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5.0 out of 5 stars Why Brian Wilson "failed" with SMILE, November 5, 2011
This review is from: The Smile Sessions Box Set (Audio CD)
Beautiful, inspirational, wacky, avante garde, often accessible, sometimes inaccessible, incredibly creative, like nothing you've ever heard, and even for a long-time Smile fanatic, there were endless sessions and material I had never heard before. I feel I finally understand SMILE thoroughly, and I offer four basic conclusions:

1) Brian was not only way before his time, he was way before technology's time. His modular approach to songwriting was an entirely new form of composition in pop music, and while he had SMILE in his head -- and probably multiple versions of SMILE in there at the same time -- the llimited technology of the day (small number of tracks on tape recorders, editing done by razor and tape, etc.) quite simply made his task IMPOSSIBLE. That he was able to piece together "Good Vibrations," "Cabinessence," the released version of "Heroes and Villains," and some other snippets is amazing enough. But to have expected him to release a 50- to 60-minute album with literally thousands of musical fragments and overdubs all managing to hold together as a musical whole would have been beyond the capability of ANYBODY in the decades before computers, digital editing, and other technological advances. Especially when all the time Capitol wanted more hit singles. SMILE was not about hit singles -- it was about a brilliant conceptual whole unlike any recording ever made in history.

2) There was never a SMILE that Brian's 2004 version can be compared to. It was a work-in-progress whose very nature allowed it to be shuffled and rearranged into an infinite variety of presentations. Had Brian finished SMILE in 1967, that would have been just one possible version of his music. So regarding claims that the original differed from the 2004 rendition because the bass sounded different or the strings sounded different, or anything like that just doesn't hold water. Not even cool, cool, water. Why? Because as a listen to the SMILE sessions reveals, Brian was changing sounds constantly. There's no way to know what a 1967-released version would have even sounded like. Brian might have totally redone "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes" and other parts that listeners today think are "perfect," and those might have been replaced by very different arrangements/performances. It's obvious that SMILE was a living, breathing thing that hadn't coalesced into any kind of final presentation. Had Brian released SMILE in 1967, you might be listening to the SMILE sessions now, but instead of loving them, you'd be feeling thankful that Brian didn't go with many of the takes and approaches you've loved all these years, simply because you would have already accepted some "other" version that had met Brian's approval at the time.

3) Because of #2 (above), Brian's 2004 rendition of SMILE is the ONLY legitimate version of SMILE. And it's a five-star version, so put it on and enjoy it!

4) After steeping myself in the 1966-1967 fragments from this box-set and then revisiting the 2004 recording, I have come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks the 21st century version is a letdown is NUTS! Brian's faithfulness to the sound of the original tracks, his compositions, and the melodic and structural flow is incredible down to the finest detail. As glorious as I felt his 2004 version was when I first heard it, I now see it as even more of a masterwork. Not only is it one of the most amazing albums ever released, the reconstruction that was done to keep it as faithful to the original also makes it one of the greatest re-recordings in history.

I hope this is the last word on SMILE. Maybe soon Brian will revisit his modular songwriting approach and come up with some other brilliant works along those same lines. He came close with "Rio Grande," done many years after he was supposed to be all washed-up.

Buy the new archival release, listen to it, and appreciate the fact that Brian Wilson was probably not defeated by the drugs, or the arcane lyrics, or The Beach Boys, or anything else other than the fact that he chose to produce an epic of such detail and perfection that was beyond the ability of any living musician or engineer or producer on the planet at the time due to the scope of the project and the technological limitations within which he was forced to operate. Brian was like a man with a single-lensed camera trying to film a 3-D movie. It just wasn't going to be possible to complete a work of such incomparable brilliance and creativity given the music studio equipment of the 1960s. Not without leaning dangerously close to insanity. After all, "Good Vibrations" took six months or more all on its own.

I hope the legacy of this incredible release is that Brian attempted to touch the Sun, but NOBODY could have touched the Sun. However, Brian probably got closer than anyone else in pop music history.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 16 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 5, 2011 5:44:54 PM PDT
smurdge says:
I think you've hit it! Great review all around!!!

I love this set, but nothing can compare to the first time I heard the 2004 BWPS. The fact that after all the insecurity, opposition, and tragedy, Brian (and company) managed to produce such an inspiring, beautiful, masterwork, and to remain so true to his original vision and to himself is enough to restore one's faith in whatever one once had faith in.

Posted on Nov 6, 2011 1:03:18 AM PST
Jon Peckman says:
Right on. Well said. I concur.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 6, 2011 1:24:46 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 6, 2011 1:25:18 PM PST
Wow. Teriffic review. I don't think anyone could dare add to or expound on it.

Truly THE last word on "Smile".

Posted on Nov 7, 2011 9:17:18 PM PST
Brilliant. Well done.

Posted on Nov 9, 2011 4:58:27 AM PST
Paul '66 says:
Thank you for the eloquent and accurate description of the whole Smile episode. I have waited decades for a release of this hallowed material in such a respectful and lucid form, and to my astonishment it has finally happened. Truly, this is timeless music, and Brian Wilson has thrown off the albatross for all eternity and can bask in the glow of his accomplishment. As good as the 2004 version was, here we have closure.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 11, 2011 1:23:25 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Nov 11, 2011 1:44:27 PM PST]

Posted on Nov 11, 2011 1:44:16 PM PST
Yes, I think you hit it dead on.

There is a point as a designer where the scope of the creation is so complex, it exceeds the ability to hold it completely in your head, this style of production is tantamount to recording symphony one measure at a time, yes, its possible, but it takes someone who is in the 1/10th of 1% level. This combined with the technical limitations (4 and 8 track recorders, versus 32+ tracks now common).

Still, its pretty mindblowing, I think this could have changed the world had it come out at the time.

Posted on Nov 16, 2011 1:31:10 PM PST
S. Bottino says:
Record Producer (I certainly would love to know your name, I get the feeling you've worked with Brian!)...You are "Right On!" with your review...I too think the 2004 Smile is the most concise version and very honorable, true (choose a word, maybe it's "faithful", etc.) to the original sound. And the BOTTOM LINE is that-you're right again-Wilson was experimenting forever with the tracks in 1966/ there's no real way to know what a complete Smile would have sounded like. we have 1) A product for Capitol to market...a good one, but a product. 2) A document of the sessions that does reveal interesting tidbits. 3)The unique things that this original Smile has going for it is, you DO hear the Beach Boys voices on parts of it AND, IMHO, it's a little "weirder and darker" sounding than the 2004 version. Yes, (as Brian asks the Boys during "Our Prayer") "Are you feeling the acid yet?"...I believe I am...

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2011 1:42:21 PM PST
No, I have never worked with Brian, although I've met him on a number of occasions, although always as a "fan." But I got into the music business in large part because of the inspiration he provided through his talents. You are right about the "darker" aspects of some of the music, but whether this would have made it into the final mix of the "original" SMILE isn't known.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2011 4:39:10 PM PST
Excellent review Record Producer! I've been a Beach Boys fan since 1985 when I saw a special on them on HBO around that time (The Beach Boys - An American Band ?). Since then I've been waiting for the "SMiLE" album to be released, 18 year's less than most fan's. When it comes to "weirder and darker" I'm surprised at how upbeat and cheerful "Wind Chimes" sounds here compared to the "Smiley Smile" version released later in 1967. One thing I can add to your review, correct me if I'm wrong is this is the first time ( I think) that a box set has been released with demo's and extra track's to an album that was never released unlike "Pet Sounds" and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon". The only other thing I can add to your review for the "SMiLE" release is my opinion and that is this.... :-)
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