Archive for the ‘SMiLE Track-by-track’ Category

SMiLE Track-By-Track VII: Wonderful

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

The second movement of SMiLE was one of those “aha” moments when four known pieces of music fitted together in a seamless sequence. Wonderful can describe the entire movement, but it is also the title of the first part- a song that was originally on the Smiley Smile album in somewhat different form. The lyrics talk to innocence, loss of innocence, birth, rebirth, childhood and parenthood -themes that repeat throughout that second movement, and that resonate with me even more strongly now with recent events in my life. The sense that SMiLE was meant as a “teenage symphony to God” also comes through strongest in this movement with references to God, believers and rebirth.

Musically, the second movement can be described as the “beautiful” movement with an emphasis on melody and classic instrumentation. Wonderful is a prime example of this -at it’s heart, it is a classic pop ballad that sticks in your head. In the wider context of all that SMiLE was and is, it becomes one of Brian Wilson’s most resonant pieces of music, and an all-time classic.

SMiLE Track-By-Track VI: Cabin Essence

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

This is the track that inspired a website..this one! Cabin Essence is a vast expanse of a song, ranging from the intimacy of the log cabin to the vastness of the Grand Coulee Dam and the truck driver travelling over a vast expanse. Again, we are looking at the growth in America; the expansion west and the industrialisation of the country. As in Heroes And Villians, there is a dichotomy between the benefits of progress and the possible lost innocence of a changing country.

As with much of Van Dykes Parks works, the lyrics work on a level of a feeling created, rather than every line making sense, and this created the famous altercation where Mike Love dismissed the line about the “crow cries uncover the cornfield” as nonsense. However, in the wider context of the song, and particularly the completed album, one can see again the sense of contrast and wide expanses being created,

Musically, the song switches between the intimate “fire mellow” section, with it’s intricate and homely melody, and the vast “who ran the iron horse?” section. It’s a powerful musical statement and a fitting close to the first section of SMiLE.

SMiLE Track-By-Track V: Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Another brief track in our quick sweep of Americana, and this time it is the great American songbook that Brian glides through, as we are treated to a brief instumental rendition of Old Master Painter and then a chorus of You Are My Sunshine. The song is sung in the past tense (you were my sunshine) and the overall effect is somewhat mournful; something in the past being lost?

SMiLE Track-By-Track IV: Barnyard

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

After the expansive and thought-provoking Roll Plymouth Rock, the album lightens up as we go to the country and explore an animal Barnyard. In the Americana context, the importance of the farms is probably the link here. It’s possible that the animal noises that the band had to make may have put them off SMiLE, but in the released version and shows, Brian’s band seem to enjoy the humor in making the animal sounds.

SMiLE Track-By-Track III: Roll Plymouth Rock

Friday, March 17th, 2017

This track was commonly known to collectors (and even released on the Beach Boys box set) as Do You Like Worms?, which possibly gave an indication to outsiders of SMiLE’s weirdness. The bits and pieces that came out on the box set and “unofficial” releases also seemed incomplete; part of intriguing puzzle. But it all came together on the 2004 release under the more “palatable” title of Roll Plymouth Rock.

As with many things related to Van Dyke Parks, there are a million things happening at once, but the major themes seems to be exploring America, colonization and possibly a loss of innocence. As with many things on SMiLE, there are sections and sub-sections, including the famous Bicycle Rider chorus and the “Hawaii” chorus which is insanely catchy and, like much of SMiLE, imprints itself on your brain permanently.

SMiLE Track-By-Track II: Heroes And Villains

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

This is what I wrote eight years ago in the original track by track for SMiLE. In 2017, it may be good reminding ourselves that the heroes do win in the end…

This was the song that confused and amazed; as the Beach Boys first single after the worldwide super-smash, Good Vibrations, it didn’t light up the charts and led a general chart decline in the late 60s. And although 1967 was a pretty much “anything goes” year, the seeming barbershop psychedelia of Heroes And Villains didn’t catch on in the summer of love.

Of course, a book could be written about this song, which is the centerpiece of the first suite of SMiLE, often referred to as the Americana section. There were many different sections, some of which became parts of other songs, some left out altogether. The “In The Cantina” section, which is restored to the released SMiLE version gives this song a distinct wild west feel and also adds to the “humor” which was one of the intentions of SMiLE.

But the key theme of the song is duality -there is complexity as well as simplicity in the song, light as well as darkness. SMiLe expands the seeming narrow theme of young adult love of Pet Sounds to a wide portrait of life from birth to death, America from Hawaii to Plymouth Rock. And in this life, there are heroes and villains and many of us may have this duality within ourselves. In the end, we are thankful that the ultimate musical hero, Brian Wilson conquered the villain of his demons and came out with the completed SMiLE. Yes, the heroes win in the end.

SMiLE Track-By-Track I: Our Prayer/Gee

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

In further celebration of the 50th anniversary of when SMiLE was originally planned to be released, I’m going to do a reboot of the track-by-track (based on Brian’s 2004 released version).

The opening of SMiLE immediately suggests we are doing something very different to Pet Sounds. While Pet Sounds hinted indirectly at spirituality (God Only Knows coming closest), Our Prayer starts as a direct invocation to a higher force and inspiration -those ascending notes immediately taking us to a place that can only be called spiritual, however we interpret that term.

And then we are taken back to earth and teenage emotions, as Brian opens the great American songbook with an excerpt of Gee (how I love that girl). SMiLE has been playing for just over a minute, and we can already see a wide canvas of American life.


SMiLE Track-By-Track XVII: Good Vibrations

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

“Good Vibrations” cover

You know this song. And indeed, I’ve already covered this song on this blog on the 40th anniversary of it’s release, which I noted then was a highpoint for the group, and unfortunately the only was down. So the question is, does it belong on SMiLE?

I believe the answer is yes -for both commercial and thematic reasons. Commercially, I believe it had to be there, just as Sloop John B had to be on Pet Sounds- a strong hook to buy the album. Brian wasn’t oblivious to commercial necessity and it was on the original SMiLE tracklist.

Thematically, I see Good Vibrations as a kind of “fifth element” -the non-visible, almost spiritual connection that one can have between people; the transcedesence that is hinted at in the fire and water segments that precede this song.

On the 2004 version of the completed SMiLE, Brian goes back to the original Tony Asher lyrics and adds the hum-de-dum sections that was not part of the original single. Some may have seen it as churlish to move away from the song that everyone knew, but this was always going to be remake, and the differences provide some good distinguishing features and it certainly rocked in live performances.

SMiLE Track-By-Track XVI: In Blue Hawaii

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

We move from the fire to the cleansing water, but the initial part of the “water” section is the atonal water chant. Then suddenly, the music changes to the elemental, healing “I love to say da da”  and we are magically transported to Hawaii and some of the most beautiful harmonies and music imaginable.

The resulting creation, In Blue Hawaii, is for my money, one of the top songs in Brian’s canon, and made SMiLE well worth almost four decades of waiting. Water is the purifying ,cleansing element, and the lyrics certainly hint at the Christian concept of washing away sin. Even outside that context, there is definite sense of escaping from the madness into some sort of paradise, and the song, presumably only finished in 2004, definitely fits in well with the overall redemption that concluded the story of SMiLE.

One of things that has struck me about SMiLE is the “elemental” nature of the music- not just the elements theme that is part of the album, but the way that much of the music has a way of sticking in your head, as if Brian has found the very element of a pure pop melody. The main refrain- known originally as I Love To Say Da Da and resurrected in Cool Cool Water- has a childlike quality to it, but once you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Just like water itself, it seems part of the very basics of music and life.

SMiLE Track-By-Track XV: Mrs O’Leary’s Cow

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

This is the one track in the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson canon that genuinely scares me, and one that I have mixed feelings about. Of course, it has a history with Brian Wilson’s own paranoia and belief that the track had some sort of power to inflict troubles, but the reality is that the track became a key part of the SMiLE  debacle that imposed huge mental chains on Brian.

Mrs O’Leary’s Cow is a track like no other in Brian’s ouevre. Forget the silly whistles that lead-in the track; the music is like a descent to hell, with a heaviness that rival’s anything that metal can bring up. It’s not necessarily an enjoyable experience, but there is a power that is overwhelming, and no amount of fireman’s hats and whistling can distract that there is something intense happening here.

Most peversely, but in line with the singularity of this piece, the song got the only proper Grammy that Brian and the Beach Boys ever got, for best instumental. This is despite the humming in the song, and even more so, despite Brian being known as the master of vocal harmony.

But in album of duality, the element fire, which this song clearly represents, has the most duality of all. Fire can detroy and kill, but at the same time, it can also renew by burning out the old to allow the new to grow. And that is the miracle of SMiLE, that the fire that almost consumed Brian eventually lead to his biggest redemption.