CD Review of Smiley Smile by The Beach Boys

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Smiley Smile
starstarstarno starno star Label: Capitol
Released: 1967
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So much has already been written about in regards to Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown over the recording of the ill-fated Smile album, and this LP that came in place of it, that it can often be hard to separate the work from all the myths, legends, and outrageous reality. Yes, we all know that Brian was disappointed that Pet Sounds hadn’t been widely accepted at the time as the so-called “masterpiece” Wilson had intended it to be. And yes, most everyone who’s even slightly familiar with the Beach Boys’ history knows that Brian became so paranoid and freaked out during the Smile sessions that master tapes were destroyed, relations within the band began to fray, and so on.

But forget all that. It’s time to look at Smiley Smile without all the convoluted history surrounding it and just rate it on its own merits. If we’re going to do that, we have to at least excise the “Good Vibrations” single that was tacked onto the album, because it was already almost a year old and sounds out of place with the rest of the work. Ditto “Heroes and Villains,” which, while a great song, is also something that sounds like it was just thrown onto the album to pad it out and generate sales. While that may be rightly so, they’re toast in regards to this review.

So what we have left, then, is a skeletal as hell album. Even by today’s standards, with a large allotment of indie bands and experimental groups cranking out like-minded fodder, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone shouting about these tunes being any sort of masterwork. At best, Smiley Smile comes off as nothing but a spare selection of demos and unrealized fragments. At its worst, the album just isn’t that interesting after the initial novelty of the whole thing wears off.

Still, it’s not without its subtle charms. “She’s Goin’ Bald” starts off with as a quasi-Indian rhythm before descending into utter nuttiness at the middle. Then it ends with that catchy “You’re too late, mama / Ain’t nothin’ upside your head” that sounds like it may fall apart at any second before fading out abruptly. Likewise, “Little Pad” is a stoned bit of piffle, but somehow it works. The ukulele is nice, and the hummed, wordless portion sounds like something out of some forgotten movie from the ‘30s. Weird, to say the least.

And the boys didn’t need Charlie Manson’s songs to record to get super-flaky. The version of “Wind Chimes” here is utterly spooky. There’s a real creepy undercurrent to the track, as if the boys had smoked some really evil opium and all of a sudden they were going nuts in the studio. That could at least explain the completely pointless inclusion of the skippable “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony).” Here, you have some of that leftover Smile crap that was rerecorded and slapped on the album for no apparent reason. Out of its original context, it’s just zonked silliness.

“Wonderful” had also been done better previously, as many bootlegs have revealed over the years. Here, it’s just another victim of hamming it up and slapping it together so there was something to toss on the album. And what is there to really say about the fragment that is “Whistle In,” that was another case of a piece being extracted from its source material and stuck up there to close the album and just leave people scratching their heads? At least the fragmented nature of “With Me Tonight” actually has a nice melody at the chorus, and “Vegetables” is a full-blown “song,” though stripped down to almost the point of nothingness.

Smiley Smile has developed a strong cult following through the years, but aside from the two big singles thrown on top, there’s little to really dig into. If anything, it’s interesting to hear such a major group having been allowed to turn in something so stoned and silly. But there had been so many delays with Smile that it was time to pony up something. This is what was delivered. A grab bag of half-assed songs, barely finished bits, and a handful of fragments that made no sense at all outside of their source material. Was it any wonder that the fans just wanted those tunes about cars, surfing, and chicks? Smiley Smile is one of the flakiest moments of the ‘60s, bar none.

~Jason Thompson