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Brian Wilson
Nonesuch Records

I understand the temptation to claim that Smile is the greatest Brian Wilson project ever. I know that my contemporaries are busy putting this opinion forth in publications, on television and radio, on the internet, and in just about every media outlet possible. I can understand the allure of the project that finally comes to fruition after 37 years of being a mere idea, crushed at one time by greedy record company executives and the rash, somewhat mad behavior of a young Mr. Wilson. But seriously, to say that Smile is greater than Pet Sounds is a bit absurd to me. And even to claim that Pet Sounds is the greatest moment of The Beach Boys time together is, to me, an absurdity in itself. There were moments of brilliance and joyous innocence in early Beach Boys records that far outweighed the artistic endeavors of Pet Sounds. And so, I submit my own review of Smile, and brace up for the hate mail to come rolling in.

Upon first listen to Smile, I was caught up in the opinion that the album was basicly a sixteen song lead up to a fantastic re-recording of "Good Vibrations". Subsequent listens to the record have made me realize the error of my initial impression, and opened up a bit more of the realities of the music to my ears. The record is allegedly broken up into three parts, or movements, which is supposed to make the listener believe that he is listening to some sort of symphony. The overall vibe of the album is most definitely symphonic, and the orchestrations are wonderful. But, as has always been the case with Mr. Wilson, the vocals and harmony vocals are where his music really attains its luster. Throughout the album, the vocals are amazing, blending beautifully in tremendous harmonies at times, and standing as stark figures amidst the lush arrangements at other times. Without a doubt, the evolution of recording techniques and studio technology has made this project a reality. The production is clean, the tones filled with life and a subtle candor; every part from the string orchestras all the way down to the crunchy celery of "Vega-Tables".

Overall, the feeling of the album to me (after quite a few additional listens) is that there are a few real songs connected by some interesting sonic fragments, that for all intents and purposes sound more to me like commercial jingles than whole songs. All that said, there are some fine songs contained on Smile. "Heroes And Villains" is the highlight of the first movement, seeming the only coherent "pop" song amongst the first 6 tunes. The second movement contains the very 60's hippy movement sound of "Child Is the Father Of The Man", and resolves itself very nicely on the comfortable Beach Boys vibe of "Surf's Up". And this is where Brian Wilson still excels. "Surf's Up" is the first real glimpse of the young man that we all listened to growing up. From the perfect vocal harmonies to the lyrical content and cadence, this is almost pure Beach Boys heaven. The only thing missing is the guitar work that served as such an important undercurrent in those old recordings.

The third movement of the record has a few shining moments, among them the aforementioned "Vega-Tables", with its celery crunching and clever wordplay. And the heavy, menacing piano of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", which leads into the abstract and insane circus music that makes for the most challenging and inscrutable moment on the entire record. It all wraps up nicely into an amazing and well-worth-the-wait rendition of the classic "Good Vibrations", which has more vitality and depth than the original recording.

So, in closing, the other points I would care to make are these: First, Smile is filled with Sgt. Pepper's era Beatles style vibes. Not a bad thing in itself, but a bit more derivative than I would expect after all these years. Second, moments of Roger Water's Pink Floyd are definitely present ("In Blue Hawaii"). Which is kind of weird, but definitely cool, all at once. Third, there is a lack of the cool sounds and grooves that Van Dyke Parks lent to the previous solo recordings of Brian Wilson. It seems that Mr. Wilson has instead striven to maintain the sounds and attitudes that he would have had, had this project actually come to fruition in the 1960's, as originally planned. And that is one thing that I can most certainly commend him on. If you were to play this recording after listening to the succession of Beach Boys' records leading up to and including Pet Sounds, and then play Smile directly after, I think you would definitely get the sense of continuity among the music. And for that, Mr. Wilson, I applaud you.

-Embo Blake

Track Listing:

1. Our Prayer/Gee
2. Heroes And Villains
3. Roll Plymouth rock
4. Barnyard
5. Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine
6. Cabin Essence
7. Wonderful
8. Song For Children
9. Child Is The Father Of Man
10. Surf's Up
11. I'm In Great Shape/ I Wanna Be Around/ Workshop
12. Vega-Tables
13. On A Holiday
14. Wind Chimes
15. Mrs. O'Leary's Cow
16. In Blue Hawaii
17. Good Vibrations

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