The Beach Boys

The SMiLE Sessions [Bootleg]

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Bootleg label Vigotone has released many versions of the Smile recording sessions, and the quality of the tracks ranges from poor to excellent. But, remember, this is material that Brian Wilson never wanted anyone to hear and had destroyed (or it was so rumored). The fact that it is available at all probably frustrates him every day. The album's unreleased status does not mean that it lacks the beauty and joy that Cameron Crowe attributed to Pet Sounds, but it does take some archaeology work to find it. Smile, and all that the album entails, is the most essential part of a Beach Boys fan's collection, after the original albums and box sets. Hardcore fans consider appreciation of this music a badge of credibility. It doesn't matter if you actually think Dennis Wilson's collaboration with mass murder Charles Manson is legit or follow Al Jardine's "Family and Friends" band around California in the 21st century. If you cannot speak articulately about songs like "George Fell Into His French Horn" or the beauty of the original "Prayer," then you aren't one of the few, the proud, the crazed, and your summer is not endless. There is nothing on any of the Vigotone sets, however, that will interest any but the most obsessed fans. Have no strong opinion in the Brian vs. Mike Love debate? Don't lose sleep because the band did not play at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967? Then these are not the droids you are looking for. Move along. Move along! For those who consider David Leaf an apostle, however, the Smile Sessions are more than just a treasure trove of cult-favorite alternate material, they are the holiest of Holy Grails. It is a mistake to consider Smile an album, because it is more an experience, the musical equivalent of Being John Malkovich. Fans who take the time to arrange their own version of the unreleased album feel closer to Brian Wilson's genius. They add singing from vocal-only tracks and funny snippets from outtakes to longer backing tracks, creating their own Smile mixes to trade on the Internet. (One fan offered a techno version which, expectedly, was not popular with purists.) The session material does lend itself to wide-ranging creative doctoring, as the tracks are often very different types of recordings. Some bootlegged albums are basically demos; the Salome: Achtung Baby Sessions tracks were not song parts, but rather jam-based demos. The Smile Sessions is more like an unreleased album blown into hundreds of pieces, a progressive/psychedelic experiment collected in grab bags of varying depths. You can get the one disc version, but that is like ordering a burger and eating only the bun. The Smile Sessions is every kind of lettuce, ketchup, bread, relish, etc., that Brian Wilson ever thought to include in his meal. The album intended to unite the disparate parts into a sonic collage similar to the highly successful Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson's inability to deliver a commercial masterpiece was ironically a major victory for those who champion his brilliance. Smile, in all likelihood, would not have been a worthy successor to Pet Sounds (how could it be?). While impressive in the scope of its recording, it is hard to imagine someone like Paul McCartney being as moved to tears over songs about vegetables and cows as he was by those grappling with loneliness and fear. (OK bad example, but you get the point.) So, instead of enjoying a Beach Boys album that tanked financially and was lambasted critically, fans get to dream about an unrealized masterpiece. Moreover, they get to help finish the project, thus becoming benefactor and assistant to one of the most celebrated American songwriters of the 20th Century. Smile is the first purely interactive album in history, albeit unintentionally. The sessions as rough ideas make for a much more compelling work of art than do the eventually completed versions, as heard on the disappointing Smiley Smile or the comprehensive Good Vibrations box set. Audiophiles and fans of the recording studio will surely enjoy making their own version of the famous album with Pro Tools or Sound Edit. Fans looking for a cohesive follow-up to Pet Sounds should stay away from all Smile session tracks and forget they ever even heard of the album. But those in love with Brian Wilson's magic should take a bite from this toadstool and take a leap of faith down the rabbit's hole. The transcendent trip will become a very important date with some of the most creative (and frustrating) music of the late 1960s. Don't be late! The best way to get this material (since it is illegally released by Vigotone) is to search the net for Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and Smile fan communities where followers very often will make it available for free. Highlights include the versions of "Good Vibrations" and "Do You Like Worms," and the "The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine" medley.