Thursday, November 10, 2011

"SMiLE?" I nearly wept (with happiness)! ;)

Hold on a second.

There we go. That's better.

So, the Beach Boys released "The SMiLE Sessions" on Tuesday, Nov. 1.

The impact? Major. It's selling BIG on Amazon, and doing enough business elsewhere to make an impact throughout the industry. How do I know this? Because "The SMiLE Sessions" has charted in Billboard in its first week. And not in the lower 100s. It's in the top 30. Yeah!

That's right, No. 27! And it's No. 3 on Billboard's "Tastemaker Albums" chart. Woo woo!

For a Beach Boys album, that's not just good: it's phenomenal. This isn't 1964. Heck, it isn't even 1974. The last big hit the Beach Boys had was "Kokomo." That was 1988. That song was as different from "Good Vibrations" as "Good Vibrations" was different from "Surfer Girl." And the Beach Boys are now competing against Kanye West and Justin Bieber. And they're doing well!

This means a number of things.

First, the CD/vinyl/traditional format industry isn't DEAD. But it needs to cater to fans with packages that are worthwhile. The "SMiLE Sessions" box capitalized on the format and excited the fans. Look at the packaging. The 45s have unique art. The box had 3D art presentation. The CD holder is a tri-fold with a scrapbook interior and the tape boxes on the exterior. The book rocks. The poster is HUGE.  And the physical CD art reflects the studios involved. I mean, there was actual THOUGHT put into this. And it was the level of thought that would appeal to the ultra fans. And the content itself is universal enough to grab fans beyond the uber nerds (such as myself).

That, folks, is how you do it.

The success of the release also means that there is interest in archival releases. This isn't hugely surprising, especially when one considers the Beatles' "Live at the BBC" and "Anthology" releases. And the Monkees' deluxe releases through Rhino have been doing well enough for them to continue the series (they'll be releasing "Instant Replay" later this month).

This in itself isn't a huge surprise ... there's been a huge interest in niche releases for decades, but the music industry has always struggled with finding the right balance of pleasing fans and making a buck. Too often the industry errs on the side of the buck, and fans get turned off and stop buying the goods (like, seriously, how many times do they expect fans to buy greatest hits compilations of the Beach Boys, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, etc.). Give the fans, the real fans, the fans who will PAY for the product, material they don't already have. It'll sell. But keep trying to get the teens with hits collections? Not gonna sell. They buy the tracks they want on iTunes. Trends bear that out.

Also, it has to prove a few points to the Beach Boys themselves. And I don't mean the whole "hey, Mike Love, you were wrong" kind of stuff that a lot of haters are doing. I don't hate Love, or any of the Beach Boys, and I don't think success now automatically translates to success then. Times change. It's foolish to second guess what could have been / might have been / should have been / etc.

Rather, I mean that the Beach Boys have learned that the most far-out, most divisive, most experimental music they did has met with critical acclaim, great fan support and has become a commercial success. So what else might they release? Sure, the mystique and history of "SMiLE" helped sell it, but there's some quality stuff in the vaults that fans (and those curious about other previously unreleased goodies, following this big unveiling) would really enjoy hearing.

So there's all of that, for context.

But how about the actual content? The music itself?

Devastatingly wonderful. (Won-won-wonderful.)

The quality is sublime, as one would hope (and expect) from an official release. But it's so extensive ... it renders bootlegs of the material that have been released the last few decades obsolete (really ... you get the best of the best, AND MORE, with the box).

That sounds like fan-driven hyperbole, I understand that. But it is true. After listening to dozens, if not hundreds, of bootlegs and fan compilations throughout the last 15+ years, I figured that anything legitimately from the "SMiLE" era had been released in some form or another (usually in awful quality, but still ... out there).

Not true. While a lot of it has, to be sure, there's plenty on the box that hasn't been released before. Lots of studio takes and song progressions. And more "Good Vibrations" than you can shake a stick at!

But unless you're a huge addict (like me, and so many others ... we're like a mini army), the 5 CD, 2 LP, 2 45 box set may be somewhat excessive (especially if you don't have a record player for the LPs and 45s). Fair enough.

So how about the 2 CD set? Pretty much everyone can handle that format these days (unless you've forsaken physical formats totally and gone digital ... and even then, "The SMiLE Sessions" are out there for digital downloads, too).

The 2 CD set is fantastic. It gives you the "finished" album (it'll never be finished, as all the pieces were never completed and Brian never finalized a tracklist and no one knows what things would have been in 1966/1967, yadda yadda yadda ... but all the tracks have been put together to mirror the 2005 "Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE" release, with some twists and turns and surprising mixes). And the set gives you a lot of good highlights from the box ("Surf's Up '67," sessions from "Heroes and Villains," "He Gives Speeches" and other good stuff). PLUS ... The 2 CD set features "Heroes and Villains Pt. 1" and "Heroes and Villains Pt. 2" ... which is featured on the box as one of the 45 singles, but isn't CD content on the box.

Yeah, that can be kind of annoying if you bought the box and thought you were getting everything. Well, if you bought the box, the idea is you already were going to be able to play vinyl ... so you DID get everything. Just not in the most convenient format.

But that's a small criticism. Because what you get, no matter which format, is some amazing music. With wonderful packaging. The audio quality is outstanding. And the material, music that had basically been buried for more than 40 years, is finally out there. A lot of history, a lot of pain, a lot of confusion ... maybe all of it hasn't been reconciled or forgiven or forgotten, but it's at least been peacefully set aside. That's big by itself. Worthy of notice, at any rate.

And while we're talking about the formats, how about the 2 LP version? It's awesome to have it in the size and context the album originally would have come in. It's beautiful. But plenty of people who have ordered it are reporting warping of the records or poor sound quality. My copies, luckily, don't have those problems. They play perfectly with great sound quality, and the dimension of vinyl really adds atmosphere to some already atmospheric music. But it's the most finicky of the format releases so far ... so if you are going to gamble on getting just one version, I'd probably suggest the 2 CD. The vinyl has some mixes on the fourth side that aren't on the 2 CD, but the 2 CD has material not available at all on the vinyl. You'll get more bang for the buck with less playing risk with the 2 CD set. (And if you can afford the big box ... well, get that of course!)

So, what shall we talk about next? Hmm.

Just about every review written by anything resembling the media will give you the history, in a nutshell. There are a lot of gross generalizations that get written into accounts (not just by the media ... Brian Wilson has contributed too, as have the Beach Boys). Too many drugs? Too much fighting in the band? Too much resistance from the record company? Legal issues? Fear of failure? Inability to focus? Technology not being advanced enough to put everything together as envisioned? Sure. All of that might be true. That's the drama behind the album. But the story of the album, for me, has always been the music.

Let's just say that there wasn't much popular music in 1966/1967 that sounded anything like this. Even after the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came out and blew peoples' minds and psychedelia and studio experimentation became the rage ... nothing sounded like "SMiLE." It's so different. So ... American, but so past/present/future. It's timeless. Weird, in places. Sentimental at times. Comical in sections. You get rocking western music. You get Oriental drones. You get European harpsichord treatments. You get orchestral Depression-era melodies. There are nostalgic bits and snatches of music that modern bands would take months just trying to replicate with today's technology. All of this ... from the Beach Boys. A musical adventure of the discovery, colonization and expansion of the United States ... AND of religious growth, and the embrace of the mystical/elemental.

Overreaching? Perhaps. Convoluted? Sure. Cool? VERY.

It's an album of contradictions that may just be the best single collection of pop/rock ever made. Or never made. Or never made, til now.

And that, dear friends, isn't just fan exaggeration justifying a deep (almost insane) love for the material. That's an opinion (yes, opinion, I can't make something a fact just by wishing for it) based on owning a thousand CDs and having listened to another thousand besides. That's not to be condescending or superior ... I just listen to a lot (like, really, A LOT) of music and I think this music stacks up alongside the best.

Pick up the 2 CD set. Or the 2 LP set. Or the big deluxe box set. Or get the 1 disc version as an import. You might not like it. You might not understand it. You might not appreciate it. But you'll sure have a hard time ignoring it. And you might find the odd bits popping into your head. Maybe you'll hum an odd bit here and there, and you'll think, "Where'd that come from?"

And that is how love can begin. :)

So give yourself a "SMiLE." And give yourself the time to listen to it. Listen to all of it. Don't force yourself to love it. Just let the music speak for itself. That's all that's ever been necessary. The music does its own magic.

In the end, that's the albums best legacy: for decades, the music stood the test of time, persisted despite being unreleased and underappreciated. And now, here it is ... Alive, thriving and doing well on the charts.

Surely that is smile worthy. :)

1 comment:

  1. There's so much I want to say about the Beach Boys, "SMiLE" and Brian Wilson ... but I wanted to keep this specific to the recent releases. I may write further entries about the musical competition (the Beatles, the Byrds, etc.), the Van Dyke Parks-Brian Wilson writing partnership and its dynamic, the Mike Love factor, the rise of the San Francisco music scene, etc.

    I strongly invite you folks to add your thoughts! Let's get a conversation going! Please share your opinions on the music, the artists, etc. I'd love to hear it! :)


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