After 38 years of broken promises from the Beach Boy camp that Smile is finally coming out, Brian Wilson’s advisers hit upon the best possible scenario for finishing his incomplete masterwork that wouldn’t leave fans feeling empty or cheated — just rerecord the damned thing with the Wondermints, take it on the road, and get Mike Love and his hat collection out of the equation entirely. No doubt fans will greet it euphorically like a long-awaited reunion tour, and it is — but not of a band. It’s the reunion of an album whose fragments have been lying dormant for decades as a symbol of Wilson’s creative collapse.
Inadvertently, it’s also a reunion of the Beach Boys’ most creative period with its most enduring oldies in a live setting, something that hasn’t happened since the mid-’70s, when Carl Wilson was still the driving force behind the band’s live sets and “Surf’s Up” and “Heroes and Villains” constituted the main course, and oldies like “Fun Fun Fun” and “Surfin’ USA” would be the encore dessert. Just one blast of the a cappella “Our Prayer” at the start of the Smile suite should be sufficient enough to blast away any notions of “Kokomo” as a defining Beach Boy moment. If the U.S. tour follows the game plan of Wilson’s triumphant Royal Festival Hall concert last February where Smile was first played, the show might begin with a relaxed unplugged set followed by an electric set of oldies ranging from “God Only Knows” to a “Row Row Row Your Boat” sing-along at the end of “Sloop John B.”
But it’s Smile that’s the main draw, and even people who hate the Beach Boys have to concede its curiosity value. Of course, re-creating a classic album nobody’s ever heard in its entirety could’ve also spelled disaster. Yet there’s no obvious attempt to “update” the sound with a postmodern echo plate or a fucking vocoder. And the “wun-wun-wonderful” Wondermints, perhaps the most sympathetic backing band since Elvis Presley’s last Vegas outfit, eerily re-create every timpani, snare hit and keyboard stab as if it was sampled from the master tapes, as if any variation could send Brian racing back to his sandbox.
Wilson has spent the last few years revisiting Pet Sounds onstage as well as in the studio — and songs that require him to sing like a 24-year-old choirboy haven’t exactly benefited from his singing-out-of-one-side-of-his-mouth-like-Buddy-Hackett technique. Amazingly, that’s not an issue here. His rough-hewn voice actually adds character to tracks like “Heroes and Villains” and “Cabinessence.” On record, he manages the achingly beautiful falsetto required for “Surf’s Up” and the rerecorded “Our Prayer” has none of the cigarette and ash that marred his 1988 solo pastiche, “One for the Boys.” Live, without the benefit of multiple takes, it could be trickier, but guitarist Jeffery Foskett’s falsetto is no doubt fully deputized to jump in and smooth vocal spackle over any rough spots.
Smile geeks will sigh with relief that a lot of what has passed for esoteric instrumentals for decades actually had lyrics that now make the piece finally coalesce. But mysteries still abound — it’s hard to figure out what Brian singing a snatch of the Tony Bennett hit “I Wanna Be Around” is doing in “The Elemental Suite”— but since they’re exhuming Smile with his participation, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces” sorta makes sense. Wilson’s awkward stage presence, which has been likened to a trained bear, is also less of an issue when songs run continuously into one another. Those sensitive to Wilson’s fragile image will probably enjoy seeing him blast away on power tools for “Workshop” and don a fireman’s hat for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” the legendary track Wilson ordered destroyed because he believed it was the cause of a rash of Los Angeles fires in 1967. The Smile portion closes with “Good Vibrations.” In perhaps the niftiest bit of revisionism, Wilson performs this done-to-death crowd-pleaser with the original Tony Asher lyrics just so Mike Love’s royalty check gets chopped in half! As a concert piece, Smile is freed up from answering questions as to what its place in pop history would’ve been if its creator hadn’t choked. Forget if it would’ve kicked Sgt. Pepper’s ass or not, this is an extraordinary piece of work by a premier American songwriter in this or any century.
See Brian Wilson at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor); call 734-668-8480 for more information. Monday, Oct. 4; doors at 7:30 p.m.Serene Dominic is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]