Music

Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

This 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.


Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

Label: Walt Disney
US Release Date: 2010-08-17
UK Release Date: 2010-09-06
Amazon
iTunes

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 And even with the voices of the other musicians, it was clear Wilson’s own voice had changed, withdrawn in clarity and depth.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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Television

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.

Music

Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.

Music

Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.

Television

Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman
Music

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.

Music

Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.

Music

The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.

Music

Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.

Books

The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.