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Release of ‘Smile Sessions’ a momentous event

Date: 12/5/2011

Dec. 5, 2011

By Craig Harris

Special to Reminder Publications

Four-and-a-half decades after the cancellation of what was supposed to be rock’s crowned jewel, the release of “The Smile Sessions” is truly a momentous event.

Available in a variety of formats, from a two CD set to a massive five CD assemblage that includes 139 tracks spread among five CDs, a vinyl double-LP, two 7” singles, a digital version, the originally-intended booklet, and a new collection of writing about the significance of the 45-year-old album, “The Smile Sessions” is a music lover’s dream that’s come true.

Much of, what was-intended to be released, as “Smile,” has long been available to Beach Boys and Brian Wilson enthusiasts. Recorded at the end of the “Pet Sounds” sessions, and a precursor to the more-psychedelic approach of “Smile,” “Good Vibrations” was released as a single, in 1967, and became the Beach Boys’ biggest selling hit. Some of the intended songs (“Wonderful,” “Vegetables,” “Wind Chimes,” and “Heroes & Villains”) were re-recorded (with new lyrics) and featured on the not-so-out-there album, “Smiley Smile,” that the Beach Boys released, in 1967, instead of “Smile.”

Other songs were completely revamped before being released. “Mrs. Leary’s Cow,” which provided the infamous fire segment of “The Element Suite,” became “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony),” while “He Gives Speeches” became “She’s Going Bald.” “Surf’s Up,” the song that Wilson had debuted on a Leonard Bernstein TV special, remained unreleased until being used as the title track of the Beach Boys’ 1971 album.

A rejuvenated Brian Wilson, and his band, re-recorded songs intended for “Smile” and released a new, finished version in 2004. But, with the re-mastering of the original tapes, and the official release of “The Smile Sessions,” which combines the album as it was intended, alternate takes, and track-by-track recordings from the 1966 sessions, all of its predecessors have been deemed obsolete..

A nervous breakdown had prompted him to cease touring with the Beach Boys, but, Wilson was, at 24-years-old, still very cognizant of what he wanted to hear and the ways to get it. If “Pet Sounds” represented a more mature, and musically elaborate step from the surfing and hot rods themes of the Beach Boys’ early-60s top 40 hits, “Smile” was off the map, altogether. As Wilson later described it, it was very much a “teenage symphony to God.”

Beat poet-turned-tunesmith Van Dyke Parks supplied lyrics, bordering on psychedelia, as Wilson broke all the rules that had guided rock and roll since its inception in the 1950s. Rather than relying on three and four chord, guitar-driven grooves, Wilson took his cues more from the world of from classical music – masterfully applying musique concrete techniques while stitching short snippets into a harmony-rich tapestry of sound, interweaving rock, pop, big band, doo-wop, jazz, country, folk, and symphonic music. (A bootleg CD-Rom, released in the early-1990s, allowed these snippets to be re-arranged).

The traditional sounds of guitar are mostly forsaken in lieu of an incredibly varied lineup of non-rock instruments — cello, French horn, harpsichord and theramin. Like a conductor working with an orchestra, Wilson sculpts walls of sound reflective of the members of Phil Spector’s studio band, the Wrecking Crew (who had been working on Beach Boys albums for years). Bassist Carol Kane transforms melodies usually played on guitar, while Hal Blaine goes beyond the typical rock drummer role to explore a wide spectrum of percussive sounds.

The vocal harmonies on which the Beach Boys had built its early success continued to evolve. Park’s words may have seemed surrealistic, but they were delivered by the closely-knit voices of three brothers (Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson), a cousin (Mike Love), Wilson’s high school buddy (Al Jardine), and his touring replacement (Bruce Johnston), and crafted as intricately as the instrumentation. Love may have publicly addressed his dislike for the album, but his singing was as heartwarmingly rich as ever.

Humor abounds throughout the new collection. Comedy skits include a bit about Wilson falling into a piano, and instructing his band-mates to hit specific keys to free him, and another during which Wilson attempts to persuade an irate farmer (played by Blaine) to give him vegetables.

Session tracks show how each song, or instrumental passage, was assembled, providing insight into the meticulous care that went into creating “Smile,” and paying homage to the creative genius that was Wilson at his apex.

Since recovering from a much publicized, decades-long retreat into mental illness and inactivity, in 1988, Wilson has been steadily resuming his music and career. With the release of “In The Key Of Disney,” his second in a two CD deal with Disney Pearl, he takes a step further, using his gifts as a composer and arranger to re-imagine the work of other songwriters. Though considerably tamer than “Smile,” “In The Key Of Disney,” provides proof, as did its jazz chart-topping predecessor (“Brian Wilson Re-imagines Gershwin”), that Wilson’s musical vision remains incredibly strong.

While there are few rockers, on “In The Key Of Disney,” the 12-track album allows plenty of room for Wilson to showcase his ballad singing. A couple tunes hail from Disney’s golden era, including “Baby Mine” (“Dumbo”), “When You Wish Upon A Star” (“Pinocchio”), and “Stay Awake” (“Mary Poppins”), but, most of “In The Key Of Disney” revives songs from more recent films — “Pocohontas” (“Colors Of The Wind”), “Toy Story’” (“You’ve Got A Friend In Me”), “Toy Story 3” (“We Belong Together”), and “The Lion King” (“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and “Just Can’t Wait To Be King”). An instrumental medley of “Heigh Ho,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me),” the theme song of the Disney Park ride, “Pirates Of The Caribbean,” spotlights Wilson’s band.

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