down in giggles while gathered round the mic. Lyrically slight, the melody is sweet. Brian conjures the music of a time before rock and roll. Deftly strummed ukulele (courtesy of brother Carl) anchors this gem, with a wistful feel generated by the vocal. It finishes as one of the best of the pack. You need only listen.
Following the wayward journey of the first half to the run out grooves, you realize that this is nothing like Pet Sounds. Flipping the disc to start the second side causes a quick revision of that revelation. "Good Vibrations" is a stunning creation deserving of every scrap of praise. Nothing short of a master class in studio craft, it represents the genius of Brian Wilson in full bloom. Worth every penny and hour (reportedly 90 hours) invested over six months of work, it is the most recognizable Beach Boys classic.
Yet it doesn't belong here.
This beauty was a worldwide smash roughly a year before it was slated for inclusion on Smiley Smile. Polished and perfect, these vibrations are the antithesis of all that surround it, "Heroes and Villains" being the lone exception. Still ahead of its time, though not part of the author's (then) current head space. As it fades (gloriously), we are guided back to earth. "With Me Tonight" is a chant, held together by those iron clad vocal harmonies. The stripped down, repetitive approach is also evident in "Little Pad" and the closer, "Whistle In". Small wonder that it was Mike Love (and not Brian) who gravitated strongly toward the practice of Transcendental Meditation. These examples are redolent of chanting a mantra, focusing on a particular phrase to achieve a path to inner tranquility. For Brian, it may have been a musically therapeutic way of blocking out the noise of negative voices, keeping them at bay with positive self talk. The homestretch of this beguiling set is placid, with the exception of "Gettin' Hungry". This is by far the most disposable offering. By contrast, "Wonderful" lives up to its title in every respect, worthy of repeated spins.
All things considered, this LP was unfairly written off when it was made available to an unsuspecting public back in September of '67. Expecting another lush extravaganza a la Pet Sounds, disappointment quickly set in as listeners adjusted to these very quiet soundscapes. It is far better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Returning to the conversational marker concerning the "comedy" aspect of Smiley Smile, there are quite a few layers to be found in this cake. From the slide whistle interjections that punctuate "Heroes and Villains" to the “giggling” backing vocals of "Vegetables", having a laugh seems to be the dominant theme throughout. To wit: "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" has the “haw haw” (sounds close to a dog bark) and the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker laugh. "Wind Chimes" sneaks in a subtle accordion ”laugh” at the 1:26 mark. There is also a deliberately "off" delivery of the "ting a ling" lines that are treated with heavy reverberation, which culminates in the ultimate audio prank. Those barely whispered lines as the song winds down move you to gradually increase the volume in an effort to catch everything. BANG! you then get knocked back in your chair as the opening of "Getting' Hungry" crashes in. Priceless. Add to this the “stoned” laughter at the beginning of "Little Pad" and the entirety of "She's Goin' Bald". Let's just say that it's surprising that they didn't plant a loop of Woody Woodpecker laughter to play insistently in the run out groove.
In my woody, I will take you everywhere I go...
Enough said. Time now to revisit your copy of Smiley Smile, if you happen to own one. While listening, know that there is an intelligent design to the madness that unfolds. Wilson didn't retire to his bedroom at this point. He was wide awake, involved and tuning in to a different creative wavelength.