I just listened this morning to That Lucky Old Sun, the well-received new album from former Beach Boy and crazy person Brian Wilson. To me it sounds quite a bit like his ecstatically received, yet somehow disappointing, 2004 release, Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Which is to say, rather too mellowed-out or studio-sweetened for my liking, but nonetheless musically interesting and evocative, however dimly, of bygone days.

The clunky title (“Brian Wilson Presents…”) says it all: This is not the genuine Smile, that lost and near-mythic Beach Boys album recorded in the psychedelic haze of 1966-67 but never released. The original Smile, or SMiLE, was widely expected to be Wilson’s masterpiece: a worthy follow-up to the stellar Pet Sounds (1966) and an artistic riposte, of sorts, to the Beatles’ triumphant Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). But it never happened. Wilson suffered a bit of a neural meltdown, the final mix never got made, and the Beach Boys began their slow fade to Classic Rockdom.

Fortunately the story did not end there, nor did it culminate with Wilson’s re-recording of the same material for his 2004 release. Because the original Smile, like the hippie scene at large, never really died. It just left the earthly plane for a weird sort of digital afterlife. And now it’s back.

What happened is a long story, but basically this: Over the years, the original studio tapes mysteriously leaked, the way things do, to an avid community of fans, bootleggers, amateur recording engineers, ROIO buffs and — with the advent of digital music and the internet — net wizards with a nostalgic bent and time on their hands. Reconstructing Smile was something of a grail quest for some of these folks — the main problem being, of course, that properly speaking you can’t reconstruct something that was never constructed in the first place. No one (including Wilson himself, probably) knew what the final track list or song order was going to be. Some of the tracks, like “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” existed in fairly advanced form, and in fact were finished and released separately from the parent album. Other tracks were in extremely raw form, just a bunch of unmastered studio takes. Nonetheless, many creditable attempts were made over the years to create a plausible facsimile of what the unfinished album might have been like, had it been pushed to completion.

Wilson’s decision to finish Smile on his own, while anticlimactic and (to my ear) unfulfilling, did at least tie the loose ends together. Now we had a definitive track list, a final ruling on matters of sequence and timing, a choice among competing lyrics for several tracks (including “Good Vibrations”), and a myriad of other, smaller artistic decisions. Now the fans and bedroom producers and freelancing engineers could get back to work on the original 1966-67 recordings, with a clear roadmap to follow.

The results, as you can imagine, vary in sound and quality. The best of them all, I think, is the Purple Chick reconstruction, released in 2006. The encoding is done with LAME 3.92 at, I believe, the old “alt-preset extreme” setting, averaging about 255 kbps. I’ve included some high-res artwork and the Purple Chick release notes.

I think you’ll find that this artfully remade Smile really sounds like a freshly minted Beach Boys album, circa summer ’67. And that it totally kicks the stuffing out of “Brian Wilson Presents…”

Enjoy.

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Edit: While searching for “Beach Boys” on the elbo.ws music blog aggregator, I ran across this little quotation from the late rock critic Lester Bangs: “Nothing ever quite dies, it just comes back in a different form.” That’s what I’m talking about.

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