The Beach Boys
Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 17 (1966-1967) Smile Sessions (Sea of Tunes 9951)
Brian Wilson's Smile has fostered so much speculation and discussion among fans through the years that it's easy to start dismissing it simply because it's so passé. Wilson's official release of the album in 2004 has hardly put an end to the debate, either if anything, it's sent many fans scampering back to their cherished bootlegs to try and figure out what the "real" Smile is.
Anyone interested in this legendary "lost" album has their pick of several releases, as the tapes have been out there forever. Many (myself included) lean toward the Vigotone Smile, though in all honesty, that boot is not programmed especially well (it doesn't flow like an album; rather, like a collection of cool outtakes in stunning quality). Why Capitol has held off on doing a Smile Sessions box set is beyond me instant cash cow, right?
Sea of Tunes released the Unsurpassed Smile Sessions in '99, and despite a tracklist that looks like it would be completely tedious to endure (with many multiple takes and/or overdubs of the same song appearing consecutively), the listening experience is actually pretty smooth and insightful. This three-disc set is by no means the definitive Smile, but it is an exhaustive look at the sessions themselves. What struck me most was that, despite Wilson's mental breakdown, Smile would not have been all that hard to complete. The songs were all there; there were many good takes to choose from, and for the most part, the vision was clear (despite many chemical influences working hard to fog it all up).
This set is great because it demystifies Smile into a series of recording sessions, as opposed to this mythical album that never materialized. Truly, another couple weeks' work would have finished the bastard up, and then maybe Smile actually would have been the best album of the 60s. For the record, Sgt. Pepper's didn't "beat" Smile, especially in retrospect; and in any event, The Millennium's Begin "beat" them both, artistically, at least.
Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 17 spreads the studio work on nine or ten songs over three CDs, revealing the overdub process, which may be more interesting than the final album. Smile has long been fascinating simply for its ambition, but these discs reveal the music to be as intricate, beautiful, and forward-thinking as can be. Yes, Smile "would have been" one of the best pop records of the 60s but on the other hand, yes, it is anyway, despite never being released.
For Smile is perhaps the preeeminent record that exists in peoples' minds fans, collectors, and even the players. What must Hal Blaine think of this project, or Carol Kaye? It was always Brian Wilson's baby, and I'm sure everyone involved was pretty disappointed that it was never layed to lacquer, since it was so very close.
Many great moments are here to behold, most importantly the 24-year-old Brian Wilson giving instruction to a bunch of excellent musicians as to how to realize the sounds that were in his head at the time. Though some may dismiss the Smile Sessions as drug-addled "artistry" that was never bound to amount to much, the session reels reveal that Wilson was indeed very focused on what this music needed to be. That it took him nearly 40 years to actually finish the damn thing has much more to do with Brian's emotional issues than with the quality of the music laid to tape.
Review by Anders-Corey Anderson