Saturday, February 19, 2011

SMiLE: The Biggest Rock-Tease In Pop History Strikes Again

A couple of weeks ago, erstwhile Beach Boy and former thorn in Mike Love's side Al Jardine casually dropped a bomb  that blew the minds of Beach Boys nerds everywhere:

"Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of Smile sometime this summer to begin the celebration of The Beach Boys' anniversary. Smile is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys' fans, so it will be good."

Setting aside the fact that it was suspicious for a low-ranking Beach Boy -- an exiled one at that -- to make such a stunning announcement, Al further raised our hopes by invoking Smile's master painter himself, Brian Wilson:

"I don't have many details on it, although we didn't do any new recording. I'm happy to see it finally come out.  Brian's changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn't it?" (Al chuckles)

The matter-of-fact nature of the statement, along with the naming of the only two parties who could guarantee such an event (Capitol Records and Brian Wilson), set off a firestorm of speculation and "now my life will be complete" testimonies among the internet Brianistas. Alas, because nothing good in Beach Boys fandom comes without pain and suffering -- the Beach Boys are kinda like the Mets to the Beatles' New York Yankees -- the powers that be allowed the rumor to simmer for a week or so, before (presumably) frog-marching Al back out to back-pedal: "I don't know if we even have enough parts to put it together or not. May have to record some more."

Now, this isn't exactly a DENIAL that we could still see a Smile release of some kind in 2011, but it was certainly weird enough to warrant further examination. Perhaps it was like when a hostage in a foreign country deliberately says something odd that would only resonate with his family, to signal that he's lying -- I mean, saying "we don't have enough parts" is ALMOST believable (although I don't believe it: see below), but any notion of new Beach Boys recordings for Smile is laughably absurd. I bet if Al's retraction was televised, he would be blinking something in Morse code, like "I deeply regret speaking out of turn. Smile may still happen but I had no right to reveal that publicly. Please don't send Mike Love's lawyers to my house."

Still, this "news" and the accompanying hubbub really got me thinking about Smile again for the first time in years. I was pretty obsessed with it for awhile about a decade ago; I read the "Smile Bible" -- Domenic Priore's Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile -- and dutifully made my own "SMiLE" CD that I labored over for months, cutting and pasting the bits together like a z-level Brian Wilson. I spent hours -- days, MONTHS -- religiously reading the Smile Shop message board and searching for clues to the puzzle. When Brian Wilson released his own "finished" version of Smile in 2004, it felt like closure to me, and I've listened to mostly his version since then. It's not perfect, but it's a terrific "what if" and a good listen in its own right. (Thankfully, he also released instrumental versions of several of the tracks, so I can swap out the ones where the new lyrics don't work for me.)

Anyway, Jardine's "nothing to see here, folks" quasi-denial has Smile die-hards giving up any hope for an official release of the original Beach Boys Smile sessions, but I choose to believe. I don't think anyone expects Brian (or anyone else) to go back to the 1966/67 tapes and "finish" Smile -- I think most fans just want a complete set of the finished PARTS so they can listen to them (and re-purpose them, if they are so inclined) in the best possible quality. When I went back to listening to my own SMiLE CD again this week, what struck me about it was how much of the raw material has already been officially released. The list of the absolutely crucial bits that remain unreleased is fairly small -- the "Holiday" backing track, "Barnyard," "The Old Master Painter," "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," "Look," "Child Is Father Of The Man" and "I Wanna Be Around/Woodshop" and maybe a couple of other scraps are all we need to paint a fairly complete picture of what Brian might have assembled in 1967. (I'm leaving "The Elements" out of it, because I don't think that ever really progressed beyond the initial stages.)

Let's take a look at what HAS been officially released from the Smile sessions, between 1967 and 2001:

Good Vibrations (single) 3:38
Good Vibrations (Early Take) 3:03
Good Vibrations (Alternate Take) 3:34
Good Vibrations (Instrumental) 3:53
Good Vibrations (Sessions) 15:18
Good Vibrations (Various Sessions) 6:56
Good Vibrations (Stereo Track Sections) 3:13
Our Prayer (Smile version) 1:07
Our Prayer (1968 version) 1:10
Heroes And Villains (Demo) 2:28
Heroes And Villains (Intro) 0:35
Heroes And Villains (Track Only) 0:47
Heroes And Villains (Single Version) 3:38
Heroes And Villains (Stereo Single Version) 3:39
Heroes And Villains (Alternate Version) 2:56
Heroes And Villains (Sections) 6:40
Cabinessence 3:35
Cabinessence (Track Only) 3:59
Wind Chimes 2:32
Do You Like Worms 4:00
Wonderful 2:02
Vegetables 3:29
Vegetables Promo (Instrumental Section) 0:55
Vegetables (Stereo Extended Mix) 3:01
I Love To Say Da Da 1:34
Surf's Up (Track Only) 1:40
Surf's Up (Brian solo) 3:38
Surf's Up (BB version) 4:11
You're Welcome 1:10

Granted, there's a ton of repetitive stuff in here -- especially between "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes And Villains" -- but still, that's 10 relatively finished songs -- a LOT of officially released Smile-era music. The problem is, you have to buy TWELVE CDs to get all this -- the Good Vibrations box set (5 discs), the "Good Vibrations" anniversaary CD EP, the Smiley Smile / Wild Honey two-fer CD, the Friends / 20/20 two-fer CD, the Endless Harmony soundtrack, the Hawthorne, CA rarities set (2 discs) and the Sunflower / Surf's Up! two-fer CD. Even a catch-all single disc with all those 10 finished songs and the unreleased "essential" tracks listed above -- what I would call a "lazy" Smile release -- would be pretty awesome.

So when people say stuff like "never happen" and "pipe dream" I just don't buy it. Smile is the last valuable arrow in the Beach Boys quiver -- how many more greatest-hits sets can they release? They must know this, and they also have to know that the CD era will be over sooner rather than later -- like Bob Dylan with his mono box set (inspired by the stunning success of "The Beatles In Mono"), rockers pay attention to their peers, they see what they're making money off of, and they copy it. The Beach Boys copied the Beatles with their Anthology-like Endless Harmony and Hawthorne sets, so why not copy Dylan, who had one of the biggest hits of his recent career with Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series Volume 8? Remember when it seemed impossible -- unthinkable! -- that Bob would ever authorize the release of the Time Out Of Mind outtakes of "Mississippi" or "Red River Shore"? Well, they've been on my shelf for two years now. Remember when the Beatles swore they would NEVER authorize a CD release of the "butchered" Capitol U.S. LPs? Well, Volumes One and Two were released in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

I don't know if Capitol WILL release a Smile CD this year, but it's not SUCH a leap to believe that they COULD. The cat is already out of the bag -- most of the essential songs have been out for a decade or more. A multi-CD box set, with "completed" versions of songs and "Stack-O-Tracks" and "Stack-O-Vocals" and session highlights would be the ultimate, of course, and that's more of a stretch. That would take considerable work, and Brian would have to approve everything that was done to his songs. I could still see that happening too, someday -- after all, big lavish expensive box sets seems to be the one area where CDs are making money -- but if Capitol wanted to get something on the shelves this year, a single CD of Smile Sessions is totally do-able.

In the absence of a physical CD release, I think it would be amazing if Capitol and Brian just acknowledged the "Make Your Own Smile" community and put out a DVD full of WAV files and said "Have at it, kids." That would take all the pressure off Brian, his people, and Capitol to "finish" Smile and would allow it to live and grow indefinitely, in a really organic and beautiful way. Compiling your personal "SMiLE" is kind of a rite of passage for Smile nuts; it goes back to the days of cassette and stretches right into the present, with new versions "released" on CD and online all the time. I love listening to them, comparing them with my own, and debating who made the "best" or most creative choices and edits. All we really need from Brian is the "missing pieces" in great quality, and we'll take it from there. Let's hope something really special makes us smile in 2011.

Friday, February 4, 2011

More thoughts on R.E.M.

I've been thinking a lot about R.E.M. lately -- as I often do when a favorite band or musician has a new album coming out -- and someone wondered why I didn't think Accelerate (their last album, from 2008) was a great "comeback," an album worthy of their 1990s peak. Accelerate was, after all, hailed my most critics and fans as a "return to form," and as far as I know, it sold relatively well and was popular. But no, I really don't agree -- but I'm not looking to discredit anyone's enjoyment of Accelerate. For me, it seemed like a "reactive" album rather than an "active" album -- ironic considering all the energy in the tracks -- but what I mean is that it seemed like they had a band meeting and tried to figure out what the fans wanted, and then tried to make THAT album. I'm not calling it a "sell-out" -- I'm totally willing to believe that they had entirely respectable intentions, whether they felt they owed a "classic R.E.M." album to their fans, or whether they themselves agreed that they had gone off the rails with Around The Sun, or whether they were just trying to see if they were still viable as a rock group anymore.

Whatever their reasons were for making Accelerate, I was ready to take the album at face value, and I bought it eagerly on release day as most loyalists probably did. But it just never moved me, and I can't entirely explain why. Part of me feels like they just plain forgot how to ROCK in an "R.E.M." way a loooong time ago (like, since Document -- THAT long ago), and whenever they decide to "crank it up to 11" they sound like some other band that I'm just not that crazy about. Part of me thinks they sound like their hearts aren't in it anymore, that they're too complacent, or too insulated from the fans they're recording for, or maybe even just too gentlemanly to say out loud that they want to break up. And finally, part of me just didn't like the songs -- the melodies didn't grab me, Michael's gruff shout-singing didn't work for me, and I found no texture or subtlety in the music.

I mentioned in an my last post that I felt that R.E.M. had lost their WARMTH, their vibe of compassion and empathy that made me admire them in the first place. It all comes back to THAT for me. When I was younger, listening to R.E.M. was like being HUGGED by an album, if that makes sense. Even when they rocked pretty hard, as on Lifes Rich Pageant, the songs made me feel like they cared about stuff -- the world, their friends, their fans. They cultivated that feeling of community, it became who they WERE, and they nurtured it until it grew into full bloom on Automatic. That album just OOZED empathy. "Everybody Hurts" was a massive song of "Let It Be" proportions, and was soon being heard on TV shows and in supermarkets all over the place. It was the apex of their "R.E.M. cares about Y.O.U." image.

I don't know if the "hugeness" of Automatic spooked them, or if it was a coincidence that they decided to remake themselves as something more glammy, more self-absorbed, more DISTANT from their fans, but the warmth started to slip away with Monster (an album I still really liked). I thought they struck a good balance with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, though, with "New Test Leper" and "Electrolite" and others balancing out the "Wake Up Bomb"s and "Binky The Doormat"s. I think Bill Berry's departure stirred up some strong feelings in the remaining band members, and to me Up -- while still being more inward-looking than outward -- was full of emotion and deep thought.

After that ... I just don't know. I really don't like to think about it much, because it just makes me kinda sad. As I've said before, it's brought me no satisfaction to lose touch with R.E.M. -- it's not like I'm angry that they sold out, or I resent that they're rich, or I thought they got lucky in the '90s -- I've always been, and remain, open to them and their music. It just hasn't worked for me for about a decade now -- that's a long time to be a fan in exile. I'm happy for anyone who liked Accelerate, but we all experience music differently, and that just wasn't how I felt it. I'm curious about Collapse Into Now -- I love the title, and a couple of the songs have stirred something in me -- but I think I'm going to just wait and listen to it all the "old fashioned" way, after it's released. I look forward to discussing it here!