CD Review: Brian Wilson’s “SMiLE”

RATING:  5 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

SMiLE has arrived!

This was the general battle cry that my closest friends and I sounded after we heard official reports of the scheduled 2004 release of an album that had originally been conceived nearly four decades earlier. Billed as “the abandoned follow-up to the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds,” SMiLE was indeed released in 2004, accompanied by a tour that left nothing to be desired. Short of going back in time and releasing a SMiLE that would have been fronted by Carl and Dennis Wilson and would have gone up against the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brian Wilson could do little more to truly do this album—his album—justice.

To critique the songs or to analyze them at any length would be, for me (the amateur critic), an exercise in misconceived self-importance. This is an album that has been elected Album of the Year by Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today. According to one advertisement, “…it has been declared a ‘masterpiece’ by Newsweek, and ‘a serious contender for the greatest album ever made’ by London’s The Independent.” Widespread acceptance and acclamation of this caliber must be taken seriously and, to an extent, must be questioned. Can one album be so wonderful as to deserve such accolades? Can the fact that SMiLE holds a historical importance have colored the reviews that it is receiving? I hesitate to heap additional praises on the album for this reason, as well as the fact that I have little to add that has not already been said.

This being said, I must heap additional—yet not undue—praises upon this album and the tour that accompanied it. I attended the SMiLE concert at Carnegie Hall and again when it came to my hometown of Wallingford, at the Oakdale (reluctantly I now say, Chevrolet) Theater. Additionally, I watched the DVD release that was filmed during a concert in Los Angeles. This is a body of work that I am well familiar with. This is the Brian Wilson who earned his fame leading the Beach Boys during their surfer music days. This is the Brian Wilson who paved the way for songwriters everywhere with the conception and creation of Pet Sounds. And this is the Brian Wilson who continued to create music, ranging from mediocre to incredible, both for better (think: Imagination) and for worse, remaining in relative anonymity for all these years. This is indeed the Brian Wilson who deserves all the credit in the world for reaching back into an “abandoned” project, pushing aside personal demons—both figurative and literal, and injecting new energy into what is essentially a forty-year old concept.

This is the most and the best I can say for SMiLE: it is not a wanna-be Beach Boys album. It is not a simple re-recording of demos and snippets that fans have been listening to for decades. This is an album that stands on its own, interweaving the old and the new, bringing the old voices—Van Dyke Parks’ pen and Brian Wilson’s mouth—together with the new voices—Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko of the Wondermints and eight other talented musicians and singers, not to mention the eight-piece Stockholm Strings ‘n’ Horns section that followed him on tour.

The album is a three-part composition. The songs range from light-hearted and even silly (think: “Vega-Tables”) to poetic (think: “Surf’s Up”) to vocally brilliant (think: “Our Prayer”) and sometimes all in the same track (think: “In Blue Hawaii”). I was particularly impressed by the manner in which Wilson utilized the Beach Boys hits “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” as book ends for this album.

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. And you might even smile.


This is one in a series of acoustic cover songs, original music, and free mp3 downloads here on the Laptop Sessions Music Video Blog.

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