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Music / SMiLE (The Beach Boys)

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The SMiLE Sessions, artwork by Frank Holmes.
Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE.

SMiLE is a legendary "lost album" from The Beach Boys. Planned for a 1967 release as the follow-up to Pet Sounds, it was meant to be a Concept Album, conceptualized as either a "teenage symphony to God," a musical journey through Americana, or both. But due to Brian Wilson's gradual Creator Breakdown, which culminated after listening to Sgt. Pepper, he abandoned the project.

In its place, the deliberately sparsely produced Smiley Smile was released, containing reworked songs and ideas from SMiLE; several ensuing Beach Boys albums would also contain such material. Over the following decades, session material was extensively bootlegged, building the album's legend as the "greatest unreleased album of all time". It wasn't until after the Turn of the Millennium that the public finally got not one, but two versions of this lost masterpiece.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is the sixth studio album by Brian Wilson, released in 2004 through Nonesuch Records. It is an all-new re-imagining of the original project by Wilson, his touring band, and original lyricist Van Dyke Parks (who finally supplied the words to songs that had only existed for decades as instrumentals). In 2011, this was followed by The SMiLE Sessions, a box set compilation released through Capitol Records and derived from the original 1966–67 recordings. Described by Wikipedia as "an approximation of what the completed SMiLE album might have sounded like based on the template established in 2004 for Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE", the latter is as close to what the 1967 release would have been as we're ever likely to get.

Tracklist (The SMiLE Sessions):

LP One

Side One
  1. "Our Prayer" (1:05)
  2. "Gee" (0:51)
  3. "Heroes and Villains" (4:52)
  4. "Do You Like Worms? (Roll Plymouth Rock)" (3:35)
  5. "I'm in Great Shape" (0:28)
  6. "Barnyard" (0:48)
  7. "My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine)" (1:55)
  8. "Cabin Essence" (3:30)

Side Two

  1. "Wonderful" (2:04)
  2. "Look (Song for Children)" (2:31)
  3. "Child Is Father of the Man" (2:10)
  4. "Surf's Up" (4:12)

LP Two

Side Three
  1. "I Wanna Be Around/Workshop" (1:23)
  2. "Vega-Tables" (3:49)
  3. "Holidays" (2:32)
  4. "Wind Chimes" (3:06)
  5. "The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow)" (2:35)
  6. "Love to Say Dada" (2:32)
  7. "Good Vibrations" (4:15)

Side Four (LP-exclusive bonus tracks)

  1. "You're Welcome (Stereo Mix)" (1:08)
  2. "Vega-Tables (Stereo Mix)" (3:49)
  3. "Wind Chimes (Stereo Mix)" (3:06)
  4. "Cabin Essence (Session Highlights And Stereo Backing Track)" (5:17)
  5. "Surf's Up (Session Excerpt And Stereo Mix)" (4:46)

Note: CD releases are across a single disc and comprise only the first three sides

Tracklist (Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE):

LP One:

Movement One: "Americana"
  1. "Our Prayer/Gee" (2:09)
  2. "Heroes and Villains" (4:53)
  3. "Roll Plymouth Rock" (3:48)
  4. "Barnyard" (0:58)
  5. "Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine" (1:55)
  6. "Cabin Essence" (3:27)

Movement Two: "Cycle of Life"

  1. "Wonderful" (2:07)
  2. "Song for Children" (2:16)
  3. "Child Is Father of the Man" (2:18)
  4. "Surf's Up" (4:07)

LP Two:

Movement Three: "The Elements"
  1. "I'm in Great Shape/I Wanna Be Around/Workshop" (1:56)
  2. "Vega-Tables" (2:19)
  3. "On a Holiday" (2:36)
  4. "Wind Chimes" (2:54)
  5. "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (2:27)
  6. "In Blue Hawaii" (3:00)
  7. "Good Vibrations" (4:36)

Side Four (Instrumental Bonus Tracks)

  1. "Heroes and Villains (Instrumental)" (4:46)
  2. "Cabin Essence (Instrumental)" (3:27)
  3. "On a Holiday (Instrumental)" (2:36)
  4. "Wind Chimes (Instrumental)" (2:54)

Note: CD releases are across a single disc and comprise only the first three sides

Principal Members (The SMiLE Sessions):

Look (Tropes for Children):

  • Age-Progression Song: The entire second movement details in an abstract fashion the hardships of growth, noting its cyclic nature and ending in "Surf's Up" as a symbolic manifestation of renewal and catharsis through understanding of the beauty and importance of childhood as constant hope and happiness.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Child, Child, Child, Father of the Man..."
    • "Nananana Na... Nana Naaaaa..."
    • "Roooock, Roooock, Rooooll..."
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Hawaiian lyrics in "Roll Plymouth Rock", depending on whom you ask, are either complete gibberish (which at least fits the rhythm) or a message from Brian that got garbled thanks to his not being a native speaker.
  • Baroque Pop: Definitely Brian's heaviest foray into the baroque, awash with Bach influences. Fittingly, one of the prominent instruments is the harpsichord, one of the most emblematic instruments of the baroque period.
    • However, the final result ends up sounding little like Bach and more akin to a barrage of Americana, neo-classical, pop and musique concrète seen by a kaleidoscope doo-wop filter.
    • Brian Wilson himself mentions that George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was a major influence in his music and it shows in some of the tracks, most notably "Heroes and Villains".
  • Book Ends: Well, almost; BWPS begins with "Our Prayer", a short snippet of which also serves as a lead-in to "Good Vibrations" (officially the ending of the preceding track, "In Blue Hawaii", a.k.a. "Love to Say Dada").
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Brian in "Vega-Tables" directly invites the listener to send the Beach Boys in their letter telling them the name of the listener's vegetable.
  • Genre-Busting: The album defies pigeon-holing. Not only does the whole thing sound nothing like any music that came before or after, each individual song sounds wildly different from the one that came before it.
    • Just to give an idea of this variety, the first three subsections (talking about the songs doesn't really demonstrate its cyclical and interconnected nature) of its first movement (and that comprise only the first seven minutes of the album) are:
      • "Our Prayer", a hymn / prayer sung in the style of classical music choirs;
      • "Gee", a cover of a doo-wop song by The Crows;
      • "Heroes And Villains", a nearly indescribable mix of faux-opera, symphonic arrangements, Gershwin, Spector, Americana folk , comedy songs, doo-wop, scatting and many others contextualized in an old-timey cowboys and indians setting.
  • Genre Roulette: Categorizing the album is a trying task, and make no mistake - it defies explanation. Some songs even switch styles midway, such as the a cappella opener "Our Prayer" transitioning into a brief rendition of the doo-wop standard "Gee".
    • To give further examples of this roulette of influences: "Cabinessece" sounds like an Americana pocket pop symphony, "Vega-Tables" like a comedic DIY Doo-wop "sketch" that takes the idea of musique concrète literally, "The Elements:Fire" resembles a repetitive acid Disney nightmare, the second movement a minimalist baroque song-cycle, etc...
    • Entirely deliberate on Wilson's part, as he wanted each segment of the album to have a distinct sound. He went to the extent of using different recording studios for different segments to give them distinct sonic characteristics. The process of compiling the album has been compared to film editing both by Carl Wilson and archivist Alan Boyle, and can be compared to "dangling clauses" in a film where an unresolved action in one segment is picked up and pursued later in the film, and in which each segment has unresolved issues until the denouement. Another consequence is that the tracks on the album, mostly lacking traditional song structures, also lack clearly defined beginnings and endings, as explained below under Siamese Twin Songs.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is divided across three independent movements, dubbed "Americana," "Cycle of Life," and "The Elements," and is so dedicated to the idea that LP releases of both it and the SMiLE Sessions reconstruction dedicate one side to each movement, even though both versions of the album are short enough to fit on one LP just fine. Consequently, both versions dedicate side four on LP copies to bonus tracks.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: Played With. The album opens with the band's singing, but they're not singing any lyrics.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Several songs on both versions of the album are under two minutes long.
    • Epic Rocking: On the other hand, they're not really songs in the proper sense. The album could just as easily be considered a single composition with three discrete movements, which respectively last for 16:06, 10:43, and 19:25.
  • New Sound Album: After the moody Baroque Pop of Pet Sounds comes this Genre Roulette.
  • One-Word Title: "SMiLE", "Gee", "Wonderful" and "Holidays".
  • Progressive Rock: While not generally considered to be an example itself, it's clearly an important precursor to the genre, even bearing in mind that Wilson's intended sequence for the album wasn't released until 2004, and it shares several important traits of the genre (lengthy, concept-based compositions that blend disparate musical genres, feature recurring motifs, and completely throw traditional verse-chorus-bridge song structure out the window as a few examples). Regardless, several tracks ("Surf's Up", "Good Vibrations", "Heroes and Villains") were officially available long before the official release of the album, and their influence on progressive rock is fairly undeniable - not to mention that fan-created bootlegs of Smile material had been available decades before the official releases. Had the album been released in 1967, it's possible that critics would now tend to think of it as the genre's launching point instead of In the Court of the Crimson King. (Prog historians Hegarty and Halliwell do consider the Beach Boys an early example of a prog rock band, presumably largely on the strength of this material and Pet Sounds.)
  • Recurring Riff: A harpsichord rendition of the chorus of "Heroes and Villains" appears at several points in the first "movement." The harpsichord riff from "Wonderful" also reappears, usually on piano, throughout the second movement.
    • Some Hawaiian-esque chanting from "Roll Plymouth Rock" reappears, for no apparent reason, in the bridge of "Vega-Tables".
      • Heck, most of the album can be seen as a varying scale of simple to obscure variations on the bicycle rider theme.
    • "Song for Children" gets a very brief reprise at the end of "Good Vibrations".
  • Recycled Lyrics: The bridge in "Vega-Tables" would eventually become its own song: "Mama Says" on the album Wild Honey.
  • Scatting: "Our Prayer", which also gets a brief reprise right before "Good Vibrations".
  • Shout-Out: Several.
    • "Surf's Up" alone has references to the French nursery rhyme "Frère Jacques" ("Brother John"), the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Pit and the Pendulum", and the Robert Burns poem "Auld Lang Syne".
    • The alternate title of "Fire", "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", references the famous story that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was started when a cow owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary kicked over a lantern in their barn (the fire did in fact start in the vicinity of the O'Leary barn, but the cow story was made up by a newspaper reporter).
  • Siamese Twin Songs: Despite the large number of tracks listed above, most of them are more like movements of longer compositions. The album itself is divided into three "chapters" and while there are a couple of gaps within them (in particular, "Good Vibrations" is separated from the rest of the album, though it's not quite a complete fade-out), most sections of music run continuously for around ten to sixteen (or twenty, depending on whether you count "Good Vibrations" as a separate section) minutes. The only complete fade-outs are between "Cabinessence" and "Wonderful" and then between "Surf's Up" and "I Wanna Be Around" or "I'm in Great Shape". Compounding this effect are the fact that most parts of the album lack clearly defined song structures, meaning that songs' beginnings and endings are ambiguous, and Wilson employed an unusual production technique of recording short segments several times, often at different studios, and then splicing his favourite takes together in a technique his bandmate and brother Carl Wilson compared to film editing. This resulted in each segment having a distinct sonic profile rather than the consistent sound typical to recordings of the era, and it was actually extremely groundbreaking in its time; similar techniques would later be employed by, amongst others, Pink Floyd on The Dark Side of the Moon and Yes on Close to the Edge.
  • Special Guest: One of the guys chomping celery in "Vega-Tables" is apparently an uncredited Paul McCartney.
  • Ur-Example: A contender for several aspects of popular music, including Progressive Rock and sampling.
  • The Wild West: "Heroes And Villains" goes from romanticized visions of the Old West to acknowledgement that real life back then was pretty shit.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Some of Van Dyke Parks' word choices border on this ("Over and over the thresher and hover the wheat field", "Columnated ruins domino"). This was one of the reasons Mike Love could never quite get on board with the SMiLE project — he thought it was falling into True Art Is Incomprehensible.

Alternative Title(s): Smile, Brian Wilson Presents Smile, The Smile Sessions