A flawed masterpiece not without its charms
With the aborted Smile project on indefinite hiatus, The Beach Boys regrouped at Brian Wilson’s home studio at Bel Air in order to decide on their next move. The resulting decision would see them release a smaller, far less ambitious record, albeit one that would divide many of their fans and confuse the critics.
Recorded over a six week period throughout June and July 1967, Smiley Smile was the final product. No doubt the rapidly emerging counter-culture had something to do with it. Surf boards and hot rods were out, while paisley shirts and long hair was in, not to mention those funny little herbal cigarettes. And speaking of herbs, myth has it that the band were so high they had to keep their heads real low, having to record some of their instruments whilst lying on the studio floor.
The LP gets off to a promising start with “Heroes And Villains”, which is a terrific, well composed pop song, full of Rococo arrangements (de rigour at the time) and a clear indication of Brian Wilson’s head space, especially on the utterly strange and bizarre “Vegetables”, a song which practically defies description. The lush coda at the end would be one of the few moments from Smile that would be preserved and reused for this record.
However it’s not without its flaws. The comedic “She’s Goin’ Bald” is just plain bad, as is the rather goofy “Little Pad”, while the experimental “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony)” almost gives me sea sickness every time I hear it. But they fully redeem themselves on the joyful masterpiece that is “Good Vibrations”, an undisputed classic and a song that would keep the band on popular radio, and make this album worth owning. Wilson purportedly didn’t want it released, but was fortunately out-voted by his fellow band members. Cello and harpsichord blend effortlessly with the spooky and hypnotic electric Theremin. And did I mention the harmonies?
The nostalgic sounding “With Me Tonight” has the boys in full harmonic flight, along with the delightfully wistful “Wood Chimes”, which passes along like some brief hallucination. The band gets the munchies on “Gettin’ Hungry”, one of the oddest singles the group ever issued, before rolling out the drugs (again) on ballad “Wonderful”, another leftover from the Smile sessions that was for whatever reason re-recorded for this LP. The group whistle their way out with the eccentric “Whistle In”, which at just over a minute, is hardly a tune at all, more like a fragment.
If nothing else, Smiley Smile is a fragile album, just barely able to hold itself together as one cohesive whole. Interestingly it fared better in England than it did in America, obviously endearing itself to those who were more into smoking weed than catching waves. Certainly one cannot question its drug-inspired quirkiness, or Brian Wilson’s undisputed standing as a production master. Although at a mere 27 minutes, it fell way short of what might have been had Wilson had his way. As a follow up to Pet Sounds however, it was a terrible disappointment – but not one entirely without charisma.