Wilson's Smile Delivers Even Better Vibrations on Vinyl!

LP mastering engineer Don Grossinger brought over two LP editions of Smile last week, test pressings from RTI used for the domestic Rhino release and a set from Pallas in Germany for the European market. Grossinger cut identical lacquers for both.

First of all, as Bob Ludwig predicted, the LPs, cut from an analog tape copy of the 88.2K original (see story) add another octave of high frequency extension compared to the CD, and the result is a far more natural and organic sound to the production. Soundstaging is far more open and expansive and for the first time, you can actually "sense" and "see" Wilson's head and mouth. Transients are far cleaner, faster and more transparent, and the level of sonic excitement is greatly heightened.

The double set is exquisitely packaged, with a blue foil insert of "Smile" logo and embossed picture frame effect on the front and rear of the double truck gatefold packaging.

RTI's pressing was tighter and better defined in the bass, while the Pallas pressing offered a wider, arc-shaped soundstage, with greater transient speed and clarity and an overall more pristine-sounding picture. Either version will do, believe me! Now back to the original review, written before the LP was released:

How this long awaited project finally came to be is well covered in the articles and interviews found elsewhere on this website. You should read that first. It won't prepare you for what's been produced on this disc, but it puts into focus the enormity of the accomplishment and lets the reviewer off the hook.

Re-creating any failed musical project almost 30 years after the fact, however pure the motives, is almost an impossibility, especially this one given the fragility of the composer involved. Even were Lennon and Harrison still available to perform on it, imagine trying to “finish” Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had some songs not been recorded, by re-recording the entire song cycle, and making it sound convincing and credible.

That was the level of the challenge facing the participants. “Good Vibrations,” went beyond familiar-it was iconic. Other songs such as “Surf's Up” and “Heroes And Villains “ were also burned into the synapses of millions of Wilson fans. Fans lucky enough to buy 20-20 when it was issued heard original Smile session performances of “Our Prayer” and “Cabin Essence.”

Over the years Smile had acquired a life of its own. Bootlegs stitched together forensic versions of what fans thought Wilson intended, and articles surmised what it might have sounded like. Now we know much of what Brian had in mind, not just in form, but in spirit. Fear not a “Good Vibrations” that compares to the familiar #1 single the way Ringo's summer tour “Help From My Friends” compares to the original.

Even Brian partisans recognized a brittleness permeating his “comeback” music making. It's not here, which is a good thing, because this music requires suppleness and flow. And it requires effective vocalizing, which the Beach Boys certainly were capable of delivering. The singing here is actually better in most ways compared to The Beach Boys-especially whoever's covering for Mike Love's parts. Love wasn't into this phase of Wilson's music-making and he detested Van Dyke Parks's lyrics, which he didn't understand. Who does? Not that it matters. Parks's lyrical impressionism worked brilliantly during the '60s. His dazzling ephemeral word-pictures, depicting an optimistic, sunny Americana, are even more effectively now as both a tonic and as nostalgia. Wilson's vocals rise to the occasion as well. You can sense Wilson casting off decades old cobwebs as he swims toward the musical light.

The finished Smile is an ambitious celebration of a once bright and optimistic America and of the power of the unfettered human voice. It opens with a series of rich cascading a-capella grooves that bathe the listener in golden honey, in preparation for what's to come. For listeners used to today's “modern” dynamically compressed, bright and etchy recordings, the immediacy, power, transparency and richness of Mark Linett's production will be truly startling-even listening on computer speakers. This is one musical package not worth owning as a downloaded MP3 file. In fact, the vocals were recorded using a vacuum tube driven board identical to the one used by The Beach Boys throughout the 1960's.

The familiar “Heroes and Villains” comes first, and the performance and production immediately erase any doubts about the viability of the project. The singing is remarkably strong, losing nothing to the original. The production and sound quality, while somewhat “ultra-clean” and harmonically restrained for my tastes, is still leagues beyond what passes for “modern sound” today.

The sound is coherent and full-bodied, with uncommonly well-focused three dimensional images on an expansive soundstage few modern pop records deliver. That's true in part because Wilson chose to record master tracks with everyone playing live-including strings and horns according to David Leaf's annotation-and in the same Sunset Sound Studio One (with original echo chamber intact) used for the original “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains.”

Listening to “Cabin Essence,” you hear in one song what High Llamas's Sean O'Hagan turned into an entire and rich musical career-and that's not meant to slight O'Hagan.

By the time the song cycle reaches “Surf's Up,” the listener has been elevated to heights of musical and sonic ecstasy few contemporary records are capable of producing. More musical riches follow including “Vega-tables,” “Wind Chimes,” “In Blue Hawaii,” and finally wrapping up with “Good Vibrations.”

Wilson's original plan included a trip through American musical time. 30 years later, an additional layer of time does nothing to diminish the brilliance and audacity of the concept and of Wilson's musical growth while still a young man. If early Beach Boys was about sand, surf and car-centric Southern California in the early '60s, Smile is about growing up and reaching back to find America's rich musical heritage. With the teen musical constraints dropped, Wilson's musical influences become more pronounced: the vocal harmonies of The Four Freshman, perhaps the melodies of Stephen Foster, and definitely the grand sweep of George Gershwin.

The musical mix of strings, horns, fanciful sound effects, pounding tympani, and complex vocal harmonies-gracefully takes flight thanks to Wilson's extraordinary arranging gifts-his soaring, swooping palette of colors and textures, his use of unexpected silences, and his ability to construct segue ways and bridges that create musical updrafts lifting the listener ever higher.

The endless possibilities promised in the mid- 60's and embodied in Wilson's Smilehave given way to a grimmer 21st Century, but this newly minted time capsule is a gift that reminds us of what was, and perhaps what still could be. If you buy one disc this year, make it this one.

Editor's note: I may have already told you this story, but I'll repeat it: back in the mid-80's a friend of mine was Brian Wilson's doctor for a short time. He was not a fan, and was not much into music, period. One day he called and asked if I'd like to meet Wilson-as a goof. I was taken aback by his attitude, but glad to have the opportunity.

He drove me into the Sunset Blvd. hills off the coast to a nice home in which I found a grossly obese Brian Wilson, wearing some kind of diaper. There was an adult size high chair with a tray covered in cigarette burns. Wilson was smoking, lighting one cigarette after another and forgetting the one he'd just lit.

While my friend discussed Wilson's condition and his medication regimen with the full time nurse, I tried talking with him, but it was difficult. His mouth was peculiarly twisted, and his voice was guttural and sandpapery. He spoke in short outbursts as if he was communicating from far away, which, being heavily medicated, he obviously was.

At one point he left the room and came back with a stack of LPs-not in jackets. He flipped through them telling me what each was-some jazz, some gospel, some rock-and apologizing that he couldn't play any of them because his record player was broken.

Brian Wilson with a broken record player and no one could take the time to fix it or get him a new one? How sick is that? “Maybe I can fix it for you!” I exclaimed. A warm flush came over me as I thought of the implications of being able to add music to Brian Wilson's day! He looked at me in anticipation with a puppy face as he led me to the cabinet in which I found a Dual 1209 or perhaps one model down, in mid-cycle-the arm hanging in the air.

A closer inspection showed a cantilever bent at a right angle midway down the shaft. I popped out the headshell, disconnected the wires, and took the 'table down from the shelf. Freeing up the changer's cam mechanism was easy. A shot of petroleum jelly in the cam's pathways, plus a bit of bending and straightening got the mechanism working perfectly. Wilson's nurse supplied a pair of tweezers and I set about working on the cantilever, which would either get straight, or break off. I've been there before! Luckily, it straightened out almost perfectly. I reinstalled, set the tracking force and anti-skating and put one of the records on the spindle. I pushed play, it dropped and soon I had added music to Brian Wilson's life! As soon as the first note hit, he closed his eyes and began rocking back and forth to the beat, tears falling from his eyes, and mine. A few minutes later he arose and began thanking me over and over, while vigorously pumping my hand.

My friend saw all of this, and oblivious to the significance of what had just occurred, laughed and said “Let's go. See? I told you it was a bizarre scene.” I don't know if Brian Wilson remembers that evening, but I'll never forget it!