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November 2004 Pick of the Month

Smile
Artist: Brian Wilson
Label: Nonesuch
Length: 17 tracks

In the Neil Young live album Rust Never Sleeps, a familiar line states, "it's better to burn out than to fade away." There certainly seems to be valid reason to support this idea: Stevie Wonder, the Who, R.E.M (via its latest release), and, ironically, the current line up of "the Beach Boys" (playing at the local casino). All these feature acts seem to go on too long. Careers that once blossomed and produced some of the best music ever recorded can't seem to outplay our town's local band. Fortunately, this rule isn't a strict law--at least no one can say it anymore. Ladies and gentlemen, I may or may not be the first to say it, but Brian Wilson's Smile is quite possibly the greatest album in the history of rock and roll, 37 years after Brian Wilson's masterpiece Pet Sounds and his nervous breakdown which relegated Smile to status of urban legend and an idealized notion that the U.S. could produce anything better than Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Well, it finally has.

Now that I've made that bombshell claim, I'll try to back it up. The two best albums in the history of rock music are the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds . . . First, compare Brian Wilson's Smile to Pet Sounds_ In comparison, it becomes boring, slow, and lacking in creativity. Sgt. Pepper (which, keep in mind, would've been released post-Smile)? Smile makes that album claimed as the greatest album of all time (and rightly so!) look like it needs more emotion, lacking in a singular and cohesive focus. This recording simply supercedes the studio trickery of Pet Sounds and surpasses Sgt. Pepper in that album's ability to form a concept album of songs interwoven to make a masterpiece which flows perfectly from beginning to end. Quite frankly, Sgt. Pepper seems to have been less original than it seemed at the time after experiencing Smile.

But enough of the history lesson; let's get down to details. At the start of the album we have "Our Prayer/Gee." As the trademark Beach Boys harmonies come across the speakers, the listener begins to feel that maybe this is just Brian Wilson with non-Beach Boys making an album that sounds like the Beach Boys. Well, enjoy the simple beginning and get ready for that simplicity to go out the window. "Heroes and Villains" comes out of the speakers, and all sorts of noises, harmonies, and instruments you can't pronounce are collide from every direction, and somehow--even impossibly--it's beautiful. Tears may even come to listeners' eyes. They did for me. "Plymouth Rock" then features the line that'll be with the audience all week, "Rock rock roll, Plymouth rock roll over" is repeated with the last noted stretched upward. This line is perhaps the most ingenious yet simple line that's been written in 30 years.

My vocabulary will run out of steam trying to describe the way the remainder of this work of art unfolds. But the basics is that there are really three "movements," if you will, which make up the whole, consisting of songs which mesh together in ways which simply getting several of these songs scattered throughout Beach Boys releases and demo outtakes will not give them their due credit. "The whole is better than the sum of their parts" is the cliché we're looking for. But all of this builds up to the track that will draw the listener's eye while looking down the track list: "Good Vibrations." This contains the first questioning of what we're hearing. Because I will admit that if we listen to the original version of this song released on the album Smiley Smile and take this song by itself, the cynical voice comes out that an old Brian Wilson plus a collection of talented musicians is good, but it doesn't add up to a fresher Wilson plus a crew of classic Beach Boys vocalists. This concern is a valid one. However, it's only when hearing this "Good Vibrations" with the whole of _Smile_ is it clear that it takes away a percent of a percent of the difference of the album. The modern day studios help rather than hinder the album, and as the conclusion of the whole, it's the best damn "Good Vibrations" you've ever heard.

So in conclusion, no, it doesn't make sense. The happy, bright cover art sitting in the local record store looks as out of place now as the Wilson brothers feeding zoo animals on the Pet Sounds cover looked in 1966. And it seems to come there humbly as the music. The irony of it all is how un-serious the album takes itself amidst its genius. The lyrics are pleasantly funny, and one can see Brian Wilson laughing as his masterpiece which drove him the point of nervous breakdown 37 years ago is finally teaching a whole new generation how to smile.

Matthew Kilgore  10/11/2004


 
 
 

 

   
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