August 20th, 2010 by Bruce Edwards
The first listen to any Brian Wilson record (I insist on using that retro term, even though what I am listening to is technically a CD) is a singular, momentous experience for which one sits down, full concentration, quiet please, and a self-surrender into the world he creates by sound. I confess there is no parallel music experience to it in my audio biography that so captures my complete attention and reverence.
Brian is on record as citing Bach, Gershwin, and Phil Spector as his mentors—and what do they have common? The so-called the “wall of sound,” but, specifically, for Brian, the wall of harmonies he has infused into anything he creates or “reimagines”; this is what is distinctively transformative and enrapturing in his music.
Whether his own creation (“Smile”) or one reimagined (“Lucky Old Sun”), each work christens its own audience with new musical meanings and greater reflection on its enacting as an event—not just a “listen.” I haven’t paid enough attention to Bach (and won’t have time today or tomorrow or anytime soon); I do appreciate what I know of the genius of George Gershwin; and I grew up impressed by the musical landscapes invented by Spector (“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” cannot be topped in over the top production)—but all things considered, I’d rather be listening to Brian on any given day.
On any given day, Brian Wilson’s reimagining of any kind of music would be worth our time to consider. And the plan is for Brian’s second task to be a “reimagining” of Disney’s catalogue of children’s songs (here’s hoping they leave out “It’s a Small World,” but maybe Brian’s magic would even work on this). But for the moment, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is plenty to ponder and enjoy.
Before I comment directly on this record, let me remark upon the miracle that Brian is alive and well—that after what he has endured and escaped from. His boyish enthusiasm for music and for life, his incredible gift for melody and harmony, and his affirmative lyrical homages to love and innocence: these are all intact and just as winsome and compelling as ever. The wonder of his making new music and making music anew are living testimonies to his depth of talent and will to survive. That he would be blessing us this late in his career with still new ways to express the music inside—this is all very unexpected and enrapturing.
Now to this release. It’s an ingenious collaboration, isn’t it? This isn’t some awkward technological duet of voices from two different eras merged in the studio ala Nat King Cole & Natalie Cole: this is indeed a “reimagining.” Brian proves that Gershwin can be “improved,” contemporized, organically, and yet allow George transmogrified into a willing writing partner as if seated by Brian at his piano.
This is only saying that Brian and George share the same species of musical consciousness; its central traits can’t be measured by a calendar, but by a certain kind of musical temperament. There is a sensibility they share that Brian seems to me to exemplfy more purely; it’s an appeal to an audience poised to link musical events to life experiences. What kind of audience? An audience that deliberately chooses nostalgia over despair—and sentiment over logic.
But let’s get one thing straight: these are not covers, but “transformations.” It has been noted by other reviewers that listeners who catch a tune from this record on the radio will likely recognize it first as a “Brian Wilson song and sound”—and only secondarily a Gershwin composition. This is certainly true to form—especially if one has kept pace with the release of Smile and Lucky Old Sun in the past decade. The orchestration, vocals, arrangements, etc., follow the Brian Wilson playbook—but if that makes it sound predictable and tedious, well, you don’t know Brian.
To the music: Let’s start with the bookends—Rhapsody in Blue a capella—which open and close the record. Let’s hope there’s a full length version in the vault too; these two shortened pieces only create the longing for the lush harmonies inherent in the whole song. In between are the two “new songs,” “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love.” The former is a sweet tribute to the layers of love in a romance (“like” is crucial component of “love”) and fits well with “late Brian”; the latter could have been an “A-side” single released right after “Help me Rhonda.”Bracing for me, the true highlights of his Gershwin reimaginings, are “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “I Got Rhythm.” “Someone” recalls “God Only Knows,” but takes it from the other’s point of view—how “She” will be there to watch over “Him.” Submitted to Brian’s imagination, “Rhythm” now sounds like it was invented as a beach song; but Brian stretches it out very deliberately into the Beach Boys region, not as if he were updating an older tune, but firmly establishing a current one, fresh and vibrant in its own right.
Astounding on this eclectic release are nonpareils in Brian’s discography: musical impersonations and what we might call showtune soliloquies–ballads without a California context. Beginning with “s’Wonderful,” Brian’s bossa nova turn, and echoing on “Love is Here to Stay,” a breezy, ballad celebrating love’s endurance, his arrangements are distinctively Brianesque, but also representing his latent musical taste; George’s collaboration frees him to try anything once.
But “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Summertime,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” take us into another region geographically and musically altogether: namely the American South. “Porgy” is compelling in its counterintuitive vocal mood; “Summertime” might have been written as a rock lullabye that Brian abruptly transfers to a jazz trio just because; whatever, it works. “Ain’t” is simply a tour de force: Brian’s flirtatious impersonation within a quirky Sinatra mode, tracing delicately the contours of an edgier Gershwin song.
In a final flourish, remaining songs fit a certain kind of song cycle Brian has always explored from Pet Sounds to Smile: “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “I Got a Crush on You,” The first is a playfully joyous instrumental version (think “Vegetables” from Smile) of what is, basically, a version of the hymn, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through”; Gershwin’s original lyrics lilt and point us home: “Got my gal, got my Lawd, Got my song,”and the singer don’t need nuttin’ else!
“Crush” and “They Can’t” sound like vintage Beach Boy songs but with exquisite harmonies in surprising places and duly redistributed to beats that change the songs from ballads to teen anthems in best sense of the world, each sharing a musical pedigree that crosses paths with “Barbara Ann,” “Wouldn’t It be Nice,” and “Sloop John B.”
No one who loves Brian Wilson’s music could possibly be disappointed by this release; those who don’t will understand when they listen what we have been talking about all along.
How can an artist stay “the same” but continually reach new aesthetic horizons? Listen carefully to, no submerge yourself in, Brian Wilson’s music, and you will have an answer.