In the more than a decade since Wilson’s career rose majestically from the ashes of a deep catatonic funk, he’s been helped along in his journey by various musicians whose clear reverence for the sounds of the good old days has been matched pound for pound by their ability to reproduce it. Unlike many of his contemporaries working the retro circuit, Wilson didn’t try to perfect what was already so perfect. The deceptively complex arrangements, the obsessively wrought sounds, the gloriously soaring harmonies all pretty much sounded as they did the first time they were heard from on high.
There are two distinct sides to the coin. On the one hand, Wilson’s revisiting his old aesthetic reminds us of why we love him so dearly, why we can forgive the abomination of that cover of “Wipeout” with the Fat Boys, even if we can’t exactly forget. But there’s also a dark side to the equation, and unfortunately it’s in Wilson’s own voice. Much has been made of his limited range over the past decade-plus, with speculation about the rigors of advanced age, too many years of not taking care of himself or some mental block he wasn’t able to shake loose or submerge with the others.
One October night in 1999, Wilson performed at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in front of a capacity, largely partisan crowd. Despite the celebratory vibe pulsing through the hall, it was clear something was amiss. This was early in Wilson’s return to the stage, an uncomfortable enough ordeal for him even in the earliest days of the Beach Boys. But there he was, sat on a stool behind a single keyboard he appeared to mash at with his hands in rhythm rather than play. And even with the voices of the other musicians, it was clear Wilson’s own voice had changed, withdrawn in clarity and depth. It felt blasphemous to criticize, even internally. It felt dirty.
But suddenly, in the least likely place of all, Wilson absolutely killed. If Pet Sounds is Wilson’s greatest achievement as a composer, then “Caroline, No” might be his high point as a vocalist. Though it appeared on Pet Sounds, “Caroline, No” featured Wilson’s voice alone, and was in fact released as a single under his name. And right in the middle of a shaky Wiltern performance came “Caroline, No”, and it was astounding in its simplicity and scope. And Wilson nailed it, which is maybe symbolic of a lot of things.
It’s impossible to count Brian Wilson down. If nothing else, that “Caroline, No” moment proved he’s still got magic in him somewhere, and if you’re lucky, it might come out. Or, maybe it won’t.
Critics of Wilson’s recent work claim he’s treated with kid gloves, that he’s allowed leeway into pure schmaltz and underwhelming utilization of former genius than other artists of his generation, that all the praise for the 2004 completion of 1967’s aborted SMiLE album should have been sent by telegram nearly 40 years into the past. This may all be the gospel truth, but sometimes that doesn’t really matter, especially live when the fans go absolutely nuts for the faithful renditions of those hoary chestnuts cut in the ‘60s.
On record, though, it’s harder to feel a responsibility to be generous. Safe in the privacy of your own headphones, no one can see what you’re grimacing about. Conversely, no one can figure out what’s got you grinning like a loon.
Even on paper, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin seems like sort of an odd proposal, especially when the former Beach Boy keeps giving the long-deceased composer so many shout-outs in the press. Sure, bringing up Phil Spector’s name these days might not elicit the same sort of reverence it once held. And maybe the three covers of Wilson’s other fave raves, the Beatles, on Beach Boys’ Party in 1965 was more than enough to whet that particular whistle.
The weirdest thing I’ve ever heard was the a cappella version of “Rhapsody in Blue” which opens Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Even before Woody Allen’s iconic use of the song in his 1979 film Manhattan, “Rhapsody in Blue” was a New York anthem. Brian Wilson not only has the sheer audacity to take it to the beach, but to open and close his album with it! It was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard for maybe two seconds, because all of a sudden it made sense. The use of the song was indeed audacious, not because it relocates an ode to New York 3,000 miles from Times Square, but because it quite rightly restores the song to America. Gershwin was grander even than the world’s grandest city, and Wilson proved it in a version which lasts a little more than a minute.
“The Like in I Love You” starts off promising enough, though it’s clear the unfinished Gershwin tune billed as collaboration bears far more in common with Wilson’s soft latter day touch. “Summertime” is where the worry begins to set in. The arrangement is terrific, a sultry spy theme somehow perfect for the tune. Sadly, Wilson’s voice, front and center, no longer has the elasticity or subtlety to pull it off. It’s a miss when it really felt like it should have been a hit. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a better fit, with Wilson’s vocal lead more seamlessly intertwined with the music, both on its own and within the harmonies.
“I Loves You Porgy” and the goofy instrumental version of “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” charm, and “S’Wonderful” is light and airy in the tradition of the Free Design, working right up to and including the flute solo.
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a glorious call/response romp through mid-‘60s Beach Boys territory, while “Love Is Here to Stay” is as lush as lushness gets. On the other hand, “I Got Rhythm” sounds like a karaoke mash-up of “Help Me, Rhonda” recorded in the ‘80s. “Somebody to Watch Over Me” is corny, but also with enough of that clip-clop percussion that made “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin isn’t quite the triumph one would have hoped, with a few awkward missteps and some vocal performances that don’t honor the past as much as they make it seem like an awfully long time ago. But there’s enough happening here to make the project more than worthwhile. It’s clear Wilson really does adore Gershwin, and his stated fondness for “Rhapsody in Blue” over the years (plus an early production credit on a cover of “Summertime” by Sharon Marie) is more than just hot air. And even if his voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, so what? Wilson is still a spectacular arranger of music. Furthermore, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is one of the few albums released this year or any other in recent memory that might go down well with three different generations on a lengthy car trip.