My name is James R______ and I am of sound mind. For the next several hours, I will listen to all 5 discs of the Beach Boys' Smile Sessions boxed set nonstop. I'd like to thank Spotify for saving me the $130 price of the actual boxed set. If I survive this experience, I'll buy the real thing for my dad for Christmas. The system works!
Headphones on. (I have a new neighbor who plays piano all day. Today, no joke, she's giving the thundering Keith Jarrett treatment to Slayer's "Raining Blood.")
To the uninitiated, Smile was the Chinese Democracy of the mid-sixties, a potential masterpiece thwarted by madness and infighting. It appeared as the much-downsized Smiley Smile in 1967, and again as an ill-advised Brian Wilson album in 2004. But I'll leave the history in more capable hands. I'm on disc 1, track 7, "Barnyard," a satanic cello rendition of "You Are My Sunshine." And already I'm sensing that I should also leave the album itself to proper reviewers like this one. Soon, we'll get into the 4 discs of outtakes—hundreds of dizzying little details, most of them half-buried in the final mixes.
I should mention that I have a serious thing for outtakes. Like a band's between-song gig banter, outtakes are where bands show their true colors: how well they can actually play (really well, in this case), how they treat each other (Wilson very demanding, often funny, often, understandably, a dick) and how much method they layer beneath the pop sheen (no one has done so with more lavish conviction than the Beach Boys).
All that aside, listening to the band perfect their harmonies almost made me drool onto my trackpad. And if one of them asks, "You guys feeling the acid yet?" mid-take (disc 2, track 2), so much the better.
Disc 2, track 7: oh god. Really irate banter followed by a menacing rundown of what should be the fun, acrobatic "Do a Lot." You can hear the teeth they're singing through. If the goal of this set is to make me start feeling like Brian Wilson circa '67, it's working. Before this is over, I'll be writing from a supine position on the floor.
A thought: are these the building blocks of a future mashup album, e.g. The Grey Album and Wugazi's 13 Chambers? Will 2012 see My Beautiful Dark Twisted Smile?
Disc 2, track 23: "Let's sing on key, god dammit." Followed by some of the tightest vocal layering ever—layering which is probably a passing flourish in the finished track.
I miscalculated. This is the opposite of how one should experience The Smile Sessions. It should be taken in small doses or repurposed, but definitely not swallowed whole.
And I lied. Now it's the next day, and I'm starting disc 3 on a plane. I'd like to thank Virgin America for bringing wifi to the friendly skies. I slept four hours last night, dreaming of harpsichords and bass harmonicas; throughout there was a tinny voice repeating, "Come on, let's get it right."
My laptop's battery doesn't have the strength for this. Nor do I. At the end of disc 3—a single low piano chord, maybe an unintentional reference to Sgt. Pepper's, the album that pushed Wilson over the edge—I predict that I won't hunger for outtakes anytime soon. Dad, I think I'll opt for the 2-disc version (or maybe a nice, tranquilizing Bublé collection) come Christmastime.