Lit and Crit:
REVIEW: Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004)
Sure, he wrote it. But, after falling in love with The Beach Boy's 1967 version of SMiLE in all its multifaceted glory, would the 2004 Brian Wilson version stack up?
Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (2004) - Review
by Kevin Salveson
Oh God, this is good. What else can you say? He nailed it. Everything you like about Smile 1967 was preserved, basically, and there was some new stuff never heard before. Who could ask for more?
For example, Brian Wilson managed to capture the same exact studio sound he was working with in 1967. What kind of a savant pretends he doesn't remember much about all that old Smile stuff to deflect the emotional toll of confronting it, but then remembers every single knob twist on every single board at every single studio he worked at back then, especially the studio at Western Sound? Brian Wilson, that's who.
I mean, how can you explain his ability to capture the out of tune piano, the short reverb on the clarinet and the rising feedback delay on I'm In Great Shape in such a way that it is a mirror image of the version he did in 1967? You have to get the knobs just right, with the right EQ warmpth to make it sound like a reel to reel tape machine doing the recording through a solid state board at Western Sound. But Western Sound is gone! That slap-back reverb which sounds like it is bouncing around an actual series of smaller and smaller chambers? (Yes, that was indeed how they did it back then). It's there, perfectly. Except this time it isn't an overdubbed vocal edit, and there's more lyrics, and it starts with a short prelude which is a reprise of Heroes and Villians!? Ok, now I have to go get a cleenex to dab at my eyes and clean up some of this blown mind all over the place. That is our beautiful dreamer of a savant, ladies and gentleman... the fingers always know where the knobs go; the child inside guards against revealing it.
But here it is, revealed. And if you can't dig and smile at the extra Van Dyke Parks lyrics that show up on the marimba bridge in Holidays you shouldn't have a mouth. Why, it's "a ukelele lady rondelay", for crissakes! That's a whole steamer trunk of assonance!
Here's more: "Abash and forth a starboard course
With north abeam, sherry of course
The men will share some sport and now me hearty
Not the rum of Carib' scum
It's port tonight - drink up and come
Un-weigh the anchor Yank and we will party!"
Oh yeah, I wanna party with you, Van Dyke cowboy! Why? He's fun to be around, linguistically speaking. Let's unpack the wordplay here for a moment: "abash and forth" = back and forth, and abash = abashed as in shame, therefore, abandon your shame and set forth (sailors, when they leave port, are said to put forth). "north abeam" = the beam being a main wooden plank holding the ship together, a beam of light, and a joke regarding Jim Beam whiskey ("Sherry of course"). There is a reference to the north star, which sailors use to guide their way, and there is the course/course rhyme including the fact that course things are also rough. Port, of course, being both a sweet liquer as well as a place to dock boats also appears in the word "sport" which the men enjoy. Lastly, an American Yankee might "yank" the anchor up preparing for sea though that is in fact called "weighing" the anchor. So the puns include one about weight (an achor being weighed to start a voyage may seem suddenly light when pulled up dangling from the chain) as well as perhaps referring to un-burdening yourself personally speaking so you can party with these fun beach loving pirates depicted in the song.
And that was unpacking just one little bridge of the song! As they love to say in the movie The Squid and The Whale, "it's very dense material."
Wilson then manages to throw an echo of the chorus for Roll Plymouth Rock (Do You Like Worms?) over the top of the Holidays second verse and then whips up a whispering wind Windchimes reprise for the tag. (Similar to the Ultra SMiLE '67 configuration, which obviously borrowed from Smile 2004 in terms of understanding where to place reprises and multiple versions of songs. Still, Ultra Smile '67 does eventually use 6 different Windchimes sections culled from the archives in three different sections). What was once considered a small throwaway idea on Smiley Smile was in fact one of the main bass chord progressions Wilson was fooling with back then and it shows all over the place as a repeating theme in Ultra Smile '67 including the bassline for Been Way Too Long, for example. The up and down movement of the melody and bassline are both form and function-- the idea was that American history was also a repeating cycle, almost like a cycle of notes up and down the scale.
Is Wilson's Smile 2004 better than Smile as done by the Beach Boys in 1967. In a lot of ways, you'd have to say yes. Not only does the master of the studio recreate and capture the warm tones of the originals but he makes them more detailed, adds flourishes, and shows that his understanding and conception of the work as the author of it was indeed more rich and --dare I say-- superior to whatever bootlegs and recreations could offer.
Those who feel the work now exists beyond him --and every artists work does, once given freely to the world-- still had no idea that there were extra lyrics all over the place just waiting to be used such as "I could really use a drop to drink" over the top of the water chant. (Funny, the Ultra Smile '67 had been using an excerpt from Getting Hungry about "the sun can get so hot it can sweat your soul away..." etc which was the approximate concept in their early mock-ups even before the 2004 release. Somethings just make sense and most if not all of the ideas on Smiley Smile were really conceived during the Smile era proper, so there you go).
Perhaps Ultra Smile '67 does things a little different, and adds some complexity and breadth, and the 2011 Capitol boxset adds all the stuff up (or most of it) but really...nothing betters Wilson's 2004 version. It is a refreshing and rewarding listen. Sure, some don't like its somewhat less than Beach Boys exeuberance and Wilson's singing has been heartfelt but challenged since he lost his falsetto to smoking and adulthood in the early 70s, but I like the warm but clean sound. If you are used to listening to the bootlegs it is almost too clean, but what do you want them to do... add tape hiss noise all over it for authenticity? Clean is nice, the fidelity is fantastic but it still captures that warmpth of the Wilson sons in all their glory even if it was done by an amalgam of old and new.