It’s an intriguing musical moment I’d been waiting for most of the summer — one of the foremost composers and producers of American pop music the past half-century having a go at another of the premier American composers of the 20th century.
Since he shed the thousand-ton gorilla called “Smile” and finished his four-decades-interrupted opus six years ago, Brian Wilson has been liberated to embark on flights of personal passion.
The first was “That Lucky Old Sun,” released two summers ago at this time. Inspired by the song first recorded by Frankie Laine in 1949, Wilson and his “Smile”/“Orange Crate Art” collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, created a lush song cycle contrasting the sun-splashed Southern California life with Wilson’s well-chronicled personal struggles.
Now Wilson tackles George Gershwin. The Gershwin estate contacted him last year to complete two songs the composer hadn’t finished before his untimely death in 1937. The end result, the full album, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” is difficult to wrap your head around at first — the sheer culture clash of the urbane, white-tie-and-tails, Art Deco Manhattan of the ’30s and Hawaiian-shirted SoCal fun-in-sun. Some of these versions you may never get used to. But at least some of them will grow on you once you discard your preconceptions the way you’d shed a suit, article after article of clothing, once you get to the beach.
The more accurate album title would have been “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin as a Composer of Beach Boys Tunes.”
The album, as packaged by Wilson, is a journey of reinterpretation framed by two sets of bookends. The outer bookends will stun you at first — an intro and reprise of “Rhapsody in Blue.” You’ve heard the melody a kazillion times as primarily a piano composition. Replace the piano line with Wilson’s multi-layered vocal harmony, reminiscent of “One for the Boys” from his 1988 solo debut. Once you get past the what-the-hell? factor, you’ll realize it makes perfect sense, even if it takes a little time to adjust. And besides, it’s a sweet treatment. And it places a stamp on the rest of the disc.
The intro segues into the first of the inner bookends — the hitherto-unfinished “The Like in I Love You.” Wilson and his longtime backing band make this a gentle, lighthearted adult contemporary/easy listening piece with some of his trademark touches (harmonies, a stray sleigh bell) wedded to Gershwin’s lyrical dexterity (“The pain in painting, the muse in music, the like in I love you”). It’s hard to truly enjoy, though, unless, say, you like all those ballads Chicago did past their peak.
The other inner bookend/previously incomplete song, “Nothing But Love,” is interpreted as a lost Beach Boys single — the bounce, the lightness, the harmonies, the whimsical instrumentals and, again, the sleigh bells — and that’s a very good thing. One can picture Brian bringing the tune into the studio in, say, 1964, ’65, and getting his brothers-in-striped-shirts to go along. It probably would have been a hit, and you can hear the qualities that would’ve made it so.
In between the dual sets of bookends, we get a mixed bag of a library.
“‘S Wonderful” ‘s indeed wonderful, a timeless cha-cha which, despite straying that close to the realm of easy listening, has a warm, laid-back, late-in-the-day late-summer SoCal charm to it. “Our Love Is Here to Stay” gets a sweet and gentle reading, as does “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which bears the faintest trace of “Wind Chimes.”
On the flip, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is just as much of a shock as “Rhapsody in Blue.” In this case, a tune rehashed by so many supper club performers but best interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong is turned into a doo-wop ditty, bouncing along on the chassis of “Santa’s Beard” from “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album.” Let your tastes decide; I’m still at a loss.
“I Got Rhythm” isn’t a shock, since it once was a rock/pop hit, but while The Happenings’ 1967 version hewed to the 4 Seasons school of vocal harmony, this obviously is the Beach Boys school. The tune segues quickly from its classical intro into a “Be True to Your School” vibe, complete with the soaring harmony arcs and glockenspiels. It’s just plain fun fun fun. So, strangely enough, is “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” rejiggered as a doo-wop ballad with hints of pedal steel.
However, Wilson’s voice isn’t the right fit for the “Porgy and Bess” medley, and it has nothing to do with his 68-year-old vocal chords. “Summertime” isn’t unfamiliar territory to rock fans; regard Janis Joplin’s sheer passion and Billy Stewart’s absolutely over-the-top version. Wilson’s vocals are, well, just too whitebread for this, though the musical bed — minor-chord film noir with shades of jazz — works very well. Same goes for the vocals on “I Loves You Porgy,” not so much on “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
The pleasant surprise is the medley’s instrumental, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.” It sounds like an unearthed “Smile” outtake — the breezy harmonica, the low, honking sax (think of “I Know There’s an Answer,” from “Pet Sounds”), the sad strings. Hardcore Brian fans will appreciate this little nugget.
This will certainly be one of the most talked-about recordings of the summer, maybe the year. And this is an album that will stir passions both good and bad. Who knows? Maybe die-hard fans of both composers will hate this. But, speaking as someone who counts Wilson as her all-time favorite pop musician/writer, this is a fun and interesting listen, even when the results fall flat.
At this point, having given us so much of himself for so long, Wilson has earned the right to do as he damn well pleases the rest of his life, irregardless of fan reaction, and it’s great to see him take chances like this as he nears — gulp! — 70 (in 22 months). It’s pretty chancy to re-shape another legend’s music in your image and likeness. And, as mentioned, sometimes those chances don’t pan out. But when they do, they make for much enjoyment. I’d like to see Wilson go out on a limb like this again sometime, go on more forays to the recesses of his musical mind.
If you have an album or know of an album that you think should be reviewed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.