Nothing to smile about

Am I the only critic in the universe who doesn't love Brian Wilson's "Smile"? Plus: Free music for jazz fans, Saturday Looks Good to Me admirers and Christmas-song haters.

Published December 1, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

In order to collect songs for this column, I spend many hours every week trawling the Web for free MP3s. So I have a keen appreciation for the amount of work that has gone into 3Hive, a great compendium of links to free MP3s. The three friends behind 3Hive search out free MP3s posted on band and label Web pages, and collect the links in a large, searchable, daily updated archive. Best of all, they include only full-length MP3s -- no song excerpts, no streams. 3Hive currently links to music from more than 200 artists, including WMD favorites like Arto Lindsay, the Robot Ate Me, Low and the Silent League.

"Heroes and Villains," Brian Wilson, from "Smile"
The critical reception for Brian Wilson's "Smile" has been astounding. You'd expect a few worshipful reviews from Brian Wilson fanatics or from listeners too blinded by his legend to be anything but worshipful, and no doubt many people were so excited that Wilson, who has seemed like such a burned-out wreck of a man for the past few decades, had managed to pull together a credible record at all that it became a masterpiece just by virtue of its listenability. But this is as close to critical consensus as it gets: Metacritic has "Smile" down as the best reviewed record of 2004 (just above Loretta Lynn's "Van Lear Rose," another breathlessly overrated comeback). After critical praise comes backlash, a tiresome and apparently immutable cycle -- and one I don't relish taking part in. So please, think of this not as part of a backlash, but rather as a cry of genuine confusion: Have you all lost your minds? Are you high on the intoxicating fumes of Brian Wilson's past glories? Did Nonesuch pay out huge bribes to every critic in the country and just forget to include me? This new "Smile" hails from the world of amateur theatrics. It sounds like a performance by the pit orchestra in "Waiting for Guffman."

"Heroes and Villains" is one of the few "Smile" songs that actually existed in a finished version in 1967 (released on "Smiley Smile"), and although it's not among my favorite Beach Boys songs to begin with, I've been listening back and forth to the 1967 and 2004 versions to try to figure out what makes the first so much more appealing to me than the second. The differences are remarkably subtle. The singing is part of the problem. In the original version Wilson sounds relaxed and casual, but in the rerecording he and all the backup singers are like second-rate actors trying to appear cheerful and gung-ho -- all thumbs-up, with excruciating fake smiles. But what's happened sonically is probably more significant. The arrangement is nearly identical, but the original was mixed and recorded mushily, the occasionally absurd intricacies of Wilson's writing seen through a flattering soft-focus lens, while the 2004 version is all harsh clarity. Even very beautiful things can seem quite plain when seen under fluorescent lights.

So why am I including a track that I'm so disappointed by? Because few people seem to agree with me about "Smile" -- and because I'm so thrilled that Nonesuch has offered anything for free download. I'd like to encourage them (and any other major labels that happen to be listening) to continue the practice. Free Download: "Heroes and Villains"

"Leave the Place," flashpapr, from "flashpapr"
Fans of Saturday Looks Good to Me should know that the group's mastermind, Fred Thomas, has another band -- a better band -- called flashpapr. Because flashpapr's members are all busy with other projects and because they are either unwilling to promote themselves or are just very bad at it, they remain perfectly obscure, a precious secret for friends and friends of friends. Their new self-titled, self-released offering is one of the most beautiful records I've heard this year. With a drumless, electro-acoustic lineup (acoustic guitar, upright bass, two violins and whispered, atmospheric electronics), they make simple, patient, loving music, unabashedly romantic and without a trace of melodrama or irony. Thomas' talent is obvious in Saturday Looks Good to Me's catchy, classic pop songs, but the songs he writes for flashpapr are less casual, less derivative and considerably more powerful, filled with arresting images: "Were we to dance in dresses/ Made of our old letters/ Costumes so fragile they might come apart." Four tracks from the new record are available for free download here, all worth hearing. "Leave the Place" is my favorite, with music that mirrors the eerie, static atmosphere and muted, mournful yearning of Thomas' beautiful lyrics: "I waited all winter for you/ Crumpled in the bed in the corners of your white room/ Photographs held up the walls/ With the years that were here well before me." Free Download: "Leave the Place"

"5 Mo," Andrew Hill, live recording
Palmetto Records, one of the best and most adventurous contemporary jazz labels, has a download page with unreleased outtakes and live performances, a real treasure trove. Three years ago, Palmetto put out a live record by Andrew Hill, the great and greatly underappreciated composer and pianist, performing with a 17-piece big band at Birdland, and they've made unabridged versions of a few of the tracks available for download. "5 Mo" has an extended drum solo at the beginning -- much the best place for drum solos, considering how frequently they destroy the momentum of a piece -- and then the horns creep in, sounding like nothing so much as a Balkan brass band. What follows are 15 minutes of strange, riveting improvisation, flirting with anarchy but held together by Hill's knotty aesthetic. Free Download: "5 Mo"

"Christmas Party," the Walkmen, from "Christmas Party"
If the impending holiday season tends to leave you not so much full of good cheer as desperate, confused and drunk, the Walkmen have the perfect Christmas song for you. What begins as a sweet tribute to cheesy '50s Christmas songs, complete with jingle bells, an earnest narrator and an oohing female singer, soon devolves into nearly unhinged semi-anarchy (the piano playing sounds like it was cribbed from Big Star's "Third/Sister Lovers," the archetypal breakdown record) as Hamilton Leithauser drunkenly wails, "I jumped up/ And I felt tipsy/ I can't stand up/ So hold onto me this Christmas." Free Download: "Christmas Party"

Nirvana, "With the Lights Out" box set
One of the perks of the digital age is the option to download individual tracks from box sets -- gone are the years of buying luxuriously packaged 10-disc extravaganzas just to get the handful of precious tracks you can't live without. "With the Lights Out," the long-awaited collection of Nirvana outtakes, demos and rehearsal tapes, is a boon for Nirvana obsessives, but most of it is less than necessary for the rest of us -- the band's genius was in the finished product, not the process. The tracks I've enjoyed most are the four Leadbelly covers: "Ain't It a Shame," "Grey Goose," "They Hung Him on a Cross" and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." "Ain't It a Shame" has Cobain singing and screaming quite playfully over a rockabilly groove, while "They Hung Him on a Cross" and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" are both solo acoustic demos -- in the former, Cobain almost seems to be doing a Leadbelly impression, but he had really made the latter his own song. "Grey Goose," an entirely instrumental version of an entirely a cappella song (Leadbelly's original is also available for download on iTunes), is the one that really fascinates me, though. There's also a thrilling, nine-minute long, largely instrumental rehearsal take of "Scentless Apprentice." (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

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By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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