Or a review of the two Beach Boys gigs I was at in Italy.
Before I start… the Beach Boys (in whatever configuration) tailor their sets to their audiences and venues, and so the sets I saw (in open-air venues in continental Europe, where they always play comparatively conservative sets) aren’t a reflection either of the sets they’ve been doing in the US (where they’ve been doing a lot of deep catalogue songs) or the shows they’re expected to do in the UK or Japan.
This was one of those trips where every single thing goes right. I got out of the taxi at the hotel in Rome, to see someone standing in front of the door, who immediately said to me “You must be Andrew!” — it was someone I’ve known on various Beach Boys forums for years, but have never met in person, and while I knew he was going to the gigs, I didn’t realise we were staying in the same hotel. He’d recognised me from my self-description.
It was that kind of trip.
After getting to the venue many hours early — both Italian gigs were standing ones, so if I wanted to get a decent view I had to be there *early* — we first heard over the PA the playlist of classic sunshine pop that is used as the intro music for Brian Wilson’s solo shows (I made a playlist of this music on Spotify ages ago, for those who want to hear it), followed by a tedious loop advertising other shows at that stadium. Finally we got what appears to be the intro tape used for all the shows on this tour — Be My Baby by the Ronettes, In The Still Of The Night by The Five Satins, Graduation Day by The Four Freshmen, Changes by The Zombies, a surf instrumental I should know but don’t, and finally, right before the band came on, The Rain, The Park And Other Things by The Cowsills.
The backing band entered and started up Do It Again. This band consists of the core of Brian Wilson’s touring band — keyboardists Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett, falsetto vocalist Jeff Foskett, woodwind player and co-musical-director Paul Mertens, percussionist Nelson Bragg and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, along with Mike D’Amico, who normally plays drums or percussion for Wilson but here plays bass. These people are all fantastically talented musicians in their own right (especially Probyn — he’s in or has played with about a dozen different bands, most of which are among my very favourite bands of the last few decades). Guitarist Nick Walusko has had to leave the tour for health reasons.
Joining the musicians from Wilson’s band are two musicians from the band that’s been touring as “the Beach Boys” for the last eleven years, drummer John Cowsill (formerly of The Cowsills) and guitarist/vocalist/co-musical-director Scott Totten. These are both fantastic additions — they’re the two most talented members of the touring Beach Boys, and Totten shows at least as much devotion to getting the music *right* as Brian’s band do (so much so that after he was made bandleader many people started saying they actually preferred the Beach Boys touring band to Brian’s), while Cowsill is simply the best live drummer I’ve ever seen, bar none, and can play with the precision of a Hal Blaine while also giving the music an energy that Brian’s band have previously somewhat lacked.
Once they started playing, the five surviving 1960s Beach Boys came on stage.
While this tour is billed as a reunion, these five men have never all played together before this year — there was a little game of line-up musical chairs in the early 60s, and again in the late 90s, so while they’ve all played with all the other members in a band called the Beach Boys, these five Beach Boys only got on stage with each other for the first time at the Grammys earlier this year.
Despite that, there’s a real chemistry there that comes from having worked together, off and on, for fifty years. They all have their own role on-stage and fall into it absolutely naturally. Brian Wilson sits off to one side, plays keyboard, and takes a lot of lead vocals, but he’s many people’s main focus. He’s an absolutely riveting presence even though he’s not doing much — and he’s *very* engaged (for him — Brian has never been totally happy with stage performance. But having seen him solo eight times, he’s at least as happy and comfortable with this tour as he’s ever been on-stage.)
David Marks takes all the guitar solos, and is the most ‘rock-star’ish of the band, the closest to a conventional idea of cool. He’s also quite an intense, focussed guitarist, not interacting much with the rest of the band but concentrating on his playing.
Mike Love is the frontman and main lead singer, and the most controversial member of the band. On this tour he’s toned down the less classy aspects of his on-stage schtick, although he’s still using many of the same jokes, with the same timing, that he used in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2011 (just counting the shows I’ve seen him do before). On this first show he was sounding very nasal, and quite often flat — more so than at any previous show I’ve seen him do — but he sounded great on the second show.
Al Jardine is really the revelation of these shows. His voice is the only one which is even better than it was in the 60s, and he just sounds incredible. He’s also as serious about his vocals as Marks is about his guitar — seeing the intensity on his face as he sings even the more banal parts is wonderful.
And Bruce Johnston acts as cheerleader, doing very little musically in comparison with the other four (only taking one lead vocal, Wendy), but keeping the crowd clapping and enthused.
These five very different men somehow click as a unit, in a way that the band simply didn’t in the 80s and 90s. They interact like old friends, not like people who can’t stand the sight of each other — and the same goes for their interactions with the backing band. While there have been reports that some band members are less keen on these shows than on the Brian Wilson tours, they’re still giving it their all on stage, from Darian Sahanaja taking a great lead on Darlin’ to Probyn dancing away to Nelson’s percussion interplay with John Cowsill. You simply couldn’t imagine a better live band than the thirteen men on that stage.
Some people have asked, incidentally, to what extent the Beach Boys themselves contribute instrumentally. I was up front for both shows, and at opposite ends of the stage each time, and watching very closely, and so I can say this:
Brian — at various points in the Rome show he played odd little bass runs with his left hand which were audible in the mix, and during the intro and first verse of Kokomo he was the only one playing keyboards, and he was *very* audible then.
Dave — his guitar is always in the mix, but his vocal isn’t. The only times I could swear he was in the vocal mix were for Getcha Back, Surfer Girl and In My Room, while on Cal Dreaming he came in for the massed “Ooh” backing vocals four bars too early, and nothing came out of the sound system.
Al — his guitar is definitely audible at times. The part he’d normally play on banjo on California is on guitar for these shows, and very audible, and a couple of times when he stopped playing to adjust his mic or his settings I noticed the rhythm guitar part get thinner.
Bruce — Never noticed his keyboard in the mix, though it might have been, and when Mike did his “give me my note” bit on Be True To Your School, Bruce hit a key and nothing came out…
That said, the Rome show did have a couple of flaws — both Brian Wilson and Al Jardine fluffed their lead vocals (on You’re So Good To Me and Then I Kissed Her respectively) in such a way as to temporarily throw the band for a bar or two, and David Marks tried a bit of improvisation on some solos that didn’t *quite* come off. But those flaws were more than offset by the rest of the show.
In particular, Brian hasn’t been in better voice in decades than on this tour, mostly because he’s not having to carry the whole show by himself, and even on a song that would not normally be a highlight, like their cover version of California Dreamin’, he sings with an energy that he normally never matches. And while he got distracted a couple of times (I think he was hearing voices — I know the expression all too well from my days working on a psychiatric ward) he carried on playing even when he wasn’t giving it his full attention.
And while it was a more hit-oriented show than they’ve been doing in the US (and more so than they’re planning to do in the UK), and certainly leaned far more on the early fun-in-the-sun material than I’d choose, it was still a forty-five song set, and many, many of those songs are among the best songs ever written. I can’t complain at a show which includes Heroes & Villains, All This Is That, God Only Knows, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, In My Room, Good Timin’, California, Don’t Worry Baby, Please Let Me Wonder, Good Vibrations and Sail On Sailor, can I?
On the US leg of the tour they got the balance in the setlist exactly right, while here it was leaning more towards crowd-pleasers — but the thing about crowd-pleasers is that they do please the crowds, and usually for a reason.
After two and a quarter hours, the band left the stage, and the audience spontaneously started singing the falsetto part to the tag of Fun Fun Fun (the closing song) until the band came back on just to look at the audience and grin.
But that wasn’t the best day…
The next day, I got a train from Rome to Milan to go to the second Italian gig. And so did the Beach Boys.
I was just about to get on the train when I saw , walking past me, the familiar curmudgeonly JFK-meets-Cagney face of Bruce “Europeans are socialist assholes who hate success” Johnston, followed by the equally familiar and much more friendly face of Darian Sahanaja.
I didn’t bother the band on the train itself — I’m not the kind of fan who wants to interfere with their days — but I did speak briefly to several of the band members as they were walking past. I wished Probyn Gregory a happy birthday, exchanged a couple of words with a couple of the backing band members, and spoke briefly with Bruce, Al and Mike.
Bruce and Mike were about as you’d expect — Bruce being minimally polite, saying “thanks for coming” and walking past without stopping (which is absolutely fine, incidentally, not a complaint — he *was* polite, and he owes me nothing more than that, and on other occasions when I’ve spoken to him he’s been positively garrulous), while Mike stopped and spoke for a minute, and was very friendly, but got away pretty much straight away (again, as he’s entirely entitled to do — he had a train to catch).
Al Jardine, though, was absolutely lovely to talk to. I didn’t get to talk with him much (again, train to catch) but he stopped for longer than any of the others, and seemed genuinely delighted to talk with me a little about the tour and about his solo album.
Getting to the gig, we were allowed close enough while queuing to hear the full soundcheck (Kiss Me Baby, Darlin’, California Girls and a couple of others), before going in.
The setlist was similar to that of the day before, but they added two more songs (Ballad Of Ole Betsy and This Whole World — I don’t mind admitting I yelled with excitement when they played that one), bringing it to forty-seven songs long, and while the show the night before had been extremely good, this time the band were just *on fire* — it was one of those nights when everyone seemed to be playing at their peak. Mike’s voice was much less nasal, Dave Marks’ guitar improvisations worked rather than failing, and in general the whole thing was just that little bit better than the night before.
(The one exception is that Brian seemed slightly less engaged, though still better than at many of his solo shows.)
Al Jardine also recognised me from earlier, waved at me several times, and threw me his plectrum at the end (a custom plectrum with the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Tour logo on one side and John Stamos written on the other — according to Probyn Gregory later, all the guitarists have their own custom plectra, and Stamos presumably had some done for the couple of shows he guested at in New York). I also held up a “Happy Birthday, Probyn” banner (made by my wife, Holly, for me to take), which got smiles from several of the band members. (That banner and the greeting at the train station also sparked a conversation between Probyn and myself on Facebook later, which was nice).
I know I’m sounding a bit like a fawning fanboy here, when I ‘should’ be complaining that they didn’t do Our Prayer or I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times like they did at some US shows, or making fun of Mike Love, or something. But I’m not going to. This was nowhere near the artistic achievement of the Van Dyke Parks show I saw last month — in fact it’s arguable whether it was the artistic equal of the Monkees show I saw last year (though that says more about how great the Monkees were than anything else). But it was a group of incredible entertainers and musicians, performing forty-five-song-plus sets including some of my very favourite songs along with some songs which, while not quite so good, clearly made tens of thousands of people at the gig very, very happy.
It’s not the mouth-open awe of Brian’s UK tour in 2002, or of the Smile tour, or the premiere of That Lucky Old Sun — those are experiences on a totally different plane. But these shows were *much* better than Brian’s 2008 UK tour, when he played essentially the same hits setlist (but a much shorter set, and with less enthusiasm), and the difference between these shows and the joyless trudge that passed for a Beach Boys show in the 80s or 90s is impossible to overstate.
This tour is a one-off thing, and there is already talk of Brian Wilson’s next solo tour, and the next tour by Love and Johnston as “the Beach Boys”, so if you get a chance to see it, do so. I do hope that, as is rumoured, they add more of the artier stuff for the Wembley show, but even if they don’t, it’ll still be a show to remember.
So after my problems, I’ve finally downloaded Brian Wilson’s new album. After a few listens, I can safely say that this is without a doubt the second best solo album by a member of the Beach Boys to be released this year…
On paper, the combination of Brian Wilson and George Gershwin is a good one. Wilson has been obsessed with Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue since he was two, structuring his masterpiece Smile in imitation of it and often playing it on the piano while he works out other musical ideas. He’s also one of a tiny number of musicians since Gershwin’s death that one can realistically speak of as being in the same league musically – and the only one of those who might be interested in a project such as this.
And Gershwin is a composer who suits reinvention better than most. The versions of his songs with which most of us are familiar are themselves posthumous reinterpretations – Ella Fitzgerald or Miles’ Davis’ versions of Gershwin are radically different to the staid Broadway performances Gershwin himself would have heard, and Rhapsody In Blue, his masterpiece, is barely ever performed the way it was originally intended, as a jazz piece. (For those who want to hear that, archive.org have an MP3s of a performance with Gershwin on the piano, by Paul Whiteman and his band, from the day after it was premiered (part one , part two ). It’s a cut-down version, so it would fit on two sides of a 78, but it’s still far more alive than the stodgy, over-orchestrated versions one normally gets today. The same site also has a single-MP3 1927 recording by the same band, but that lacks energy compared to this).
But Brian Wilson is unfortunately not the singer he once was. When the first clips of this album became available, the usual fan cry went up “Wow! Brian is singing better than he has in years!” – this is the same thing people were saying in 1995, and 1998, and 2004, and,..
The fact is, Wilson is an elderly man with self-admitted brain damage, and he *sounds* like an elderly man with brain damage. There’s still plenty to enjoy in his vocals – he has a musical sensitivity and phrasing ability that are second to none – but he slurs his words and has occasional slight pitching problems, and whenever he gets to the top end of his range he screeches rather than sings. That’s normally OK – we make allowances because he’s Brian Wilson, and because his songs are so good – but if you’re recording, say, Love Is Here To Stay, then you’re placing yourself in a position where you’re asking for comparison with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, two of the greatest interpreters of popular song who ever lived. just for starters. And that’s not a comparison where Brian is going to come out best, much as I love the man (and Mr Wilson’s art at its best is so personal, so communicative, that it does inspire feelings of love for the man himself).
So much as Wilson’s fans may wish otherwise, this isn’t going to be a Rod Stewart Great American Songbook style crossover hit.
But putting the issue of lead vocals aside for a minute, there’s also the much more promising area of arrangements and production, and this is where the album has more to offer. A couple of years ago Wilson did a Christmas album which completely reinvented a lot of Christmas standards as fresh, exciting pieces, and I suspect the idea behind this album was to do the same with Gershwin. In that, Wilson has at least partly succeeded.
Before I get into a track-by-track analysis, however, I should deal with the question of authorship. In recent years Wilson has leaned a great deal on collaborators. In particular, three members of his band have taken on a great amount of the work he would have done in his commercial heyday – Darian Sahanaja has acted as ‘musical secretary’ and bandleader, Scott Bennett has written lyrics (and in at least one case appears to have written most of the music for a collaborative song as well), and Paul Mertens (Wilson’s woodwind player) has provided string arrangements. Of these, Mertens’ contributions are most easily identified – he has a distinctive sound to his arrangements which is utterly unlike anything Wilson used previously, resembling 1930s European music more than anything else, while fitting Wilson’s music perfectly – while Sahanaja’s are the most difficult (Sahanaja is both an extremely good songwriter and an accomplished pasticheur of Wilson’s style – he could probably write a convincing Brian Wilson album by himself).
However, Wilson himself is still in overall charge, and the other musicians definitely see themselves as working to fulfill his creative vision rather than their own. I suspect, from what I know of Wilson’s current working methods, the way it works is along the lines of Wilson sketching out an initial musical idea, some combination of band members going off and fleshing it out in rehearsal, and then Wilson fine-tuning the result. So no matter who else has had input, I would contend that these are Brian Wilson tracks. Just be aware that they may be Brian Wilson tracks in the way that Cootie Williams improvising a solo on a Billy Strayhorn song is a Duke Ellington track.
The album starts with Rhapsody In Blue (intro), a brief statement of the main theme of the Rhapsody sung as an a capella block harmony by multi-tracked Brians (with a woodwind underneath) going into a lovely Hollywood-style orchestration of the same melody. It feels very much like a curtain-raiser, and is very, very nice.
The Like In I Love You is the first big disappointment of the album. Wilson and Scott Bennett were given two ‘unfinished’ Gershwin songs to finish off. Unfortunately, this one was not as unfinished as the publicity suggests – originally written as Will You Remember Me? , it’s been recorded before, and the original was superior. Gershwin’s elegance is here turned into something along the lines of That’s What Friends Are For or a similar Bacharach-on-an-off-day 80s track, and while Scott Bennett is possibly, other than Van Dyke Parks, the most interesting lyricist Wilson has worked with, placing his lyrics up against Ira Gershwin does him no favours at all. He comes from a much looser tradition, where rhyme and scansion don’t have to be perfect so long as they express a feeling, but up against the delicate precision of Ira Gershwin, his work just sounds careless. Not an unpleasant track, but as is so often the case with collaborations (especially posthumous ones) it’s the lowest common denominator of the geniuses involved.
Summertime is much better – Wilson hollers a little at points, but the arrangement is slow, sinuous and sexy, with Mertens’ growling sax and Sahanaja’s little vibraphone touches working wonderfully against a string arrangement full of ‘cello vibrato, with Jeff Foskett and Taylor Mills providing high vocal harmonies. One could easily imagine this arrangement being used on, say, one of Ray Charles’ better jazz albums (like his duets with Betty Carter).
I Loves You Porgy is less successful. It’s a song that depends far too much on vocal nuance, and while Wilson *almost* rises to the challenge (he makes a surprisingly decent fist of the middle eight), it doesn’t quite come off. This goes in the interesting failure category. It’s also nice to see that Wilson, who for a long time was worried about seeming effeminate in his vocals, is now perfectly happy to sing from a woman’s point of view.
I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ on the other hand is just wonderful. Banjos, harmonica, bass harmonica, muted trumpet and xylophone all clank away on top while a swing-time pop track of the kind one would expect from Wilson plays underneath. This sounds like the more energetic, upbeat parts of Smile.
For It Ain’t Necessarily So we go back once again to an arrangement style that could have come from 50s jazz vocalists – I could hear this arrangement, other than the blues harmonica, working behind someone like Peggy Lee. And Wilson’s vocals here are the best so far on the album – he cracks and strains for the notes, but that gives it a bluesy edginess. Unfortunately the best arrangement touches (the banjo and Taylor Mills’ ‘bom bom’ vocals) come in the middle eight, which is the only where Wilson’s vocal is less than convincing. Paul Mertens again comes out with a great little string part on the fade – the strings on this album are possibly the best I’ve heard on a pop album since Colin Blunstone’s One Year. The drum sound on this track is great as well, with some great booming timpani.
‘S Wonderful is. It’s turned into a bossa nova, and while Wilson’s vocals aren’t his best, it’s almost impossible not to move to this one. Lovely flute solo from Mertens. This is probably the thinnest song on the album, but the arrangement is just sublime.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me on the other hand just doesn’t work. Done to a backing which is to all intents and purposes that of Little Saint Nick, with the backing vocals being a chant in the ‘football team singing along’ style, I can see what they were *trying* to do, but it doesn’t work. There’s one fun little touch – the “boogidy-boogidy-boogidy-boogidy-boogidy-boogidy-shoop” backing vocals in the middle eight – but it’s really very unimpressive.
Love Is Here To Stay is again a standard straight-from-the-fifties arrangement, and Wilson doesn’t do an especially good job with the vocals. This song has been done this way so many times that you have to have something very special for it to work. The instrumental break, with an almost subliminal theremin in the background giving it a Space-Age Bachelor Pad feel, works better than the vocal sections, but this isn’t that good.
I’ve Got A Crush On You is one of the more interesting reworkings here – this is turned into a perfect pastiche of 1950s doo-wop, all piano triplet chords a la Earth Angel, but then the guitar sound is… interestingly off. It’s reverbed as one would expect, but… not quite. And then the strings come in from a completely different idiom altogether. I’m not sure if this is a jumbled mess or something very clever, yet.
I Got Rhythm (which starts with another quote from Rhapsody In Blue – these have been peppered throughout the album), is another failure along the lines of They Can’t Take That Away From Me. It’s a surf-rock arrangement of the kind the person on the street would probably imagine if they were asked to imagine how Brian Wilson would approach the song, even down to Jeff Foskett singing chunks of the melody to Farmer’s Daughter (an early Beach Boys track) over the tag. The two most ‘Beach Boys’ sounding tracks are also the two least Brian Wilson sounding, at least to my ears.
Someone To Watch Over Me starts with yet another Rhapsody quote, this time ‘cello led. And *THIS* is the good stuff again. A simple arrangement based around harpsichord and acoustic guitar, this is nonetheless the best thing by far on the album. I never made the connection before, but this song of course sums up all the themes I identified in Wilson’s work in this piece I wrote for The High Hat. Possibly the nylon-string restatement of the melody on the fade is a tad overkill, but other than that there is nothing at all I can criticise about this track.
Nothing But Love, the second Wilson/Bennett/Gershwin track, works much better than The Like In I Love You, a chugalong rocker with some interesting chord changes. Oddly, the most ‘Brian sounding’ part here – the chords under “I asked her what’s timeless” – is *also* the most Gershwin sounding part. VERY far from what you’d expect from someone finishing a Gershwin track, but all the better for the lack of reverence. It’s spoiled though by easily the worst lead vocal on the album. Get cars with vehicle loans.
and then to finish we have another string and vocal fragment of Rhapsody In Blue (Reprise).
Overall, this album is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. There are magnificent sections – be they entire songs, or just fragments a couple of seconds long – but I doubt it’s an album I shall be returning to a huge amount. I’d say it’s a solid three-star effort (in comparison Wilson’s former bandmate Al Jardine’s album of earlier this year is a good three-and-a-half stars). Add a star on to that if, like me, you’re coming to this music knowing Wilson’s current limitations as a vocalist and with enough goodwill towards him to compensate for that. But knock a star off if you’re coming to this looking for something to sit in your CD rack next to Ella Sings Gershwin.
The Zombies’ album Odessey And Oracle is one of the few ‘classic albums’ that happens to really be the best album of the band’s career. While many Beach Boys albums are at least as good as Pet Sounds, Revolver beats Sgt Pepper hands down, and Da Capo is half a better album than Forever Changes, The Zombies’ career was short enough that they only really made one proper album-as-statement, so it’s lucky that Odessey And Oracle, which was released in 1968, after they split, is as good as anything out there.
A few years back, two of the members of the Zombies, Colin Blunstone (the lead vocalist) and Rod Argent (the main instrumentalist – a wonderful keyboard player, who also wrote the band’s biggest hits) started touring together, firstly as “Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies”, but then the “Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone” started getting smaller on the posters and The Zombies getting bigger, and now their touring band just tours as The Zombies. I never managed to see them live, even though the Zombies were one of my favourite 60s bands, because there has always been some kind of scheduling conflict (for example when they played Liverpool in 2004, Brian Wilson was performing Smile in town on the same night), but the live recordings I’d heard of the touring band had been pretty good (though reunion album Out Of The Shadows was fairly poor, with only the decent Ray Charles-esque blues track Mystified being at all memorable, and even that badly produced).
However, last year the four surviving members of the Zombies (guitarist Paul Atkinson having sadly died a few years ago) got together for a handful of concerts in That London to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Odessey & Oracle. In the first half of the shows, Blunstone & Argent’s touring Zombies played a normal set, while in the second half the four surviving members, augmented by touring guitarist Keith Airey and keyboardist Darian Sahanaja (who regular readers will have heard me rave about before) performed O&O from beginning to end. (A live album from those concerts can be heard here for those of you with Spotify, but the live DVD that came out this week is better, having more songs). After this, they announced that they would be playing four (and only four) UK gigs doing the same thing, and then never play the album live again. As one of those was the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, I had to go, along with my 22-year-old brother who is only now starting to develop his musical taste.
The first half of the gig, by the current touring ‘Zombies’, was a mixed bag. The band themselves are the same kind of lineup you see when going to see any 60s group live these days – two original members (you’ll recognise these in any 60s group – they’re the ones with the mullets), a bass-player who used to be in a different 60s group (Jim Rodford, formerly of Rod Argent’s late-60s band Argent, and a member of The Kinks for 20 years), a guitarist who looks like he thinks he’s too good for this and insists on playing twiddly blues riffs all over everything (Keith Airey, who my brother said was ‘working out his mid-life crisis live on stage’, and looks like a clone of Roger Daltrey) and someone several decades younger than anyone else on stage who’s the son of one of the other members (drummer Steve Rodford).
Starting out with I Love You, the band stormed through the first half of the set. The early Zombies songs worked very well – the appeal of the Zombies early on was Blunstone’s voice and Argent’s keyboard, anyway, so the others weren’t too missed. Those early songs, while good of their type, were pretty much indistinguishable from other chart music of the time in their construction – most of their first few singles could have easily been hits for the Swinging Blue Jeans or The Merseybeats – but Blunstone’s breathy, gorgeous jazz-inflected vocals and Argent’s Hammond organ made the finished records sound like Mose Allison Goes Merseybeat.
Surprisingly, though, while the first set contained a few early Zombies songs, and one or two from the reunion albums, as well as songs like Sticks And Stones (a Ray Charles cover the Zombies used to do), a big chunk of the first set was devoted to Colin Blunstone’s solo records.
This is no bad thing. After the Zombies split, Argent formed the imaginatively-named prog band Argent, along with (as a non-performing writing/production partner) Zombies bassist Chris White, but Blunstone went on to make a couple of exceptional solo albums – One Year and Ennismore – before his later, more mediocre, solo work. One Year was produced by Argent and White, and so is effectively a Zombies album by any other name, and may even be the best of them.
Unfortunately, One Year was based around some gorgeous string arrangements which couldn’t be replicated live, but the Tim Hardin cover Misty Roses still worked wonderfully with just Blunstone’s vocal and Airey’s (remarkably restrained) acoustic guitar. Say You Don’t Mind worked less well, turned into a Status Quo-esque boogie (they said later that the Zombies used to play it that way live, but that didn’t make it any better). I Don’t Believe In Miracles, on the other hand, from Ennismore, is one of those songs it’s impossible to mess up, though it helps that Blunstone still has one of the most extraordinary voices in popular music.
Unfortunately, the sound in this first half was *appaling*, and the fault must be that of the sound engineer as the Bridgewater Hall has the best acoustics of any venue I’ve ever attended. Blunstone’s voice was almost drowned out for much of this first half, and the whole thing was a wash of reverb. The band played wonderfully, and Blunstone in particular sounded stunning – but it was a strain to hear him. I should have realised the sound engineer would be bad even before the start of the gig – the intro CD was an Otis Redding mono/stereo twofer, and when it turned into stereo, we could only hear one channel through the PA, so we were treated to minimalist bass-and-horns-only versions of Mr Pitiful, Satisfaction and so on…
However, despite this, the first half was very good, and the ‘new’ members acquitted themselves pretty well. The first set ended with Argent’s hit single Hold Your Head Up, which sounded far better (though still not all that great) with Blunstone singing lead.
The second half was what everyone had come to see, though. The Zombies had split up before Odessey And Oracle had ever been released, and so they’d never performed this material live. In fact Hugh Grundy, the drummer, and Chris White, the bass player, have not played live much at all in the forty-plus years since recording the album. But here were four of the original Zombies, plus Keith Airey on guitar, Darian Sahanaja on keyboards, the Rodfords on backing vocals and hand percussion and Chris White’s wife Vivienne Boucherat on backing vocals.
I was particularly glad to see Chris White on stage, as while Rod Argent wrote the band’s biggest hits, and some very very fine songs like A Rose For Emily, Chris White wrote seven of the thirteen songs on Odessey And Oracle, and I always found his songs to be more to my taste than Argent’s – songs like This Will Be Our Year and Friends Of Mine seem slightly less calculated than Argent’s rather intellectual, precise writing.
But actually one of the striking things about Odessey And Oracle is how unified Argent and White’s vision was. Normally if you have two non-collaborating songwriters in a band you end up with two very different styles – think of Lennon & McCartney, both equally good, but McCartney could never have written I Am The Walrus and Lennon wouldn’t have written For No One. By contrast, White and Argent have almost interchangeable styles – White slightly more folky and Argent more jazzy, but Argent could easily have written Butcher’s Tale or White I Want Her She Wants Me.
What’s even more amazing is how well the album stands up as a live performance. Usually, when watching one of these ‘classic acts perform their classic albums’ shows, there are one or two songs that just don’t work in a live setting – watching Brian Wilson do Pet Sounds live, for example, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) never really came off very well, even though on the record it’s by far the best song. By contrast, it was relatively weaker songs from Odessey And Oracle like Changes (only relatively weaker – O&O is almost unique as a filler-free album) that shone here – hearing those block harmonies (and the vocal blend was stunning, with Blunstone, Argent and White sounding just like they always did, and the other members only adding background touches that had been tracked in the studio) sent shivers down my spine.
Thankfully, the sound engineer had sorted the balance out for the second half, and every note was audible, and Airey had toned down his guitar histrionics, playing note-for-note the parts on the record. Blunstone was in stunning voice throughout – and he’s the only one of the great sixties vocalists whose voice hasn’t aged at all – and everything from the opening of Care Of Cell 44 through to the end of Time Of The Season was about as perfect as you can imagine. The record was replicated absolutely faithfully, but Blunstone’s vocals were if anything even better – I was open-mouthed in awe at his singing on the “she told me to be careful if I loved her” section of I Want Her She Wants Me, and every single song in the second half was just beautifully done, from the a capella folky chanting of Changes to the pastoral psych of Beechwood Park (the “Oh roads in my mind” section being another stunner) to the jazzy pop of Time Of The Season.
After this, there was an ‘encore’ which didn’t involve anyone leaving the stage, consisting of their two big hits, She’s Not There and Tell Her No, plus Going Out Of My Head, all augmented by the brass section who’d come along to play on This Will Be Our Year, and then a final real encore where they performed the Gershwins’ Summertime, the first song they ever recorded.
It was definitely a show of two halves, and I feel very sorry for everyone who didn’t get to see this (they say they’re never going to do this in the UK again, though I think they’re touring the US doing it) but I’d definitely still recommend going and seeing the touring band if you get the chance – the ‘new’ members aren’t the originals, but they’re good at what they do, and their half of the set was marred by factors out of their control. But this was one of the handful of shows (like seeing Brian Wilson premiere That Lucky Old Sun, or Richard Thompson doing 1000 Years Of Popular Music, or Pulp at Glastonbury in 1995) that will remain with me forever. My brother, who didn’t know the band’s music at all before going to the gig, came straight out and bought a copy of the live DVD of last year’s show, which should tell you something about the quality of the show.
Sorry for the lack of posts recently – I’ve had a touch of post-viral depression. I *will* spend all next week posting about Batman along with my usual posts though. (The couple of weeks after will be light again though as I’ll be visiting the in-laws in the land of dial-up). So expect two posts tomorrow – Batman and Big Finish.
& by Kristian Hoffman is one of those albums that everyone who hears it loves, but which flies under the radar. On the very few occasions I’ve spoken about it to anyone who’s heard it, they’ve always said “Wow, I love that album, but I don’t know anyone else who’s heard it!”
Hoffman is someone who’s been on the fringes of success for decades – he was in the obscure art-punk band the Mumps in the 70s, and since then has worked with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Carolyn Edwards – and &, his third ‘solo’ album, is actually an album of duets that pulls collaborators from throughout the world of interesting music. Hoffman’s style is closest to the glam-punk of 70s Sparks, but he also has elements of powerpop, prog-pop of the ELO/Wings variety and a healthy helping of pre-rock pop. Possibly the easiest way to describe his music is to imagine Sondheim or Cole Porter as produced by Jeff Lynne, and while & is his third album it feels in many ways like a first album – it’s a collection of songs written over several decades, Anyone But You, for one, dating back to the 1970s.
The list of collaborators on the album could easily double as a list of the most interesting still-working musicians alive in 2002 (when the album was released) – Stew, Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, Russel Mael of Sparks, Van Dyke Parks, Rufus Wainwright – combined with some choices that one could see as being chosen for camp value ( Maria McKee, El Vez (“The Mexican Elvis”), Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Rubens) but who actually all turn in performances every bit as good as the more critically acclaimed performers.
From the opening “Gimme Some Lovin’” riff of Devil May Care, with Hoffman affecting an almost Dylanesque nasal voice (very different from the rest of the album) doubled by Russel Mael’s vibrato falsetto and backed by crunchy Big Star guitars, it’s obvious that this is going to be a musically interesting album, but it’s when that song gets to the middle eight that Hofmann’s real songwriting strengths start to show, with the line “Some postulate reward if you should mortify the flesh”.
Hoffman is one of the most articulate lyricists I’ve heard in years, with a huge working vocabulary and a wicked sense of humour. The album is just full of quotable lines – “Devil may care but I am disinclined to lend belief/to any square who spends his time bemoaning just how brief it is”, “It’s like a hideous chorus by the post-Mary Wilson Supremes”, “We sensed by scent that this brief sentiment was overripe”, “No sex in heaven – where do I sign?”, “This passion play was engineered, but when the mutant sheep appeared,”.
I’m more of a music person than a lyric person, so when even *I* am quoting huge chunks of the lyrics you know they’re special, but the music more than matches them. Get It RIght This Time, for example, has a first verse that could come from one of Noel Coward’s better musicals, all sparse strings and elegance, before going into a big musical-theatre chorus. The second verse then duplicates the arrangement of the first, but with Abba-esque piano, before we have two instrumental variations of the melody, one a perfect baroque pastiche, all piccolo trumpet and harpsichord, the other shredding 80s hair-metal guitar, before a return to the chorus and a final “Little Help From My Friends” tag. But none of this is in quotes, it just feels like the natural place for the music to go.
The album’s full of things like that, and even the less musically ambitious material is still well worth a listen. Anyone But You, with Stew and Heidi of the Negro Problem, for example, is one of only four or five guitar-based pop songs recorded in the last decade to be worth a damn.
And while the album is nothing so gauche as a ‘concept album’ (except in the sense that every song is a collaboration) there are themes that recur over and over again. Religion comes up in almost every song – obviously in song titles like God If Any Only Knows, No Sex In Heaven and Devil May Care, but also in lines like “Scarecrow, those who seek metaphor compare/Scarecrow, that other man left hanging there/But it seems to me/That comes too easily” and the whole of Anyone But You. There’s also a carnality to the lyrics, and an examination of sexuality and what sexuality means in modern life, and especially what it means to be gay – Scarecrow, the song just quoted, is about the murder of Mathew Shephard, a gay man murdered in Wyoming by homophobic fuckwits ten years ago, and is a haunting counterbalance to the more upbeat lines like “gonna put the ‘oo’ in the human condition” that predominate.
The best song by far is the ballad Sex In Heaven, one of the best ballads I’ve heard in years, whose lyrics deserve quoting in full:
It’s heaven sent, this miracle soprano you employ
That makes an angel of a boy, earthbound.
My soul took wing upon the sound.
I guess I still can’t face the implications of this gift.
There’s something pagan in the lift — airborne.
And why should soul from flesh be torn?
That’s what it costs to buy a note so pure and high
and so divine: no sex in heaven.
The bottom line: no sex in heaven. Where do I sign?
Then came the man whose eyes professed the love that we had sought;
a love that’s never to be caught or held.
Some ancient pact can’t be dispelled. What’s the surprise?
The storied sacrifice is often told: that this perfection must be cold,
and hard — where once we joined by scalpel scarred.
What gimpy God aflame with jealous rage decreed that you
Like him must be unwhole; allowed to yearn?
But if the need that you profess is once returned,
You slap it down! (If I should ask, and I always ask.)
I guess I still can’t help the sickened impulse to admire
the score that this castrati choir translates
that soothes as it emasculates.
What amazes me about this album is that it’s one of the *very* few albums I’ve heard in recent years where *everything* is well-crafted. The songs are absolutely superb – they remind me of Elvis Costello at his best or a less grating Randy Newman, oblique and intelligent with lines echoing and commenting on each other (for example in Revert To Type there’s a line about “the island of Dr Morose”, which is quite a good pun in itself, but is also an echo of the ‘mutant sheep’ earlier in the song), the arrangements are imaginative, ranging over almost every form of popular music from Sparks to Cole Porter to the Beach Boys, and the performances are stunning (my favourite is Stew’s full-throated roar on Anyone But You, but there’s not a bad performance on there).
& can be bought on CD and MP3 from CDBaby, or downloaded from eMusic. His first two solo albums, and a compilation of the Mumps’ 70s recordings, are also available from the same sources and well worth getting, but this is his masterpiece. He’s apparently also working on an album produced by Nick Walusko from the Wondermints, which I can’t wait to hear…
After Smile was finally completed and released, I expected Brian Wilson to settle back into a comfortable retirement with occasional one-off shows – having completed a record that took him 37 years, it would have been only right. And at first, this seemed likely. His touring settled down into a routine of ‘greatest hits’ shows, and his only release for the next few years was a very nice but hardly ground-breaking album of Christmas songs.
But then, last year he was commissioned to create a new suite for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall (the venue where he’d performed his first UK shows and where he’d premiered Smile. For the core of this, he took eight songs he’d written with his touring keyboard player, Scott Bennett, co-wrote one new song with Van Dyke Parks, and got Parks to write narratives linking sequences. With Darian Sahanaja and Paul Mertens reprising their roles as assistant arrangers, the result is one of Brian’s most collaborative – but also most personal – works.
I’ve written about the result before – both straight after seeing the first live performance of the resulting work, and after obtaining copies of the demos – but today I finally got a copy of the actual CD, so I can hear the completed work the way it was meant to be heard.
The first thing I want to say is that in my previous writing about That Lucky Old Sun I have rather minimised Scott Bennett’s importance – when I wrote those pieces, we didn’t have any songwriting credits for the new material, so I had no way of knowing who wrote what, and given that Bennett was the only unknown quantity while Wilson and Parks are two of my all-time favourite songwriters, it seemed reasonable to credit Wilson and Parks with much of the better material. However, it turns out that Bennett wrote or co-wrote some of the best lyrics on the album, and he definitely should get a lot of the credit. In fact, there’s a lot of wordplay in these songs – some of which I’d wrongly credited to Parks, and more that I didn’t even notice until seeing the lyrics in print – that makes me consider Bennett the second-best lyricist ever to work with Wilson (just after Parks, and ahead of Tony Asher and Mike Love). I’m a lot more interested in hearing Bennett’s solo work after this.
Having said that, this is a Brian Wilson album – and it’s a Brian Wilson album that fits in with his other work with Van Dyke Parks – you really can listen to Orange Crate Art, Smile and That Lucky Old Sun as three parts of a trilogy.
It’s a mature work – and it looks back a lot at Wilson’s earlier work – but it’s the work of someone who’s got a new lease of life. It’s the most exciting music I can imagine hearing from someone Wilson’s age (the last time I said that, several people pointed to Scott Walker, but while his latest music is by far the best stuff I’ve heard from him, it doesn’t have that visceral thrill. This is an old man making music with the spirit of someone a third of his age). In fact, according to the electronic press kit which comes on the bonus DVD with the CD, it seems that the more down-tempo elements of the album were added at quite a late stage because people listening to the music felt it was ‘too poppy’. Personally, I think the ballads are for the most part the weakest things on the album.
The references to Wilson’s older work that do turn up tend to be friendly nods to the past, too, rather than just ‘remember this older song? Wasn’t that great?’ It’s a subtle distinction, but a real one.
In discussing the album track by track, I’m going to ignore Van Dyke Parks’ narratives. This doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – on the contrary, they hold the album together and turn what would otherwise have been a merely good record into a great one- but they’re not very distinct things in themselves and not very susceptible to review.
One more thing to note before I start in on the track-by-track analysis – many people say, with every new Brian Wilson release “Wow! Brian is really back this time, not like all the other times I said he was back. His voice sounds better than in decades!”, and this has become like the boy who cried wolf – there’s only so many times anyone will buy a mediocre album that’s been hyped up by obsessive fans before they assume the artist in question has permanently lost it.
For the record, I have never before said that a new Brian Wilson album of new material was anything more than ‘pretty good’. Other than Orange Crate Art and Smile, both of which are special cases, Brian Wilson hasn’t released a new album that even approached greatness in my lifetime, much as I’ve been hoping otherwise for the last thirteen years.
So when I rave about this album, it really is because it is *that good*. And when I say that Wilson’s voice is the best it’s been in decades (partly because for once he’s singing within his current range rather than trying to hit notes he stopped being able to reach in his late twenties, but also because he’s actually engaged with the material) I mean it (he’s still not a great singer in any conventional sense, but his voice reminds me of Leonard Cohen or someone now, getting a lot of expression from a limited instrument).
The album starts with the title track, That Lucky Old Sun, an abridged version of the old standard, reharmonised by Wilson and with a gorgeous orchestral arrangement by Paul Mertens which brings out the song’s similarities to Ol’ Man River. It’s funny, but this is a song I’d never really noticed before Brian Wilson brought it to my attention, even though I own versions by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Armstrong and probably half a dozen other singers. It’s a great song but not one I’d really picked up on.
Morning Beat, the first song proper, also brings in many of the themes that will recur throughout the album. I was slightly worried when this started at the premiere, because it starts out like Brian on autopilot – the opening “maumamayama Glory Hallelujah” is a backing vocal line he’s been talking about using since the mid-1970s and the riff is clearly yet another variant on Shortenin’ Bread, a riff that’s obsessed him even longer than that.
But a minute or so into the song it becomes clear how different this album’s going to be from much of the sub-par material that’s characterised Brian’s output since the late 70s, because this song is filled with ideas. Normally, Wilson’s solo songs have had one single melodic idea, not especially well developed, but on this album there are several different melodies in each song – and usually each one of the ideas is good enough to build an entire song around itself. In this case, the song starts out as a Shortenin’ Bread based rocker, but then a new section (“I’m listening to the morning beat”) comes in, at the same tempo but going off in all sorts of odd directions, before returning to the normal verse.
But then the song takes a complete left turn, going from guitar rocker to clip-clop percussion and orchestra, in a middle eight that references Kurt Weill’s September Song, before going back into the verse again, and then ending with an abbreviated version of the “I’m listening” section, this time done as staccato punches rather than played straight through. And all this in just two minutes and fifty four seconds.
On previous albums, Wilson has sounded like every song has been a struggle against writer’s block – every idea must be stretched as far as it can go in case he never gets another one. This album, though, has him throwing out ideas with the profligacy of a twenty-year-old, confident that however many he sticks in there, there are plenty more where that came from. (It’s odd that this isn’t usually the pattern with older artists – one would have thought that as the pressure of time became more obvious, it would seem more necessary to get as much done as possible).
The lyrics, meanwhile, are serviceable by themselves, but do, seemingly casually, manage to introduce pretty much every recurring concept for the rest of the album. Other than the sun and the idea of rolling round heaven (both brought up in the title track), this introduces California and specifically LA, the night/day cycle, stars of both the celestial and celebrity kind, sleeping and waking, the sea, rhythm, beats, diamonds, distance, smog and clear air – all of which will recur over and again.
After a narrative section, we go into Good Kind Of Love, the only song Wilson wrote entirely by himself on the album, and God it’s beautiful. Lyrically (and very slightly melodically) it’s reminiscent of Friends Of Mine by the Zombies. Mertens’ orchestration is the star here – he’s an unsung hero of Wilson’s recent work, writing parts that are nothing like anything that appears on any Beach Boys record, sounding more like mid-twentieth century European concert music, but make perfect sense with Wilson’s chords. Unfortunately, one of my favourite parts of the orchestration – a nice little woodwind countermelody – appears to have been removed between the live performances and the eventual recording (either that or it’s been buried in the mix – I’m not listening on great speakers).
But this is one of those Brian Wilson songs like Soulful Old Man Sunshine or This Whole World that’s almost impossible to describe in terms of normal song structure, having a melody that twists and turns continually so there’s a smooth flow through the track but you suddenly realise after a few seconds that it sounds nothing like it did just a moment before, going through very slow free-tempo sections, upbeat Spector/Motown-esque sleighbell choruses and more, with skittering strings and mooing horns. It’s just wonderful, and I defy anyone to listen to it without a big grin on their face.
Forever My Surfer Girl is one of the weaker songs on the album – it actually sounds like it could have come off a later Beach Boys album, sounding like someone trying to sound like Brian Wilson by reproducing his tics – all Be My Baby drums and descending bass – along with referencing his past a little too heavily. It’s also one of the few places on the album that Wilson tries to hit notes he really can’t hit any more, sounding frankly bad on the second line of the choruses.
But even here there’s several different musical ideas – the main verse/chorus, a very nice middle eight, and a short repeated piano part that I *know* comes from something else I can’t place (in my head it’s part of a song on Orange Crate Art, but I can’t place it precisely even after listening to the entire album to see if I could hear that part). It’s not a great song, but it’s decent and pleasant.
(I’d probably also feel slightly more positive about the song were it not for the fact that I wrote an essay ‘proving’ that Wilson’s music is all about goddess-worship before the premiere of the suite, but it wasn’t published until afterward – and in the meantime Wilson was on stage singing “a goddess became my song”, rendering my point moot).
After this comes my personal favourite song of the album – Live Let Live. Originally written for the film An Arctic Tale, it’s been reworked here with new lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, dealing with the smallness of humanity and with a ‘save the whales’ message that actually works, rather than being heavy-handed moralising. A gorgeous little waltz, I don’t know what it is about this song that makes me love it so much, but all I can say is that when I hear the line “I got a notion we come from the ocean and God almighty had his hands on the water” my heart literally stops on the ‘God almighty’ (amusing, since the song, like so much of this album, talks about fast heartbeats).
The music to the chorus line (“Live let live not die”) is the same as that for Sail On Sailor (“Sail on sail on Sailor”), but even given the rather downbeat nature of the lyrics it communicates a hope and love of life where the previous song was more about struggling on pointlessly.
On any other Brian Wilson album post-Love You, this song would have overshadowed the rest of the album to such a ludicrous extent that the rest of the album would have been rendered unlistenable. Here it’s ‘only’ the best song on the album.
Mexican Girl, which follows, has been described rather harshly by David Quantick as ‘the most generic song ever written about Mexico or a girl’. There’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s also interesting just because this kind of music is very far from anything Wilson’s done before, all mariachi horns and Spanish guitar. There’s also a couple of fun lines in there – “you cast a net on the day we met” and “hey bonita muchacha, let me know that I gotcha”. It’s far from the best thing on the album, but it’s fun and funny and catchy.
California Role is, I am assured, a pun on a type of sushi (tying up with the ‘perfect for fish’ lines in Live Let Live) as well as the ‘rolling around heaven’ that keeps coming up throughout the album. The lyrics have quite a cynical bite to them :
Every girl’s the next Marilyn
Every guy, Errol Flynn
Sometimes you’ve got to edit your dreams
And find a spotlight behind the scenes
Here in California, man I gotta warn ya,
Find a California role
But there’s also a sympathy in there – “You broke your hand punching the clock so you could heal your heart” and “If you miss your shot it doesn’t mean you won’t reach your goal”. And the uptempo cheeriness of the music takes much of the sting out of the lyrics (as does the filter on Scott Bennett’s voice when he sings the lead on the first two verses before Brian takes over – it lends a distance to the lyrics). This is another standout track – so far, the album has alternated the truly excellent with the merely pretty good.
However, the next song, Oxygen To The Brain is another of the better songs on the album. The opening ‘Open up, open up, open your eyes’ melody is one of Brian’s classic little nursery rhyme melodies, like the tag of Wind Chimes. It then alternates between slower, short verses about how bad Brian’s life used to be and long, fast choruses urging the listener to make the most of life and get ‘oxygen to the brain’. The lyric sounds like it’s mostly Brian’s work – he’s written many songs with the same theme – but the line ‘skip the vices versus get to the refrain’ with its multiple puns and its commentary on the structure of the song itself is far too clever for someone as non-verbal as Wilson, and must be the work of Bennett (it’s possibly my favourite single line in the entire album, but I love puns probably a little too much).
Ending with a reprise of the ‘open your eyes’ start, the song then goes into Can’t Wait Too Long a short note-for-note remake of a snippet of a longer Beach Boys track (recorded in 1967 but unreleased until 1990). This works well enough on the CD, but worked better when performed live – at this point various bits of footage of Brian and his two brothers (Carl and Dennis, the guitarist and drummer respectively of the Beach Boys, both of whom died young) were projected overhead while the band sang the only lyrics in this snippet – “Been too long” – and I’m sure that pretty much everyone there was in tears as I was.
After this comes Midnight’s Another Day. When this song was first released on Wilson’s website, before the first performance, I wasn’t at all impressed, primarily because the scansion was all wrong, but even without that it just didn’t really appeal.
I now see that I was completely wrong. While the scansion’s still out (I suspect because Bennett fell so in love with one of his puns – “When there’s no morning without ‘u’” – that he let it go in even though it didn’t fit the rest of the verses), I can forgive that for the way the bridge builds up from just piano and organ on the line “all those voices, all those memories” to what sounds like every single instrument in the world on “all these people make me feel so alone”. It sends shivers down my spine.
I must have had tin ears when I first heard this. In context, and with the orchestration, it’s beautiful. It’s far from the best thing on the album, but it might be the most emotionally resonant.
On the other hand, the appeal of Going Home still mostly eludes me. For some reason even the few negative reviews of this album have picked on this as the standout track – people have spoken about this track as Brian’s best in decades. While it’s a fun track – it references back to Morning Beat with its Shortenin’ Bread riff, and it also includes the ‘rock, roll’ backing vocals Brian’s been trying to find a place for for thirty years (he used them in things like his unreleased version of Proud Mary), and best of all it has harmonica by the great session player Tommy Morgan – it’s *just* a fun track, a leftover from Brian’s sessions with Andy Paley from the mid-90s, given new lyrics. Even so, it’s hard not to smile when the instruments drop out and the band sing, almost a capella:
At twenty-five I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes
But now I’m back drawing shades of kind blue skies
It’s a fun little song, and I’m glad it’s there, and it’s *great* live, but it’s not the best thing on the album.
Unfortunately, the closer, Southern California, is the weakest thing by far on the album. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad – it’s pleasant enough – but for an album whose other songs vary between ‘very good’ and ‘masterpiece’, ending on ‘not bad’ is a bit of a disappointment. To make matters worse, in the original live performances and demos, the song ended with a nice little fragment of vocal melody that came out of nowhere. Here that little fragment has been expanded into an entire new section of the song, and loses a lot of its appeal. The song ends up sounding scarily like the work of Bruce Johnston (Brian’s colleague in the Beach Boys, who has written the occasional nice song like Disney Girls (1957) but who also wrote I Write The Songs). The last “maumamayama Glory Hallelujah” is majestic though, and a perfect ending to the album. (It’s not the actual ending – there’s a tiny fragment stuck on at the end of the band singing ‘working in the sun all day’ – but it’s the real ending).
This is an astonishing, beautiful album that is much better than the sum of its parts. It’s amazing that at sixty-five Brian Wilson is finally starting to realise the potential he showed when he was twenty-three. I can only imagine what he’ll do next…