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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Brian Wilson


Review by Steve Alspach

Some albums have been labeled ahead of their time, but this one takes the cake. The quantum leap that Brian Wilson tried to take between the "Fun, Fun, Fun" Beach Boys of two years prior to this sprawling paean to American music left him severely fried and made for great fodder for rumors and speculation. Some thirty-seven years later, "The Greatest Album Never Made" had to relinquish its title, and we're all the better for it. Smile could not have been released in 1967 because, frankly, America was probably not ready for it. Snippets of old Tin Pan Alley songs, sound experimentation, harpsichords, orchestral arrangements, and lush vocals all carry this album (one can imagine Carl Wilson's and Al Jardine's guitars collecting a lot of dust during the original recording sessions). Add to that Van Dyke Parks' "I think it makes sense" lyrics, and one can understand why Smile had to wait so long to be appreciated. But now is the time. Brian Wilson has found a group of musicians who could not only play some rather dense arrangements but could match the harmonies of the original Beach Boys. Feel free to argue the merits of Smile versus Pet Sounds as to the best Brian Wilson album, but in the meantime, put on this album and, well…

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 3 at

Track by Track Review
Our Prayer / Gee:
An a cappella arrangement starts off, rich, ethereal, and indicative of the fact that Brian Wilson really was years ahead of his peers in vocal arrangements. "Gee" sounds more like vintage Beach Boys with its doo-wop arrangement and honky-tonk piano while serving as a prelude to the next tune.

Heroes and Villains
The first single that featured Parks' lyrics, the song didn't chart all that well. Maybe it was the oblique lyrics concerning the old west that threw listeners off, but the song also was their first release after "Good Vibrations" - not the easiest act to follow, either. There is a middle section that was not included in the original single version as well.

Roll Plymouth Rock
A rather plain melody gives way to a catchy syncopated chorus line and a break that uses the melodic line from "Heroes and Villains."
Almost a throwaway, this 58-second song includes two short verses and a plethora of human-made barnyard animal noises.
Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine:
Perhaps the first use of a bowed double-bass solo in rock, "Old Master Painter" is a short prelude, but "You Are My Sunshine" has a uniquely sad feel to it.
Cabin Essence
This one originally cropped up on 1969's "20/20" album. The verses are twice as potent as your favorite comfort food, but the chorus has a roller-coaster vocal arrangement.

This song starts a four-song suite that, as far as I can tell, would have wrapped up side 1 in the old vinyl days. A slower piece with a baroque sound (read: the harpsichord takes the lead), "Wonderful" is another great example of Brian Wilson's great sense of melody.
Song for Children:
Here Wilson introduces the lyrical theme of "The child is the father." One can sense that this piece is taking a step in the building the dynamic feeling of the suite, and there's also a snippet that Wilson seemed to borrow from "Good Vibrations."

Child is Father of the Man
More variations on the "Child is father of the man" theme.
Surf's Up
The title song of the Beach Boys' 1971 album (much to Wilson's consternation, according to his autobiography "Wouldn't It Be Nice"), this song is sadly noted for Parks' lyrics that pretty much led the rest of the Beach Boys to a revolt. ("Columnated ruins domino"? Well, don't they all.) This song sounds much more in its element here than it did in 1971, and the coda wraps up the "Child is father of the man" theme wonderfully.

I'm In Great Shape / I Wanna Be Around / Workshop
The song starts off like a turn-of-the-century waltz. It quickly segues into an old Johnny Mercer tune before jumping just as quicky into a bit of musique concrete. This short medley is arguably the biggest head-scratcher on the album.

What was it about vegetables in 1967 that was so flipping appealing? If it wasn't the Mothers of Invention yodeling about rutabagas, it's this one. "Vega-tables" was another song that found its way on Smiley Smile, the patch-job of an album that the Beach Boys released. Complete with chewing noises as a rhythmic tool as well.

On A Holiday
Brian continues the playful mood with slide whistles and marimbas on this one while using the chorus line from "Roll Plymouth Rock".
Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (fire)
The famous instrumental that Brian thought was the cause of a lot of brushfires around the LA area (like the LA area isn't prone to that sort of thing to begin with), this is the heaviest song of the album with the screechy violins, clanging fire bells, and some surprisingly heavy guitar blasts.
In Blue Hawaii
The voices give the impression of the scorched aftermath of a fire, but the song quickly moves into a more bouncy feel. The tail end uses a bit from Our Prayer.
Good Vibrations
Well, how else are you going to end this? It's a bit of a catch with different lyrics and a small lengthening of the "gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations a-happenin' with her" section , but much of the original arrangement is still intact. It really says something about the album, though, when one of the classic rock songs of all time feels like an understated way to wrap things up.
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