The Beach Boys - Smiley Smile/Wild Honey
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
There’s been many a thing written about Brian Wilson’s aborted masterpiece, SMiLE; to such degree, it’s nigh-impossible to discuss the Beach Boys’ 1967 album, Smiley Smile without mentioning the most famous album never released. As a result, Smiley Smile is often criticized for being an inane substitute for SMiLE; but comparing the albums is unfair since they’re so different and both accomplish something very special in their own distinct way. If you haven’t a clue about what SMiLE is all about, then type the phrase along with Brian Wilson and/or Beach Boys on your search engine and do some heavy reading. If you’ve never heard SMiLE, by all means download tracks from the Net, buy a loaded bootleg or fork over $35 bucks for the Good Vibrations box set that more or less contains a mastered version of the album on the second disk.
Now let’s talk Smiley Smile.
If SMiLE was released in the winter of 1967 and the Beach Boys followed it a few months later with Smiley Smile there’s no doubt that this psychedelic epilogue would have a better reception. In fact, people today would be hailing the Beach Boys as the outfit who invented the remix as opposed to Bad Boy Records (who to my knowledge has no legitimate claim to that distinction either). Do you dig low-fi electronica, indie-kids? Well, the Beach Boys did it first and on Smiley Smile. Actually, not until Ween’s The POD and Pure Guava would a stranger, more eccentric collection of drug-induced songs be heard. With the exception of the ambitious singles “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”, Smiley Smile is also an exercise in pre-punk minimalism. “Vegetables” finds scaled-down harmonies (by Beach Boy standards) backed solely by a bass, a jug and the sound of Paul McCartney chewing and drinking for most of the song; when a fuller production with strings and keys pop at the end it’s immersed in an echo that causes it to sound like a dreamlike coda. On the haunting “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” Carl Wilson sings in a vulnerable whisper while a lone organ vibrates softly beneath—a sparse piano chord or sound effect adding a resounding dissonance, though the tracks remain pleasing to the ear. Exotic percussion and abrupt instrument changes color humorous tracks like “She’s Goin’ Bald” and “Getting’ Hungry” with a tense—albeit cheeky—sensuality. These stripped down, intimate recordings embrace the listener with a drugged out sincerity; a feat never accomplished by the more pretentious and heavy-handed psychedelia of that era. It is for this reason Smiley Smile flows so well with the more experimental pop of today; the album is a timeless oddity. Praise aside, Smiley Smile’s quirkiness doesn’t make for the most cohesive listening; a small pitfall they avoided on the follow-up, Wild Honey.
Like nearly every Beach Boys’ album, Smiley Smile and Wild Honey are currently available on one CD. Being that Wild Honey was recorded and released only a few months after Smiley Smile, the albums work rather well together on a single disk. Despite being largely unsung (though it’s a favorite with die-hard fans), Wild Honey is a tighter and stronger set than Smiley Smile; focusing simply on catchy hooks, snappy melodies and a straight-up boogie-woogie feel that grows more infectious with each listen. Bob Dylan is often credited for launching the 1968 ‘return to roots’ movement; his stark John Wesley Harding record signaling a shift away from big, experimental productions; the Beatles following suit with the rock & roll driven White Album and “Get Back” project. But as often was the case during the 1960s, Brian Wilson was the man who was truly ahead of the flock. Released in late 1967, Wild Honey is sometimes referred to as the Beach Boys’ “soul album”; the band jamming simply yet passionately with guitar, bass, drums, piano and one hell of a phat organ. Even when there is an occasional weird piece of instrumentation, it never comes at the expense of the overall groove. For example, on the title-cut, a Theremin rings over hopping piano chords, but here it is used for a funky effect, not for the trippy Sci-Fi-isms of “Good Vibrations”. I swear, using a Theremin in a danceable fashion has to be one of the cooler accomplishments of 20th Century music; imagine the G-funk synth lines of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and you’ll be close to the sound the Beach Boys were hitting at in 1967. The Beach Boys—the quintessential white band—even does a decent version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her” on the album. Now how many honkies have done a Stevie Wonder song justice? The Red Hot Chili Peppers never did.
Whereas they sounded stoned out of their minds on Smiley Smile, throughout Wild Honey the band sounds refreshed and sharp, moreover they sound like they’re having a blast. This includes Brian Wilson who even though he was suffering a mental breakdown and spending most of his time in his bedroom managed to still come up with melodic gems and sing his Californian heart out (the band had built a home studio adjacent to Brian’s bedroom to accommodate their troubled leader). One of the best jams on the album (and yes: it is a jam!) is the bouncy “Here Comes The Night” in which Brian and the boys sing a jivey chorus that is far rawer than any of their past melodies, though equally as memorable. “Let The Wind Blow” is a moody ballad that swirls and throbs with a subtle psychedelia more hinted at than indulged in; proof of a growing sophistication that improves upon the Smiley Smile formula. In a beehive of swarming, rock n’ roll goodness, the most rousing moment on Wild Honey is the track “Darlin”, which charges forth with a mini-super production of layered horns and vocal harmonies (the track is still scaled down by usual Beach Boys’ standards). If on Pet Sounds Brian Wilson showed how the studio could be effectively utilized for self-expression, on Wild Honey he showed how an artist could transcend by dropping pretenses and embracing music in its most primal and purest form.
This two-for-one disk also includes generous extras like alternate takes of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes & Vibrations.” The greatest inclusion, however, is the track “Can’t Wait Too Long”, which was another lost masterpiece of Brian’s recorded between SMiLE and Wild Honey. My bet is that bands like Stereolab and Radiohead have heard this groundbreaking production, for many of their soundscapes echo the sublime sonics and instrumentation of “Can’t Wait Too Long”. This song is easily one of Brian Wilson’s greatest achievements as a songwriter and producer; in 5 minutes and thirty-five seconds it does for his musical legacy what the entire White Album did for The Beatles. “Can’t Wait Too Long”, with its trancelike repetition and ultra-modern ambiance, is yet another piece that sounds right at home in the 21st Century. Maybe waiting to release it until the 1990s was good timing...
With Smiley Smile, Wild Honey and these extra music selections one doesn’t hear the sounds of the past; one hears the whistle of the future and the buzz of the universal.
By: Edwin Faust
Published on: 2003-09-01