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.


The Weekend Review: November 2011

By Chris Moore:

The SMiLE Sessions (The Beach Boys)

Producer: Brian Wilson, Mark Linett, Alan Boyd, and Dennis Wolfe

Released: November 1, 2011

Rating: 5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Surf’s Up” & “Our Prayer ‘Dialog’”

I’ll keep this one brief, as there’s already been so, so, so much written about SMiLE, that infamous, legendary album that almost was, then wasn’t, then in 2004 pretty much was, and finally in 2011 finally is.  Well, it “is” in the best, closest manner it could ever have been, as The SMiLE Sessions are compiled from what Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys managed to finish before it all fell apart, nothing new added.  So, the Sessions lack the polish and finality of 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents… SMiLE!, afforded it by modern recording equipment and, no less significantly, Wilson’s healthier state of mind.  Inversely, the 2004 version lacked the spark, the elusive x factor presented by the Beach Boys’ voices.  When blended, there simply has never been another group quite like Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston.  Accordingly, I would first recommend you hear Pet Sounds (1966).  If you’ve already heard that, you might be ready for SMiLE.  If you are, judge the version of the Sessions you’ll buy relative to how hardcore a fan you are (I had to go for the full 5-disc boxset, but you might not).  If you’re not, try out Sunflower (1970) or The Beach Boys Today! (1965) first.  But don’t forget to make it back to the greatest album that never was.  And also don’t forget to check back for more Beach Boys cover songs here on the music blog!


Camp (Childish Gambino)

Producer: Donald Glover & Ludwig Goransson

Released: November 15, 2011

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Fire Fly” & “Hold You Down”

Camp is an imperfect album, with flares of talent and inspiration tempered with stretches of less notable work.  Being that this is Childish Gambino’s first studio album proper, this is all to be expected, particularly of an up and coming talent, and there is much evidence here to suggest that he is.  His attitude toward achieving success, especially in light of past experiences being ignored by girls and others, is explored across multiple tracks, the best of which is “Fire Fly,” truly the standout track for its incisive catchiness.  Childish Gambino has all the necessary bravado, as well as a unique personality and willingness to let his guard down; although I’ve heard it argued that his beats are derivative (I’m far from an authority on this front), his lyrics have an interesting blend between those typical of contemporary rap and those drastically different from the normal.

The BEST REMASTERS / REISSUES of 2011 (The Year-End Review Awards)

By Chris Moore:

This year, I didn’t listen to all that many remasters or reissues.  Pink Floyd re-released all their albums in one intimidating batch.  Had it been one at a time, I might have tried one.  Nearly every week, there have been remasters or reissues on the new release rack at Newbury Comics.  And yet, at year’s end, I am left with only one in mind that carries any weight with me:  The Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions box set.

This is – finally, officially – the closest we’ll ever come to hearing what SMiLE would have sounded like, had it been released in context over four decades ago.  Brian Wilson’s 2004 take on SMiLE turns out to be, as expected, a close approximation and, in some ways, a more complete version.  That is the most heartbreaking aspect of this box set: there are parts missing, instrumentation with unfinished vocals, and a general sense of genius abandoned.  This being said, The SMiLE Sessions present a gorgeous, expansive vision that may well have been yet another game changer in a series of re-visionings then taking place, led largely by the Beatles.

We’ll never know how much of an impact this album would have had, or how great a success it would (or wouldn’t) have been.  What we can do is marvel at the beauty of Brian Wilson’s vision and the Beach Boys’ remarkable vocal soundscapes.  (The deluxe box set may only be for the diehard fan, but believe me, it’s well worth it if you consider yourself to be anything approaching diehard!)

1) The SMiLE Sessions – The Beach Boys



“Brian Wilson” (Barenaked Ladies cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome to your Friday edition of The Laptop Sessions acoustic cover songs music video blog! After two strong Sessions from Chris and Jeff, I’m glad I can follow up with a song that I’ve been playing for a long time now, Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”.

This song is very important to me, as it was the song that initially got me into BNL because a friend played it for me thinking I would like the Brian Wilson references. Of course, I did. But, I loved the song, too.

I now own all of BNL’s albums, have met them and got them to sign their latest (and greatest) album, and they are now my second favorite band of all time behind the Beach Boys at a permanent #1 spot.

I love the way Masters of the Universe did this song- I had the privilege of singing lead on their version. We did five part harmonies on the chorus. There’s a live version of it here on YouTube:

So, you have a song by my second favorite band ABOUT my favorite ever songwriter! Doesn’t get much better than that.

So, here’s my solo acoustic version- I could play this one with my eyes closed, so the performance is very smooth and comfortable, if I do say so myself! 😉

Let me tell you why I love Barenaked Ladies (the band, of course), the Beach Boys, the Moody Blues, the Byrds, and bands like that so much more than I like the Wallflowers, Ben Folds, and Dylan. I love all of their music, but I gravitate towards the first set of bands. You see, I love bands where every band member gets a chance to contribute.  Many bands only have one front man and the rest are just background guys.  Take “Matchbox Twenty” for example.  Rob Thomas is the lead.  Now, someone name another band member.  That’s right- Thomas IS the band!  Sure, there are other guys that play his music, but he’s the guy who writes the songs and sings them, too.  If you take a band like the Beach Boys, you might think the same thing: “Oh yeah, it’s just Brian Wilson and a bunch of other guys.”  Sure, that was kind of true before 1967.  But after that, Brian faded into the background and the other band members (his brothers, his cousin, and a friend) had to take over.  They all began writing songs.  The best example was the album “Sunflower”.  Every member had a hand in writing and singing on that album- it’s one of my favorites as a result.  That way, you get such a great variety.

Enjoy “Brian Wilson” by Barenaked Ladies.  It’s such a great song.  And even though I couldn’t get the Jim Creegan bass solo in there, I still think this live acoustic version does the song justice.  Stay tuned for more great acoustic cover songs from the Laptop Sessions music blog!