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Feature Reviews: The Beach Boys, The Smile Sessions; Brian Wilson, In The Key Of Disney

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The Beach Boys
The Smile Sessions
[Capitol/EMI (2011)]

Brian Wilson
In The Key Of Disney
[Disney Pearl (2011)]

Four-and-a-half decades after the cancelled release of what was supposed to be rock’s crowned jewel, the official release of The Smile Sessions is truly a momentous event.

Available in a variety of formats, from a two-CD set to a massive assemblage that includes 139 tracks, five CDs, a vinyl double-LP, two 7” singles, a digital version, the originally-intended booklet, and a new collection of writing about the significance of the 45-year-old album, The Smile Sessions is a music lover’s dream that’s come true. Much of what was-intended to be released as Smile has long been available to Beach Boys and Brian Wilson enthusiasts. Recorded at the end of the Pet Sounds sessions and a precursor to the more-psychedelic approach of Smile, “Good Vibrations” was released as a single in 1967 and had become the Beach Boys’ biggest selling hit. Some of the intended songs (“Wonderful,” “Vege-tables,” “Wind Chimes,” and “Heroes & Villains”) were re-recorded, with new lyrics, and featured on the not-so-out-there album, Smiley Smile, that the Beach Boys released in 1967 instead of Smile. Other songs were completely revamped before they were released. “Mrs. Leary’s Cow,” which provided the infamous fire segment of “The Element Suite,” was watered-down and became “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony),” while “He Gives Speeches” became “She’s Going Bald.” “Surf’s Up,” the song that Wilson had debuted on a Leonard Bernstein TV special, “Surf’s Up,” remained unreleased until being rearranged and used as the title track of the Beach Boys’ 1971 album. A rejuvenated Brian Wilson and his band re-recorded songs intended for the album and released a new version of Smile in 2004. But with the re-mastering of the original tapes and the the official release of The Smile Sessions, which combines the album as it was intended, alternate takes, and track-by-track recordings from the 1966 sessions, all of its predecessors are obsolete.

A nervous breakdown had prompted him to cease touring with the Beach Boys, but Wilson was, at 24, very cognizant of what he wanted to hear and the ways to get it. If Pet Sounds represented a more mature and musically elaborate step from the surfing and hot rods themes of the Beach Boys’ early-1960s top 40 hits, Smile was off the map altogether. As Wilson later described it, it was very much a “teenage symphony to God.”

Beat poet-turned-tunesmith Van Dyke Parks supplied lyrics bordering on psychedelia as Wilson broke all the rules that had guided rock and roll since its inception in the 1950s. Rather than relying on 3 and 4 chord guitar-driven grooves, Wilson took his cues from the world of classical music—masterfully applying musique concrete techniques while stitching short snippets into a harmony-rich tapestry of sound, interweaving rock, pop, big band, doo-wop, jazz, country, folk, and symphonic music interwoven. (A bootleg CD-Rom, released in the early-1990s, allowed these snippets to be rearranged).

The traditional sounds of guitar are mostly forsaken in lieu of an incredibly varied lineup of non-rock instruments—cello, French horn, harpsichord, and theramin. Like a conductor working with an orchestra, Wilson sculpts walls of sound reflective of the members of Phil Spector’s studio band, the Wrecking Crew, who had been working on Beach Boys albums for years. Carol Kaye transfers melodies usually played on guitar to bass, while Hal Blaine goes beyond the typical rock drummer role to explore a wide spectrum of percussive sounds.

The vocal harmonies on which the Beach Boys had built its early success continued to evolve. Park’s words may have seemed surrealistic, but they were delivered by the closely-knit voices of three brothers (Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson), a cousin (Mike Love), Wilson’s high school buddy (Al Jardine), and his touring replacement (Bruce Johnston) and crafted as intricately as the instrumentation. Love may have publicly addressed his dislike for the album, but his singing was as heartwarmingly rich as ever.

Since 1988, after recovering from decades-long mental illness and inactivity following the cancellation of the original release of Smile, Wilson has been steadily reviving his music career. With the release of In The Key Of Disney, his second in a two-CD deal with Disney Pearl, he takes a step further, again applying his signature arrangements to the music of other writers. Though much tamer than Smile, In The Key Of Disney shows, as its jazz chart-topper Brian Wilson Re-imagines Gershwin did in 2010, that Wilson’s mastery of harmony, both vocally and instrumentally, remains incredibly strong.

While there are few rockers on In The Key Of Disney, the 12-track album allowing plenty of room for Wilson to showcase his gift for balladry. A couple tunes come from Disney’s golden era, including “Baby Mine” (Dumbo), “When You Wish Upon A Star” (Pinocchio), and “Stay Awake” (Mary Poppins), but most of the album reprises songs from more recent films: Pocohontas (“Colors Of The Wind”), Toy Story (“You’ve Got A Friend In Me”), Toy Story 3 (“We Belong Together”), and The Lion King (“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and “Just Can’t Wait To Be King”). An instrumental medley that includes “Heigh Ho,” “Whistle While You Work,” and the theme song of the Pirates Of The Caribbean Disney Park ride, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me)” spotlights Wilson’s band.

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

One comment on “Feature Reviews: The Beach Boys, The Smile Sessions; Brian Wilson, In The Key Of Disney

  1. Hats off to reviewer Craig Harris & DriftwoodMagazine for such an informative piece on these two releases, the first of which appreciators of Brian Wilson’s music have been waiting for going on half a century! I’ve had some dear friends and fellow music-lovers help me develop
    an appreciation of Wilson’s inner ear arranging and compositional skills on both the popular
    stuff and more arcane experimental tonal pieces. One typo in this review creates an unfortunate alternate mind-image of the legendary session-woman, bassist Carol Kaye.
    The typo here renders her as Carol Kane (a fine actress but the sit-com character Simpka
    of “Taxi” is no substitute for one of the coolest axe-wielders in modern recording history!).
    There’s a fine documentary film out on Carol Kaye’s contributions to the Wrecking Crew
    with Phil Spector and her many other notable sessions. This past year one of the finest
    songwriter releases by Portland-based Laua Veirs even features a tribute song titled
    “Carol Kaye” produced almost to Brian Wilson standards by sound collagist Tucker
    Martine and carries the refrain: “Songs of Innocence” “Natural Man” “Feelin’ Alright”\”i’m A Believer”\”Come Together” “In The Heat of the Night”\”Mission Impossible” Oh she’s
    “Out of This World”\Ten thousand sessions from an\Everett, Washington girl!\Not a
    household name but\She’s been in your head all day\It would be so cool to\Be like Carol, Carol Kaye” (c)Laura Veirs 2009

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