Smiley Smile... Sounds the way it looks
Ten Underappreciated Beach Boys LPs: Smiley Smile
Published on January 9th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
We continue our look at ten Beach Boys albums we feel to be underappreciated – by the world at large, that is – with an appraisal of 1967 oddity Smiley Smile, released after the collapse of SMiLE as per the band’s obligation to Capitol Records and effectively a pared-down offshoot of selfsame magnum opus…
Click here to read part 1: Surfer Girl – here to read part 2: All Summer Long – here to read part 3: Today! – here to read part 4: Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) – and here to read our somewhat hallucinatory review of the recently-issued version of SMiLE
5. Smiley Smile (1967)
Irrespective of what it stands for – and some might argue that it’s more noteworthy for what it isn’t rather than what it is – Smiley Smile for the most part stands up as a cohesive long-player in its own right, and a rather splendid soundtrack for night-time beach and/or fireside sessions in Rocksucker’s personal experience.
Now that we have a definitive original SMiLE to grace our collections, Smiley Smile is in danger of being shunted out of the front line and filed alongside the also-underrated Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964) as a sort of bonus exploration for those who have just crossed the divide from curiosity into full-blown fan-boy-dom; a curio, if you will. We can’t bring ourselves to be so myopic as to pronounce this one of music’s great injustices, primarily because the album relies so heavily on SMiLE material, but the original tracks it does boast are either far too good or far too weird to be forgotten about.
Smiley Smile gets underway with an edit of “Heroes and Villains” whose most notable omission is the “In the cantina, margarita keeps the spirits high…” section, and we shan’t bother to say much more given the extent to which we already waxed lyrical about this song in our SMiLE review. While the “Heroes and Villains” on display here is sculpted from original SMiLE sessions, the subsequent version of “Vegetables” feels skeletal and, despite its mirthful vocal delivery and the playful touch of Paul McCartney’s celery-munching, somewhat unsettling compared to its contemporaneously unreleased counterpart.
This doesn’t mean that it’s bad, however; in fact, it’s significantly more representative of the album as a whole than “Heroes and Villains”. The harmonies and basic structure remain intact, but the arrangements are shockingly stark, especially considering that they would at the time have followed on from the almost impossibly rich textures of Pet Sounds. The ensuing “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” does similar with “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow”, while the versions of “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” present later in Smiley Smile‘s running order somehow manage to elicit dark, dank eeriness out of what were originally beautiful, fragile compositions. It’s as if they were corrupted childhood dreams, but fortunately they manage to beguile more than they disturb.
Oh yes, and “Good Vibrations” was shoehorned into the middle of the album at Capitol’s insistence. They knew best, of course.
“She’s Goin’ Bald”
All of which leaves us with the small smattering of Smiley Smile originals, the numbers that make this bizarre little album worthwhile. “She’s Goin’ Bald” could almost be the exact polar opposite of “Surfin’ USA”: quivering, gentle yet paranoid crooning sets a scene inferred by the title, before the whole thing turns into an intense, helium-infused acid trip, then into a campy horror movie soundtrack, and finally rides out on a more reconcilable Beach Boys groove on the words “Too late, mama/Ain’t nothing upside your head/No more, no more, no more, no more”. Stark raving mad, and nothing at all like anything any of The Beach Boys even attempted before or since. Perhaps that’s for the best.
“Little Pad” follows seamlessly, a doleful croon set against a backdrop of The Beach Boys laughing hysterically and larking about in what is as striking a contrast as you’re ever likely to hear within the first fifteen seconds of a pop song. This then gives way to the warmest, most luxurious combination of Hawaiian guitar and humming you could possibly imagine, paving the way for an achingly gorgeous little ukulele ditty sung, as is much of the album, by Brian. If “She’s Goin’ Bald” was an exercise in insanity, “Little Pad” is just another great Beach Boys song.
“Gettin’ Hungry” is also well and truly deserving of exalted status, its verses creeping and crawling to a weathered, minor-key lament of “Wake up in the morning just to work all through the day/The sun can get so hot that you can sweat your strength away” before the sudden major-key swell of “And OOOOOHHHHH come the night…” sets the stage for a rapturous, singalong chorus to rival that of “Let Him Run Wild” from Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), irrespective of the misogynistic undertones arguably present in both. “I’m gettin’ hungry,” chants our weary protagonist over a thick, crackling streak of sunshine-coloured organ, “soon I gotta find me a woman”: it’s at once elating and faintly tragic, like so many of the greatest Beach Boys songs, but in a more blue-collar way than the teenage heartbreak of Pet Sounds. It also manages to sound really rather exotic. Figure that one out.
“With Me Tonight” and “Cool, Cool Water”-esque closing track “Whistle In” are both pretty little things that lilt lovingly over repeated vocal refrains and tropical backing vocables, but there’s not much more to say about either other than that they do their bit to smooth out the running order of a deceptive, disturbed, confusing yet richly rewarding batch of fire-lit and fiery-bellied little numbers.
Quite how an album could be so spiky and so soothing at the same time remains a source of confusion to us, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Smiley Smile: it’s like having a marshmallow mantrap clamped down on your brain. Make of that what you will.