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Making God Smile: A Tribute to the Songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

BeachBoys.com June 2002
by ?

Without a doubt the BEST Brian WIlson/Beach Boys tribute album yet, this is an excellent crop of covers, performed by mostly little-known Christian artists, I was really pleased with what I heard on this album. It's stuffed with fully-produced, sparkly arrangements with just a bit of bite to them that makes each song really come alive. The focus of the producers was to show off Brian's innate spirituality that he's often expressed in his favorite songs, and the artists here succeed brilliantly. For example, the trippy piano part that introduces Aaron Sprinkle's take on "I Know There's An Answer/Hang Onto Your Ego" is perfect -- bright and shiny. And Sixpence None the Richer (the only artist here I've heard of) turns in a fab take on "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." There's a grand finish at the end of Phil Keaggy's "Good Vibrations," and the harmonies on Randy Stonehill's "Love And Mercy" is breathtaking! Worth buying for just that track. Kevin Max & Jimmy A sound like they're channeling U2 in their clever re-imagining of "Help Me Rhonda" (and yes, that's a compliment), and there is a lazy, summer-days (and summer nights) feel to Phil Madeira's instrumental "Heroes and Villains." Kate Campbell uses chiming guitars and a gentle country swing to "Add Some Music To Your Day," and Doug Powell creates a drenching guitar-and-vocal power-pop wall of sound for "'Til I Die." There's more, and all of it good or at least interesting. The songs sound brand-new, instead of decades old, and that's a great tribute to Brian and to these artists. The fat color booklet includes each artists' impressions of the songs they've chosen and of Brian Wilson. Included as a bonus for those who purchase this set from the Silent Planet website is a second disc of nine additional tracks which won't be available in stores and which includes a couple of alternate mixes, additional songs, and one new song by Harrod & Funck called "Brian Wilson's Room" which is a reverent folk-tinged song, a perfect closer to a near-perfect album.

ChristianityToday.com July 2002
by Russ Breimeier

Making God Smile is an album that works on multiple levels. First and foremost, it is a loving gift and tribute to the musical genius of Brian Wilson, who turned 60 years old this past June. Part of this album's title is a nod to Brian's unreleased Smile album, which largely became The Beach Boys' two landmark albums Smiley Smile and Pet Sounds. No doubt some readers are wondering what in the world Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys have to do with Christian music, especially considering Brian's struggles with substance abuse in past years. The legendary songwriter once described Smile as a "teenage symphony to God," and in regard to the recording process of Pet Sounds, he said, "God was with us the whole time we were doing this record. God was right there with me … I could feel that feeling in my brain." Many Christian artists would tend to agree that Brian's music has a divine influence, since so many of them have been positively influenced by his work. As Christians, we can be thankful to God for the gift of music, no matter who makes it. As Silent Planet Records president Steve West puts is, "He, after all, is the source of all good art." Pay attention to the words on Kate Campbell's folk-country cover of "Add Some Music to Your Day" for more on the blessings of music. Besides, isn't the song "Lay Down Burden," performed here by Jane Kelly Williams, essentially saying the same thing as Max Lucado's book, Traveling Light – that there are burdens in life not meant to be carried by us? Isn't it possible to glean spiritual truths from the music of Brian Wilson?

Additionally, as noted artist and writer John Fischer rightly points out, this is a great way to expose the public to a handful of very talented Christian artists and hopefully eliminate the stigma of "inferior music" through commonly appealing songs. The talent is certainly present on this recording, and I'm glad the people behind Making God Smile chose to keep the album restrained and focused. They chose to include only songs that were written or co-written by Brian Wilson, and most all of them were selected from the Pet Sounds-era of the mid-'60s. With that parameter set, the artists and producers did a wonderful job of bringing these classics into the 21st century while largely remaining true to the source material. As evidenced by the liner notes and the final product, a lot of love and respect went into crafting the arrangements. The table is appropriately set with the opening track, "Your Imagination," performed by Tom Prasada-Rad and Amilia K. Spicer. It's a great way to lyrically pay homage to Brian's creativity with his own words, and it's a perfect example of what to expect from the rest of the album. In this case, the song is faithful to the original except for its use of acoustic guitars and a drum loop not unlike the sound of early Jars of Clay (who, by the way, would have been perfect for this album).

Sixpence None the Richer similarly blends their modern folk/pop style with the original music on their graceful cover of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." Several other artists successfully adapt their own signature sound to the songs, altering the feel without drastically transforming the originals. For example, folk artist Jan Krist lends an air of winsome nostalgia to her cover of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" that's a strong contrast to the happy sound of the original, and it works beautifully. Derrick Harris transforms "Don't Worry Baby" into catchy and smooth acoustic pop reminiscent of Shane Barnard, Justin McRoberts, or Kepano Green. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Phil Madeira turns "Heroes and Villains" into a poignant instrumental song. He acknowledges that part of the reason is that his low, gravely voice wasn't made for singing The Beach Boys, but he carries off the song perfectly with steel guitars, dobro, and piano. The overall arrangement is melancholic and bittersweet. Really the only track on the album that didn't work for my ears is "Help Me Rhonda," performed by Kevin Max (dc Talk) and Jimmy A (Vector, Ragamuffin Band). It's the electronic Euro-pop you'd expect from Kevin, who produced the song, but it just doesn't seem to work with the song. Once you get used to the initial shock of the extremely different sound and the transformation of the melody, nothing else interesting happens in the song. And at five minutes in length, it long overstays its welcome.

Several other tracks will appeal to Brian Wilson purists, simply because they're performed by fellow purists. Guitarist Brooks Williams performs a faithful remake of "Pet Sounds," appropriately blending rock with the bossa nova and '60s lounge pop. Anyone who's listened to Randy Stonehill and Terry Scott Taylor over the years know they're both diehard fans of Brian, and their vocals are so perfect for this album, you'd swear they were once Beach Boys themselves. Randy and Terry tackle "Love and Mercy" with a tender arrangement, and Terry adds just a little extra camp to the already silly "Vegetables." Most impressive of all are the three tracks by Christian journeymen. Phil Keaggy perfectly replicates "Good Vibrations," playing and singing everything himself except for the drums and the Mike Love vocals (handled by friend Gene Miller) – an amazing feat considering the sonic masterpiece of the original. Aaron Sprinkle of Poor Old Lu also performs all the notes in his arrangement, a perfectly natural blending of "I Know There's an Answer" and "Hang on to Your Ego." Adding electric guitars and a programmed drum groove to the mix, it sounds a bit like Audio Adrenaline performing the songs, and yet it also captures the classic Beach Boys sound. The same is true of Rick Altizer and his decidedly modernized version of "Surf's Up." He, too, plays every instrument himself, and it's clear Rick has a deep affection for the music in the way he preserves the original song while giving it a modern art-rock feel.

Serious fans of the music may want to consider ordering the album through Silent Planet's website, where you can obtain the special limited-edition 2-disc version of the album, featuring eight additional covers and remixes. As it stands, Making God Smile is an inspired tribute album with a generous supply of creative arrangements. I love the music and the message behind it - that we can glorify God and he can speak to us beyond our limited definitions of "Christian music."