BRIAN WILSON Brian Wilson Presents Smile (BriMel/Nonesuch)
After arguably the longest gestation period of any work in popular music depending on how you measure such things it eclipses even the 30 year wait for the fourth Big Star album Smile, or SMiLE, or Brian Wilson Presents Smile, or Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE finally reaches record shops in a legitimate and presumably artistically complete form. The original tortuous sessions for what was intended to be the follow up to Pet Sounds were abandoned in 1967, amidst coincidental and psychological demonry and uncomprehending bafflement from his fellow Beach Boys. In Smiles stead, the re-recorded, sanitised Smiley Smile was released, whilst the original sessions spent the next three-and-a-half decades leaking out as bootlegs, feeding the fantasies of a community of rampant Smile obsessives..
So, having returned to active service with a series of concerts presenting Pet Sounds in full, Smile became the latest episode in Brian Wilsons ongoing psychological and musical rehabilitation programme. Following its reconstruction and wildly successful Royal Festival Hall premiere (documented in David Leafs film Beautiful Dreamer Brian Wilson And The Story Of SMiLE), this is the 2004 studio equivalent, with his longstanding backing band The Wondermints substituting for the other Beach Boys and session musicians employed last time around.
Naturally theres a little misty-eyed regret that this album doesnt mark the reunification of all the surviving Beach Boy factions, but given how the rest of the band reacted to these broadcasts from the farthest reaches of Brians imagination last time around perhaps its better this way. And how does it sound? Just fine, sweet and dandy. Without being any kind of committed Smile-ologist, I hear a Heroes And Villains that stands up pretty tall against his old bands single version its the same crazy psych/country/doo-wop street opera it always was.
Time and again - Roll Plymouth Rock, for instance Brian Wilson Presents Smile comes across as luxuriously sophisticated nursery rhyme, both na´ve and knowing, alien but inviting, friendly yet bizarre. An arthouse movie for the ears, perhaps. Swatches of song and melody recur as leitmotivs throughout the piece a phrase from Heroes And Villains patched in here, a line from Our Prayer there. If central to the original Smile concept its a pretty futuristic conceit, given that the sessions predated the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band; even in these sample-sloshed days it still sounds fresh and invigorating. Cabin Essence, originally released on the odds-and-ends album 20/20, is here a sublime synthesis that The High Llamas seem to have plundered for their entire career. Wonderful rolls along gently upon interlocking waves of image and melody, quietly breathtaking in its ambition and all the better for not having to share an album with inanities like Shes Going Bald anymore.
Its with Surfs Up that the albums, and perhaps Brian Wilsons artistic achievements, peak. Does it help to have those astonishing printed lyrics at hand for the first time? Its easier to appreciate their dovetailing eloquence but still just as impossible to shoehorn them into anything resembling conventional storytelling or meaning. Vege-Tables is Macca-less this time, and the combustible instrumental horrorshow Mrs. OLearys Cow is the only jarring moment in Wilsons otherwise twinkling pastel soundworld.
A lyrically revised (or restored, depending on your point of view) relatively Theremin-free Good Vibrations closes official proceedings, and its only here that Brian Wilson Presents Smile registers mild disappointment. Inevitably playing second fiddle to the iconic Beach Boys original, its no slight on the obvious talent, vision and commitment of those involved here, but, as a part of Smile originally completed and released outside the confines of the aborted album but included within it due to record company pressure perhaps this version is intended to supplement rather than supplant.
Despite dragging heels over the release of Wilcos albums on the black stuff, Nonesuch are to be applauded on Brian Wilson Presents Smiles vinyl incarnation. It arrives as a heavy double vinyl pressing in a textured gatefold sleeve, dragging an entire side of instrumental bonus tracks. Although conceptually inessential, they nevertheless allow the listener to fully appreciate the filigree complexity within the apparently random selection spotlighted, for example the background vocals on Heroes And Villains, or the doing, doing, doings (as in boing, rather than the verb) in Cabin Essence.
Is it better than Pet Sounds? Or Sgt. Pepper? Does it really matter? For the first time ever anywhere, everythings in its right place, assembled with the blessing and active participation of the projects key figures (lets not forget Van Dyke Parks, who, with the exception of Good Vibrations, provides lyrics throughout). And that, the music, not the mythology, is what makes it great.