Linkblogging for 24/03/17

Sorry I’ve not been around much — apparently dealing with bereavement while also having a sinus infection that won’t go away while also fighting a byelection campaign and trying to get some freelance work done is time-consuming and difficult. Who knew?

Anyway, I’ll have Patreon comics reviews up tomorrow or Sunday. I only got a couple of suggestions last time I asked about these, and so I’ll just also review a few other things. And Patreon backers should expect some books in the next few weeks… and I’ll have a proper blog post up here either Sunday or Monday. But in the meantime, links.

Someone has compiled a PDF of Scott Alexander’s short stories. I find Slate Star Codex alternately insightful and headdeskingly stupid, but he *is* a very decent SF writer…

Someone else has posted PDFs of the complete Golden Bough, rather than the abridged version available in most places

Precisely measuring time can warp space

Jen Yockney looks at how many lives have been saved — literally — by same-sex marriage being legal

Jonathan Calder on why the Orange Book is too statist

And a site devoted to albums by classic British comedians

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What I Did On My Holidays By Andrew Hickey Aged 38 5/12

So I thought I’d report back to the world at large about what it’s like being at Lib Dem Conference right now.

While I’ve been a member of the party for eleven years, for various reasons I’ve very rarely been able to attend conference in the past, but given how much everything is changing politically right now, I thought that this time I *had* to go along, and I’ll probably be going to future ones.

The weekend started with a bit of extra Lib Demmery for me, as we went to the official opening of Jackie Pearcey’s constituency office. I’ll be talking more about Jackie’s by-election campaign in coming weeks, but suffice it to say here that I *do* think this is a winnable campaign. We had two Manchester by-elections in the last Parliament — Manchester Central and Wythenshawe & Sale East. My sum total effort for those was saying “good luck John” and buying a raffle ticket for Central, and I didn’t even do that in Wythenshawe, because those weren’t worth the effort. I’ve delivered five hundred Brexit surveys and a hundred and fifty tabloids in the last week, and allowed my house to be used as a temporary storage space for thousands more while they were setting up a proper HQ, and the writ for the by-election hasn’t even been moved yet. That’s the difference in how I see this by-election.

Unfortunately, when I got home after the office opening, I had some very bad news — my grandmother had died on Thursday night. We knew it was coming, and I’d had a chance to see her the day she died, but it was still very, very saddening, and that plus a cold I was already dealing with left me in no real state to travel or deal with people. So I apologise now to anyone I spent time with at conference, because I had no spoons at all left for anything like social skills. I wasn’t as fun as I could be.

Fortunately Lib Dem conference is, along with Thought Bubble, about the best place to be in that state. At both of them I get to spend time with a handful of my very closest friends, and also get to see another thirty or so great people I otherwise know online — and everyone’s busy enough that you can’t possibly run out of things to say to them, because they have to be somewhere after thirty seconds. Both conference and Thought Bubble are the closest thing you can get to social spaces that actually recharge me, rather than make my mental health worse.

Luckily, the first day wasn’t too busy, and I ended up going to the rally. Normally conference rallies would be something I’d avoid at all costs, but Jackie Pearcey, the Gorton candidate, was speaking at it and I wanted to support her as she’s a friend.

Actually, though, the speeches were surprisingly good — Tim Farron’s always a good speaker, but now that the party’s strategy has gone from being bland fence-sitting nothingness to actually standing for proper liberal values again, he’s been able to speak a lot more freely than before.

(It’s interesting to compare the conference decor to that of 2014, the last one I was at. There, everything was in Tory-aping “aqua”, and we seemed desperately to be trying to make policies that said nothing at all. This time, the colour scheme and look is back to the orange diamonds…)

Even Nick Clegg’s speech was good. Anyone who knows me knows I am not Clegg’s biggest fan by a long way, and I thought he was utterly useless as a public speaker as leader, but given the European brief he managed actually to *shine*. He was funny, clever, and passionate, talking about something he actually knew and cared about. If he’d been foreign secretary rather than Deputy Prime Minister I think he’d be looked on very differently.

But the main function of conference is to make policy. And this is where I was very, very worried. The Lib Dems switched, a couple of years ago, from having only selected representatives of each local party vote for policies to allowing any member who turns up at conference to vote. And shortly after that, the Brexit vote happened.

The party has doubled its membership in the last eighteen months or so, taking it to its highest membership this century; and given that we’re now on one member one vote, I was worried that this would lead to real problems with new policies.

I’m not talking about entryism, as such — I think everyone who has joined the party is committed to what they think the party stands for. The problem is that the party has been so poor at messaging for the last few years that I had no idea if what the new members think it stands for is anything like what the older members think.

There was a real, real, danger that we’d have got a lot of people who thought they were joining the Coalition And Liking Europe Party, and that the party would be in the reverse of its normal historical position. Normally the leader has been a centrist, trying to get a party full of radicals like me to compromise enough to be even vaguely electable. Now, though, we have a leader who is definitely part of the radical liberal tradition that is the party’s heart, but did we have a membership of soft centrists whose idea of liberalism was Ed Miliband or David Cameron?

Again, if we did, the fault wouldn’t be in those new, enthusiastic members signing up to be politically active, but in the party that hadn’t made its principles clear enough before they joined.

I shouldn’t have worried. From talking to a handful of newbies, and from the way the votes went on the policy motions, the new members (at least the ones who turn up to conference and exercise their voting rights, which is what really matters here) are the kind of people who one would normally expect to be reminiscing about campaigning with Jo Grimond at the Orpington by-election. They fit both culturally and politically.

The first evidence of this was on Saturday morning. The first policy motion seemed like it should be a very controversial one — it was on sex work, and the policy was created after a process of consultation with a lot of sex workers. The policy motion supports decriminalising the buying and selling of sex, and quashing all historical convictions related to it. It says that policing should instead be focussed on preventing harm to sex workers, in particular preventing anyone being coerced into sex work, and that the police should support them. It explicitly criticises the Nordic model, argues against the government’s current plans around pornography, and takes what to my mind is the only decent, humane, attitude — that if sex workers are being abused, raped, and murdered, the problem is not with their work but with the abuse, rape, and murder.

It may well be the most Lib Dem motion I’ve ever read — it starts “Conference endorses the enlightenment approach of rationalism and science”, and by a quarter of the way through it’s talking about “the complex and intersectional nature of sex work, in which all genders and sexualities engage”. It’s part philosophy lecture, part Tumblr post. Several people gave great speeches, in particular Dave Page pointing out that *everyone* sells their body under capitalism, and that the sex workers he knows view their work as both compassionate and creative, not something to be protected from.

It passed unanimously. I knew then that we would be OK.

Next up was a motion on prisons. Less radical than the sex work one, but a good, decent policy — basically we need to cut prison numbers, by decriminalising drugs, a presumption against imprisonment wherever possible and providing support for people not to reoffend, and releasing all prisoners on indeterminate sentences who’ve served their minimum tariff, along with getting staff numbers up to a decent level. Someone from Lib Dems For Seekers of Sanctuary gave a very moving speech about the tens of thousands of immigrants who’ve committed no crime and who are imprisoned for immigration purposes, and who would be freed if this motion became law. The motion passed.

Lynne Featherstone gave a good speech, and then there was a motion on the EU, which I didn’t bother attending — it was just reaffirming that we like it and that we also like good things that are nice and don’t like things that aren’t nice. I assume it passed, but I spent an hour talking with Richard Gadsden about the demographics of the Lake District and eating a burger, and that was a much better use of my time.

Next up was a motion which called for more funding of the NHS, and a programme to do for social care what creating the NHS did for healthcare. Basically a call for a new Beveridge Report, and a tax rise to pay for improved care. A couple of interveners took the opportunity to moan about how we should have a European-style insurance system instead, but the motion still passed. There is one part of it — “Any EU citizen working in NHS and care services to be guaranteed the right to continue to live and work in the UK, following Brexit” — which I don’t like at all, and nor do several of my immigrant friends, as it seems on its own to be separating “good” and “bad” immigrants, and saying only the good should stay. Fortunately, in at least two other motions this weekend the party reiterated its view that *all* EU citizens should be allowed to stay, so I could vote for the motion.

After this was a Q&A session with Tim Farron. Mostly decent stuff, but it was nice that during a question about housing policy he talked about lack of skills and specifically said “immigration is good”, with no caveats or hedges, and got the biggest round of applause of the conference. Our policy on immigration needs improving, but we have the rhetoric right and that’s a good start.

After this came the Traditional Trident Fudge. As nuclear weapons policy isn’t a matter of purely *liberal* principle, but involves other principles and other factors, the party is split almost exactly between those who think nuclear weapons are great and those who want to get rid of them. So every two years there’s an almighty row and we end up compromising on a policy which makes no sense at all to anyone (and which gets satirised at Glee as “we believe in a part-time submarine” to the tune of Yellow Submarine). This happened again — Julian Huppert’s “delete the whole motion and replace with ‘get rid of nukes'” amendment was voted down, and a meaningless fudge voted for.

I left early to go back to the hotel and have a nap, unfortunately missing Glee Club as I wasn’t feeling well, and discovered that Chuck Berry had died, aged 91. I won’t be writing here about him, because I still can’t find a proper way of acknowledging both that he was the most important musician of the last seventy years, without whom almost none of the music I love would exist, and that he was a serial sex offender who caused incalculable harm to women (many of them underage).

The next morning started with an emergency motion on child refugees, calling on the government to restore the Dubs commitment and let unaccompanied child refugees into the country. I made a special effort to get to the conference centre early in order to vote for this. It passed unanimously.

Then came the Traditional Faith Schools Argument. Like nuclear weapons, faith schools are a sore point in the Lib Dems, as for historical reasons the party has more than its fair share both of extremely religious Christians and of strident atheists (this makes more sense than it sounds — Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the real division isn’t between the atheist and the religious believer, but between those who consider the questions of religion important and those who don’t — the atheist and the evangelist may have come to different conclusions, but they’ve considered the question, and that in itself makes them rare).

The party were presented with four different options, including an amendment by Julian Huppert which would essentially delete the whole motion and replace it with “no faith schools, ever”. There was an option to say “yay faith schools we love you”, a fence-sitting fudge that made no sense, and an option to say “faith schools can exist, but if they’re getting money from the government they can’t select pupils by faith, they can’t discriminate in hiring, and they can’t force any pupils to take part in worship or religious instruction, though they can offer those things if they want — basically churches can run state schools if they want, but they can’t force any religion on the pupils and have to serve all the community as equally as any secular school”.

The pro-faith-schools people lost the debate, and I do mean they lost it. It is possible to make a good, liberal, argument for faith schools, but the people who spoke didn’t seem interested in doing that. They kept saying things like “if we’re fine with businesses running schools, why not churches?” (to which the obvious reply, from Huppert, was “we’re not fine with businesses running schools either”), and in one case actually complaining of “liberal extremism” (not something that would go over well in a Liberal Democrat conference, of all places). There were also complaints that a Sunday morning slot for the debate discriminated against people of faith, which backfired rather spectacularly — if those people actually *meant* “people of faith” rather than “people of *my* faith”, then they’d have noticed that Friday and Saturday are hardly convenient for certain other faith groups either.

(I’d actually have been *very* interested to hear what Tim Farron had to say on the subject. It’s understandable that as leader he doesn’t want to step into that particular minefield, but given his strong religious convictions and equally strong liberal ones, I bet he’d have had something interesting to say, and would have said it well.)

More interestingly, all the arguments on the pro-faith-school side talked about the rights of parents, while those arguing against faith schools talked about the rights of children. In particular, Sarah Brown gave a speech (apparently very similar to one from Christopher Ward, which I wasn’t in the hall for) talking about her experiences at a faith school, being taught she was an abomination and would be damned to hell for eternity for being a trans lesbian. She was in tears, and the trauma of that experience is clearly still with her. Less moving, but equally persuasive, was someone whose name I didn’t catch, who talked about having taught for decades both in normal schools and in Sunday schools, and about his strong belief that only the latter should be used for religious instruction with the former being kept secular.

In the end conference rejected Huppert’s “scrap them all now” amendment, but voted for the “state-funded faith schools can’t force religion on pupils” option, which is a surprisingly strong position for the party to take, but one which is I think in line with our longstanding commitments to disestablishmentarianism and to true freedom of religion. There is a difficult balance to be made between having a secular state and wanting faith groups to participate fully in the community, and I think the motion as passed strikes that balance well, and manages to do so without fudging the issue.

There was then another Europe vote, this time on the proposals by our partner parties in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe that UK citizens be offered an associate EU citizenship, with all the rights of other EU citizens. I voted for this, but only because the motion specifically said that any costs must be minimal, and many speakers for the motion made the point which concerned me most, that this should not be a life-raft for the middle class to climb on while leaving poorer people to drown. The motion passed, as did an amendment insisting that reciprocal rights be granted by the government to EU citizens living here.

After that was the leader’s speech, but instead I went to Not The Leader’s Speech, always the best bit of conference (before now I’ve travelled *just* to that, and not bothered going to the conference itself). This consists of Jennie Rigg and her friends going to the pub and ostentatiously ignoring the fact that the leader is talking in the conference hall. About thirty of us were there, and it was great to spend an extended period with friends old and new.

This has been an *extraordinarily* hard few weeks for me, with my grandmother’s death being by far the worst thing but with several other things affecting my mood rather badly. But there’s nothing that could have done more good for it than sitting in the pub for seven hours with a group of liberals (including several of my best friends) after a conference that reaffirmed for me that yes, I’m *definitely* in the right party, and that the party is definitely on the right course. I won’t mention everyone I saw this weekend, because I know I’ll miss someone, but there’s very little in the world like being around a group of intelligent, liberal, passionate, good people to convince you that maybe the world isn’t all bad.

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Apologies for Lack of Posting

Just to say that I know posts have been a little light recently. I’m currently dealing with… (thinks)… three, I think, family emergencies of various degrees of difficulty (the one that’s by far the most serious is that my grandmother has terminal cancer, and we believe she’s got days at most left to live) — I’ve spent so long on the phone to various family members today that my arms are aching from holding it up to my ear; there’s a by-election going on in my local constituency, and I’ve delivered something like 400 leaflets this week (not easy with arthritis as bad as mine; and in better news I’ve had some freelance work to do this week.

I’m currently working on finishing my second novel and the third volume of the Beach Boys book so they’ll (fingers crossed) both be out this month. There’ll be one more Beach Boys essay posted here, but lots more shorter ones (on rarities compilations and so on) in the book. Patreon backers will, of course, get those free. I’m also working on some musical stuff and on a new Faction Paradox short story I’ve been asked to write (and to the editor who’s had to be too patient, I *will* get that to you soon!)

So hopefully there’ll be more stuff posted here very soon, but bear with me. I will, though, be going to the comic shop tomorrow or Thursday, so if any Patreon backers have things they want me to review, let me know in the comments.

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The Beach Boys on CD: That’s Why God Made the Radio

February 5, 2011, marked the first time that there was any public confirmation that something interesting was happening with the Beach Boys. That was the date of “A Concert for America: A Tribute to Ronald Reagan,” a benefit concert to mark what would have been the late President’s centennial. The Beach Boys appeared at that show, and performed six songs. But this wasn’t just the touring Beach Boys (at that time Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, along with Love’s son Christian, Scott Totten, Tim Bonhomme, Randell Kirsch, and John Cowsill, plus on that show John Stamos) – Alan Jardine was also on stage with them, for the first time since 1998.

Jardine had not permanently rejoined the Beach Boys – he was absent from the band’s shows for the rest of the year – but the appearance seemed to confirm that there had been a thawing in relations between the various Beach Boys camps, and that the rumours on fan message boards that something special might happen for the band’s fiftieth anniversary (which would be in September 2011) might be true.

And as it turned out, those rumours were true. Quite how it happened is still the subject of some dispute, but it appears that Love and Brian Wilson had got together at some point in 2010 to discuss a possible new album. While the original discussions were about the idea of doing an album of rock and roll covers, at some point this changed into an album of new material, working with Joe Thomas.

Thomas, who had produced the band’s last album in 1996, was by this point a successful producer of TV concert specials. He also had, from his sessions with Wilson in 1997 and 98, a stock of demos and half-finished recordings, some of which Wilson had intended for a possible future Beach Boys project. Wilson had already approached him about the possibility of doing something with those demos, and soon a plan of action was in place.

The surviving members of the band were going to get back together, and do a fifty-date tour in 2012 to mark their fiftieth anniversary. A new company was formed, “Fifty Big Ones”, which was co-owned equally by Wilson, Love, and Thomas, and which got a license for the Beach Boys name from BRI. That company was to promote the shows, and produce TV specials including concert footage.

There was also going to be a new album, with the “produced by Brian Wilson” credit for the first time since 1977, although Thomas was to get a “recorded by” credit which amounted to him actually co-producing the album (Love got an “executive producer” credit). A record deal was made with Capitol on the basis of several Wilson/Thomas demos with vocals by Wilson and Foskett, and the album was to come out in spring 2012, to coincide with the tour.

But first, they had to prove they could get together in the recording studio and work together at all. In May 2011, Love, Wilson, Johnston, and Jardine went into Capitol’s recording studio to cut a quick remake of their 1968 hit “Do It Again”. Along with them in the studio was a backing band consisting of Totten and Cowsill from the touring Beach Boys, and from Brian Wilson’s band Nick Walusko, Brett Simons, Probyn Gregory, Scott Bennett, Jeffrey Foskett, and Paul von Mertens, along with Gary Griffin (a keyboard player who had toured with both bands at different times).

That session went successfully enough that the band actually worked on a second track – a piano-and-wordless-vocals piece called “Think About the Days” – and the album was on.

The album, titled That’s Why God Made the Radio, was recorded using a mixture of members of Wilson’s backing band (and Cowsill on drums on some songs) and the session musicians Thomas preferred to work with. At some point David Marks was included in the reunion (reportedly at Wilson’s request), and he added guitar to a handful of tracks, but otherwise the Beach Boys provided only vocals for the album.

And those vocals were, with some exceptions, dictated to them in advance. Wilson had Foskett record elaborate vocal demos, singing every part, and then had Love, Jardine, and Johnston drop in their parts, singing what Foskett had already recorded. The result is a vocal sound unlike that on previous Beach Boys albums, and sounding far more like the sound on Wilson’s solo albums, with Wilson taking most lead vocals and Foskett prominent in the vocal stack.

The vocal sound is interesting in other ways, as well. A combination of the band members’ ageing voices and the greater possibilities opened up by modern technology means that the vocal tracks are created very differently from the band’s earlier recordings. The most notable way in which processing was used was the addition of autotune to the vocals – something which renders some tracks almost unlistenable, and made them sound dated as soon as they came out – but other, more subtle, processing is used.

In particular, the vocals are far more multitracked than in previous recordings, giving a much fuller sound. But the use of multitracking also means that occasionally the “lead vocalist” becomes a tricky question. Where earlier Beach Boys tracks had usually had each member singing a single vocal line each (even if double- or triple-tracked), here the intertwining lines are often sung by two or more different singers, and each singer might also be singing two or three different lines.

This is far from a bad thing – there are inventive things done with the vocal arrangements here that Wilson had never done before, and in particular a trick he uses a couple of times here, of having a heavily-processed Love doubled an octave above by Foskett, is quite staggeringly effective.

Almost all the songs recorded were Wilson/Thomas co-writes. Their working methods varied from song to song, but both men have said in interviews that typically Thomas would provide basic chord structures, over which Wilson would come up with new melodies, and the two would then collaborate on the lyrics. However, this would vary enormously depending on the song, and I’ll note in the entries for each song how it was written, if that’s been made public.

There were reports of conflicts during the recording, too – Jardine wanted the band to work on another version of “Waves of Love”, which Wilson refused to do, and Love came into conflict with Thomas and members of Wilson’s management team over his desire to write new material alone with Wilson (although Love as “executive producer” had more influence than any of his bandmates, and did contribute lyrics to three Wilson/Thomas tracks, as well as writing the only non-Wilson/Thomas song on the album). More material was also recorded than could be used on the album – including a remake of Johnston’s “She Believes in Love Again”, originally from The Beach Boys – and the final song selection was apparently made by Capitol.

The result definitely has flaws – the sound of the final recording has, to many fans’ ears (including mine), too much of Thomas and not enough Wilson in it. Many production elements which had appeared on Imagination but disappeared in Wilson’s subsequent work (overuse of woodwinds, tinkling percussion, a lot of cymbal work, nylon string guitar) made a comeback here, and often not to the album’s benefit. Also, the lyrics are rarely coherent at all (a common fault in all Wilson/Thomas collaborations) – the songs give the impression, usually through strong choruses, of having themes or subjects, but on closer analysis the words have mostly been chosen as mouth noises rather than having a meaning. Certain words turn up over and over – “time”, “wine”, “strange” – but seem to be signifiers detached from the things they signify.

But those flaws are, for the most part, minor ones. This is not a great album – it’s nowhere near as good as That Lucky Old Sun in terms of Wilson’s late-period work and production style, and it sags in the middle – but it’s a good album. It’s the first album with the Beach Boys’ name on it to work as a coherent whole since at least 1979’s LA (Light Album), and it’s a far better piece of work than most fans would have expected of the Beach Boys in 2012.

The reunion ended somewhat acrimoniously (as we’ll discuss in later essays) and this is likely to be the last ever Beach Boys album. It’s not a perfect way for the band to go out, but it’s a lot better as a swan song than Stars & Stripes vol 1 or Summer in Paradise.

line-up
Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, David Marks

All songs written by Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas except where noted

Think About the Days
Lead vocalist: Group/Al Jardine

The opening song, a piano instrumental by Thomas to which Wilson added a wordless vocal part, and which opens with the group a capella, serves as an overture to the record. It’s relatively pretty (if I’d been asked to listen to it without knowing the writer I’d have guessed it was written by Johnston on a good day), and at under ninety seconds it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But its main purpose is to show that this version of the band – vocally, Wilson, Jardine, Love, Johnston, and Foskett – could still sing. Other than a few French horn notes by Probyn Gregory at the end, the only instrument on the track is Joe Thomas’ piano (Scott Bennett is credited as playing vibraphone on the track in the CD booklet, but several people involved in the album have said that the credits were wrong on some tracks, and there’s no audible vibraphone).

The harmonies are gorgeous, and both Jardine (singing the “doo doo” vocals) and Johnston (singing the ultra-high falsetto) are in particularly excellent voice here.

That’s Why God Made the Radio
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas, Larry Millas, Jim Peterik
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Jeffrey Foskett

The album’s title track (and first single) dates from 1998, and had been discussed by Jim Peterik for years before as one of his great lost songs. Peterik, best known for his time in Survivor, had referred to it as a song written by himself and Larry Millas (his bandmate in one-hit-wonder band The Ides of March), but in an interview around the time of the album’s release, Joe Thomas explained that the title and basic chord structure were both the work of Brian Wilson.

And that chord structure is one of the more interesting things about the song, as the opening line basically reuses tricks from both “Warmth of the Sun” and “Your Summer Dream”. The song starts out as a doo-wop progression, but after the second (vi7) chord, it changes up a tone to vii7 – that change up a tone between minor sevenths is the same change (though in a different context) as the change on “all the while” in “Your Summer Dream”.

The song then takes that vii7 as being the ii7 of VI, and it continues the end of the doo-wop sequence, followed by the beginning again, in the new VI key, before dropping back down and finishing the original sequence, so the sequence goes “start of doo-wop sequence in C – end of doo-wop sequence in A – beginning of doo-wop sequence in A – end of doo-wop sequence in C” (I-vi7-vii7-III7-VI-iv#7-ii7-V7).

That’s the first line of the song (“tuning in the latest star/from the dashboard of my car”), and the melody sung is very similar to that of “Your Summer Dream”. The whole song proceeds this way, managing to reuse old elements in interesting ways. As well as old Beach Boys songs (there’s also more than a little of “Keep an Eye on Summer” in here), the chorus melody is clearly “inspired” by John Barry, specifically the themes to “Midnight Cowboy” and “You Only Live Twice”.

Vocally, the song is lovely. Brian (lightly doubled at points by Foskett and Jardine) does a great job on the verses, and the chorus harmony vocals give both Jardine and Johnston a chance to shine. And instrumentally, the track manages to do a reasonably tasteful updating of a 50s doo-wop style, with a 12/8 organ-led backing track which bears some relation to “Soul Searchin’”, with some great honking baritone sax (although this is let down by the middle eight, where for some reason there’s a turn to terrible 80s AOR guitar sounds).

Lyrically, too, this is above-par for this album, with genuinely cute lines like “it’s paradise when I/Lift up my antenna”.

Yet…somehow, it’s slightly less than the sum of its parts. It all feels a little too clean and manufactured, like it’s been created by committee with no real inspiration. It’s grown on me over the years, but there’s still something a little lacking here.

Isn’t It Time
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Joe Thomas, Larry Millas, Jim Peterik
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Mike Love, and Jeffrey Foskett

This, on the other hand, is utterly wonderful, and genuinely the catchiest thing the Beach Boys had released since at least The Beach Boys Love You if not earlier. It’s a very simple song which evolved in the studio from a ukulele-and-bass jam by Millas and Peterik, and for much of the track that’s the only instrumental backing, other than some handclaps, with piano being added low in the mix for the choruses and middle eight, and something that sounds like a celeste on the middle eight.

(This is one of those occasions when I really wish that the credits on this album reflected reality. I don’t hear any guitar on the track, yet David Marks is credited as playing guitar on it, but I couldn’t swear that he’s not on there somewhere – there’s a possibility that the guitar is doubling the left hand of the piano, very faintly. On the other hand the credits don’t mention Foskett, who is all over the track vocally, or the keyboards.)

It’s very reminiscent of The Beach Boys Love You or Smiley Smile in the near-emptiness of the instrumental track and the way the song is carried almost entirely by the vocals, but it’s also the most up-to-date sounding thing on the album, as there was a brief fad for the ukulele in hipsterish indie bands around that time. And while the track’s ridiculously simple – for the most part it’s just four chords – it’s insanely catchy.

Every band member gets a chance to shine – Brian sings lead on the first verse while Love sings a gloriously dumb “doo-be-doo” bass part of his own invention (Love also wrote some or all of the lyrics), Love sings the second verse, and Jardine and Johnston split the chorus between themselves. The middle eight is the only slightly weak point, as Foskett strains to hit some of the high notes and doesn’t sound quite as wonderful here as on the rest of the album.

A single version of this song was released on the compilations 50 Big Ones and Made in California, with some additional instrumentation, a few lyrical changes, and with Foskett replaced by Love singing the melody in a lower range on the middle eight, but while Love does a better job on that section, overall the changes made were overegging the pudding, and the joyous version on the album is better.

This is one of three songs from the album (along with the title track and “Summer’s Gone”) which made it into the setlist during the fiftieth anniversary tour, and it remains an occasional part of Love and Johnston’s touring Beach Boys’ show.

Spring Vacation
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Joe Thomas
Lead vocalists: Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and Brian Wilson

And after three songs ranging from good to great, we get the first real stinker. “Spring Vacation” is another song that originally dates from the Imagination sessions, where it was originally titled “Lay Down Burden”. After Carl Wilson’s death, that title was applied to another song, and this one was left.

For these sessions, Wilson asked Love to write new lyrics, and suggested some of the chorus lines, and Love came up with…adequate lyrics given the brief. Those lyrics received a certain amount of criticism from fans at first, until it was revealed that some of the lines referencing old Beach Boys hits were actually suggested by Wilson, not Love.

The real problem with the track isn’t the lyrics, though – lines like “summer weather/we’re back together” may be predictable, but they’re fine for a song about how the band are back together and still going strong. The problem is, rather, that the music is, frankly, rubbish. Thomas has described it as being a gospel-style song, but it doesn’t sound anything like gospel music except for the presence of a Hammond organ. Rather, it belongs to a particular subgenre of music I can only describe as “the kind of music you get on bad 90s American family sitcoms”. I can’t find a better descriptor for that genre than that, but this fits into it so well that I find it almost impossible to listen to the track without imagining an “executive producer: Linwood Boomer” credit coming up towards the end.

Along with that, this is one of those tracks where the autotune-as-effect has been applied so much to Love’s vocal that he barely sounds human. Utterly without merit.

The Private Life of Bill and Sue
Lead vocalists: Brian Wilson and Jeffrey Foskett

This, on the other hand, is a song which almost everyone except me thinks is awful, but which I think is a highlight of the album. A pseudo-calypso song (and one of the few where the nylon string guitar Thomas likes is stylistically appropriate to the song) about reality TV, this song was one of the newer songs written for the album. Wilson brought in the verse (“the private life of Bill and Sue/Can you dig what I’m telling you?”) and Thomas added the chorus (“from California to Mexico…”), which he’d written separately but which meshes perfectly with Wilson’s verse.

(Perhaps a little too perfectly – the one criticism I’d make of this song is that the verse and chorus are too similar both to each other and to “Mary’s Boy Child”).

It’s by no means a complex song, but there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm in the “um baddy addy yay” backing vocals in the chorus, and in Wilson and Foskett trading off chorus lines, while in the verses Wilson seems to be very patiently explaining his view of the world, and how bizarre he thinks it is that people are interested in the lives of reality TV stars.

Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that most provides me with what I look for in Beach Boys music, and I suspect it’s not a coincidence that (if the credits are to be taken as accurate – we’ve already established that there are errors in them, but I think the basics are right) this is one of the relatively few tracks whose instrumental parts are played largely by members of Wilson’s band rather than by session musicians. Where for much of the album the rhythm track and guitar parts are played by the kind of session players who’d played on Imagination, here the session players are confined to the piano and one of the acoustic guitars. Otherwise the band here is Wilson’s then-current band, with the addition of Cowsill on drums and Marks on guitar.

It’s fun, and light, and silly, and somehow hated by the vast majority of Beach Boys fandom, many of whom consider it literally the worst track the band ever made. Their loss.

Shelter
Lead vocalists: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Jeffrey Foskett

One of the worse sequencing decisions in putting this album together was putting this track right after the last one. Both are very similar in tempo and rhythm, and in general sonic feel. (The credits suggest they were tracked at the same session – other than Joe Thomas on harpsichord the credited musicians on this track, both those from Wilson’s band and the two session players, all appear on the previous track, although it’s hard to be sure because no bass player or drummer is credited at all, though both are clearly audible. It may be that Nelson Bragg, credited for “percussion”, played drums here.)

It’s a shame, because it dilutes the impact of this, another real highlight of the album. The verses (sung by Wilson) are clearly modelled on early Phil Spector, especially his collaborations with Leiber and Stoller, and have a very similar semi-Latin feel to tracks like “Spanish Harlem”, while the choruses (sung by Foskett, with Love doubling an octave down on the latter half) have a vaguely Roy Orbison or Gene Pitney feel.

While the lyrics are, like much of the album, utter gibberish to put it charitably, they still work very well with the music, as both music and lyrics have a strange tension between sounding gently comforting and anxiously longing. This tension is, of course, implied in the title – “shelter” is obviously a good thing, but you still need to shelter from something.

(Joe Thomas has talked about how the song was inspired by Wilson referring to his home as his shelter, and this casual word choice seems to say a lot about Wilson’s attitudes.)

Everything about the arrangement here – the chanted nearly-inaudible backing vocals in the last couple of choruses, the faint harpsichord, the trumpet and French horn parts played by Gregory, the “yayyay” interjection from Jardine – is perfect at setting a mood and creating a fine piece of Spectoresque pop.

Daybreak Over the Ocean
Songwriter: Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This track is an odd one out in many ways. This is actually a recording from Love’s unreleased mid-2000s solo album (variously titled Unleash the Love and Mike Love Not War), produced by Paul Faueroso, onto which the other Beach Boys have overdubbed a few extra backing vocals (the “bring back/wontcha bring back” sections). Most of the backing vocals, however, are actually supplied by Adrian Baker and Love’s son Christian (he’s the one singing “bring my baby” in a voice very like Carl Wilson).

The song itself dates back to the late 70s, and was originally recorded for another unreleased Love solo album, First Love. It’s a nice enough song – a rewrite of “My Bonnie” – but the production here, with its digital percussion and synth layers, is not very pleasant. And while Love’s vocal is decent enough, there’s a truck-driver’s gear change up a semitone for the instrumental break, and on the chorus after that it sounds like a pitch-shifted copy of one of the other choruses has been used rather than him sing it in another key.

Not the worst thing on the album, but forgettable.

Beaches in Mind
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Joe Thomas
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

An exception to the general rule we’ve seen so far that songs with more Brian Wilson band members tend to be better, this is truly dire, and essentially “Spring Vacation part 2”. This time the genre is that particular kind of lightweight AOR that was used to soundtrack 80s films with Michael J Fox in (I’m sorry for the imprecision in these descriptions – I can easily detail precisely which microgenre like freakbeat or psychobilly something falls into when it’s in an area of my musical knowledge, but when it comes to stuff that was popular on US radio in the 80s and 90s, I’d only have a 50/50 chance at guessing whether something was by Huey Lewis or Foreigner).

“We’ll find a place in the sun/where everyone can have fun”, apparently. This would have fit perfectly on Summer in Paradise, and wouldn’t have been the best thing on it.

Strange World
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

The last four tracks on the album were conceived as part of a longer suite, though how completed that suite actually was is questionable – in some interviews, Joe Thomas talks about it as a complete work that just needed releasing, while in others both he and Wilson talk about it as a concept with nothing completed save what’s on the album.

This first part is a rather bombastic track halfway between Phil Spector and Jim Steinman in feel, but aside from the excellent string arrangement by Paul von Mertens there’s not much actually to it – it’s harmonically simplistic and lyrically banal. It works largely because it’s one of the best-sounding things on the album, but on repeated listens it palls rather quickly.

According to some sources, there was meant to be another song between this and the next track, which was cut.

From There to Back Again
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, and Mike Love

Easily the most complex song structure on the album, the second part of the suite is also one of the most musically interesting things here, and other than one fault it would be one of the best tracks on the album.

Unfortunately, that fault is a major one. Al Jardine gives a stunning vocal performance here, but it’s processed to the point that at times he barely sounds human. Anyone who’s seen Jardine performing live in recent years knows that the processing here is not to fix a flaw in his singing – he sounds like a man half his age, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that he is currently the best living vocalist of his generation – so it must be a deliberate stylistic choice, but it’s one that renders the track almost unlistenable to my ears.

Which is a shame, because almost everything else about the song is exactly my kind of thing. It gives up almost entirely on conventional song structure, and feels almost like a through-composed single piece. The only part of this “suite” that dates from 2012, this is far more sophisticated than the rest of it (fitting a pattern that, with the exception of “Beaches in Mind”, the 2012 songs are much better than those started in the 1990s). Musically, it has a lot in common with songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Paul Williams, or Jimmy Webb, especially with the songs Williams wrote in the early 1970s.

There are, roughly, three different sections of the song. The first, with Jardine singing lead, is characterised by piano chords, flute, and reverbed guitar (similar to that on, say, the track “Pet Sounds”). There’s very little repetition here, but it sort of functions as a set of verses, since the harmonic material (lots of Imaj9, IVmaj7 and ii9 chords) remains similar throughout – for a lot of it, it’s the kind of interesting pattern you can get when you keep playing the same chord and just lifting up or putting down one finger.

This ends at around 1:46, when Brian’s voice comes in with “if you just call…” (followed by the other Beach Boys singing “just fall…”)

We then have an instrumental break based on the same harmonic material (with “aah” vocals) before another section, starting with Jardine and Wilson singing together (“through our compromise, paradise”), but Wilson soon takes over the lead on this section. This short section is backed mostly by another von Mertens string arrangement, and deviates a fair bit harmonically from the first section. This is in a minor key, and much more gloomy in feel.

Finally we get to the final section of the track, which is closer to the first section harmonically and instrumentally, but is much more upbeat, with Love singing wordless “ba ba ba” vocals and Jardine whistling.

Were it not for the processing on Jardine’s voice, this would be a masterpiece. For those who can cope with that major flaw, it still is.

Pacific Coast Highway
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

A very pretty fragment, dating from the late 90s, “Pacific Coast Highway” segues straight out of “From There to Back Again”, and is so closely related to it that it’s hard to think of it as a separate song, rather than a link between it and the final track. Starting with a block of “ooh” harmonies, we go into a short fragment of a song – about a minute of actual song in between forty seconds of “ooh” at the start and strings fading at the end – where Wilson sings “my life/I’m better off alone”.

Summer’s Gone
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Jon Bon Jovi, Joe Thomas
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And the final track – the final track on any Beach Boys album – is another one that divides people. Specifically, everyone else loves it and I think it’s a dirge. The end of the “suite”, this was written in the 1990s and always intended as the last song on the Beach Boys’ last album (although apparently Wilson later decided that maybe this wouldn’t be the last album, before the band split up again).

A collaboration with Jon Bon Jovi, this thankfully has few of the New Jersey rocker’s fingerprints on it. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t have a chorus or a middle eight. The same thirty seconds or so of melody repeats over and over for the whole four minutes and forty-one seconds of the track, and while the first time it sounds quite pretty, if a bit plodding, by the end of the track it’s become mind-numbingly tedious.

Melodically, it has a slight resemblance to parts of “Superstar” by Leon Russell, but slowed down and turned almost into a lullaby, while the production is clearly attempting to do something similar to “Caroline, No” as a weighty album closer.

The instrumental arrangement is interesting, and the vocals are nice, but fundamentally this is a fragment – a quarter of a song – stretched out to ten times its natural length.

Mike Love has taken a lot of criticism for a joke during the playback of this in the studio, when in front of a journalist he mimed blowing his own head off after the song (though few of those critics remember that immediately afterward he said “It’s brilliant, beautiful”). But frankly, that’s my reaction too. To an extent, the weight of the song as the last track on the last album has made it immune to criticism, and the fact that one line (“I’m thinking maybe I’ll just stay”) is inspired by Wilson’s last conversation with his brother Carl gives the song a bit of borrowed emotional weight.

But fundamentally, and trying my best to like the song, it’s simply not very interesting. It’s a poor ending to what is a far better album than we could have expected.

bonus track
Do It Again (2012 version)
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Lead vocalists: Mike Love and Brian Wilson with Jeffrey Foskett
The first track recorded for the reunion, this sneaked out on a “ZinePak” – a magazine about the band with a free CD and postcards, distributed through WalMart – as the one new track on what was otherwise a standard greatest hits CD, before appearing as a bonus track on the Japanese version of the album.

The song (which later became the opening song every night during the reunion tour) was chosen because it was one that everyone involved knew, and no major changes were made to the arrangement. Love’s voice is a little huskier, Brian Wilson sang the middle eight, and Foskett sang the falsetto Brian had originally sung, but other than that (and the fact that it comes to a hard close rather than fading) a casual listener would probably not notice the difference from the original, especially since the introduction is sampled from the 1968 recording.

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The Return of the Patreon-Only Comics Reviews

After a hiatus because of Reasons, I’m back to doing my Patreon-only comic reviews. Patreon backers can read (for free) my reviews of recent issues of Cerebus In Hell, WWE, Star Wars, and The Wild Storm here, and I’ll be reviewing issues of The Walking Dead and God Country tomorrow.
And if backers want to suggest anything coming out on Wednesday for me to review, please do so either here or there.

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The Gorton By-Election: Winning Here?

Lib Dem members at Jackie Pearcey's selection. In front are mayoral candidate Jane Brophy, Jackie, and councillor John Leech. I'm the one with the beard. No, not that one. Or that one. Or that one.

As some of my readers are aware, I live in the Manchester Gorton constituency. After the sad death of its MP, Sir Gerald Kaufman, last week, there will be a by-election. And I think it’s possible – not a certainty, by any means, but possible – that the Liberal Democrats will win.

Please note, before I continue with this, that nothing in this post is based on any inside knowledge about how the campaign will go. My total involvement with the local party this year has been turning up to the selection meeting yesterday and grabbing a couple of rounds of leaflets to deliver this morning. The party has some people involved who are better at strategy than I will ever be, and I’ve not spoken to them about the plans.

But I still think there’s a very good chance of winning.

Now, on the face of it, that seems absurd. Manchester Gorton is, under normal circumstances, one of the safest Labour seats in the country. The last time anyone other than the Labour candidate won an election in this seat, my great-grandmother was ten years old. Sir Gerald had represented the seat since I was four. And the Lib Dems did very poorly here in the last general election.

But then, we did very poorly everywhere in the last general election, but we’ve been doing surprisingly well in by-elections ever since the Brexit referendum. We won in Richmond Park, came a very close second in Witney, and doubled our vote in Copeland and Stoke Central – two seats where, unlike in Manchester Gorton, we were not the principal challengers, and not seats that played to the party’s strength. And in council by-elections, people on Twitter have started saying things like “another Thursday, another Lib Dem gain on a massive swing”.

Gorton will be a very, very interesting by-election in this respect, because the Lib Dem vote gain is pretty much all coming from the Remain vote, as we’re the only major party that’s not campaigning for Brexit (and not only that, but for the particularly suicidal approach to Brexit being supported by Labour, the Tories, and UKIP – there are ways in which Britain could leave the EU and not completely destroy its economy, international relationships, and quality of life, but none of those three parties seem the slightest bit interested in doing those).

This also, incidentally, explains why the Lib Dems’ vote-share gain has not yet been reflected in the national polls. A much higher percentage of people are telling pollsters that they voted Remain than the 48% who actually did, so pollsters are downweighting their Remain samples to account for that. It seems likely that this is false recall (a similar thing happened after the 1992 election, when a lot of people “remembered” voting Labour but voted Tory), but either way, the increase that the polls are showing is much less than the increase that’s being seen in real elections.

So far, since the referendum, we’ve had Parliamentary by-elections in Tory Remain-leaning areas and Labour Leave-leaning areas. What those by-elections have shown is that the Lib Dems can beat the Tories in Tory Remain areas about 50% of the time, and the Tories can beat Labour in Labour Leave areas about 50% of the time. What we haven’t yet seen is whether the Lib Dems can beat Labour in Labour Remain areas. I think we can. And Gorton is a very strongly Remain area – almost two thirds of people here voted to stay in the EU.

Up to 2010, we came a very strong second in Gorton, and we would have done significantly better in 2015 than we did had we campaigned here – it’s common knowledge that all the Lib Dems’ effort in 2015 went into keeping, rather than gaining, seats, and I don’t think I delivered a single leaflet in Gorton during that campaign. We’re going to be campaigning in this by-election, though.

Even so, that would normally give us only the expectation of getting back to a decent second place – which would in itself be a fantastic result, don’t get me wrong – but wouldn’t let us win. But I think there are a few other factors that come into play.

The first is that the Labour vote here is very weak. There’s never much turnout in the constituency, and a lot of it was Sir Gerald’s personal vote. For all that I disagreed with him a great deal on policy, he was an excellent constituency MP, and was very well liked among the different communities in the constituency. But until 2010, the Lib Dems had a lot of councillors here, as people were voting for their good local representative, not party loyalty.

I’ve no idea who Labour will choose for their candidate, but I’ve seen a lot of names suggested as having put their names forward, and the local feeling about those people runs a gamut from “who?” to “Oh God anyone but them!

And Labour in Gorton are incredibly fractured. They held the constituency almost solely on Sir Gerald’s reputation, but the constituency party has been in special measures due to infighting for thirteen years, according to news reports I’ve read. “Special measures”, incidentally, means that the national party has told them that they can’t make any decisions for themselves because they’re not grown up enough. For much of last year the local party wasn’t even allowed to meet – as the Evening News (a *pro-Labour* paper) puts it “As with all things to do with Gorton CLP it can be difficult to get to the actual facts – but suffice to say the police were called in amid claims of vote-rigging, abuse and intimidation” – and so from July through November there wasn’t a local party at all, as it was suspended.

Now, the demographics of the constituency are very odd, and under normal circumstances a “normal Labour candidate” would still beat a “normal Lib Dem candidate”, because while the Lib Dems might do well in studenty parts of the constituency like Fallowfield and Rusholme, or gentrifying areas like Levenshulme, we’d be expected to do less well in areas like Gorton itself, which is the kind of post-industrial, poverty-stricken, area where Labour always do well. (So well, in fact, that they take great care to ensure that those areas never *stop* being poverty-stricken).

If the entire constituency was like Gorton itself, we’d be talking, under normal circumstances, about a UKIP challenge to Labour rather than a Lib Dem one, and Gorton is big enough that it would under normal circumstances ensure that the Labour vote was weighed, rather than counted.

But that’s with a normal Labour candidate and a normal Lib Dem candidate. We don’t yet know who the Labour candidate will be, because they’re still arguing who will be on the committee to decide the committee to decide the shortlist of candidates (that’s not a joke or an exaggeration, just how Labour do things), but we do know who the Lib Dem candidate is, and she’s not a normal Lib Dem candidate.

Jackie Pearcey, the candidate, was a councillor in Gorton for twenty-one years, and managed to hold on to that seat for that long, despite the demographics being utterly against Lib Dems, by being one of the hardest-working councillors in the city, and quite possibly in the entire country.

I spent much of 2011 and 2012 campaigning with Jackie – I knocked on several thousand doors with her in that time – and know the immense regard in which she is held by the residents of Gorton. Her personal vote held up remarkably even in 2012, and she got the highest Lib Dem vote share in Manchester when the Lib Dems were doing their worst. She was a councillor in Gorton for so long, and did the job so well, that even five years after she stopped being a councillor she’s still regularly stopped in the street by people who want her to help them with a council-related problem, because for so long everyone in Gorton just knew “if you’ve got a problem, you ask Jackie and it’ll get fixed”.

So in the area of the constituency where we would normally be weakest, we have a candidate who is universally admired. The people of Gorton know who their local champions are, and will vote for Jackie in a heartbeat over some Labour nobody parachuted in by the central party because the local party can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.

I think Jackie would make a damn good MP, and is the sort of person we need in Parliament even if she wasn’t in my party – she’s got a doctorate in physics and now works in computing, and given the lack of understanding of scientific and technical issues in Parliament, and the importance of those issues, we need people like her. But more important even than that, she’s someone who cares about poverty, as everyone in Gorton knows. Manchester Labour have recently announced that between council tax rises and cuts to council tax support, the very poorest people in the city (a group that includes a lot of the residents of Gorton) will have a 22% raise in their council tax payments. Or at least, the poorest people with homes will. Manchester Labour’s attitude to homeless people is much worse even than that.

So we have a candidate who genuinely stands a very strong chance, because the people who would normally be Labour’s core vote will vote for her, when they wouldn’t vote for any other non-Labour candidates.

I’m not saying we’re going to win here…but I’m definitely not saying we’re not going to win either.

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The Beach Boys on CD: Brian Wilson in the Key of Disney

The second of Brian Wilson’s two-album deal with Disney records is the one that Disney themselves were more interested in – an album of songs from Disney cartoons. Unfortunately, it seems like the album was less interesting to Wilson himself.

The making of the album was by all accounts an enjoyable experience for everyone, including Wilson, but where his vocals on the Gershwin album were as good as he’s managed in his entire solo career, here a little of the sloshing and slurring returns. This is still an album where he’s making a real effort as a vocalist – even the worst vocal here is better than much of the best of Gettin’ in Over My Head, for example – but his level of engagement with the material seems to vary somewhat.

This may be because the album itself is split between two very different styles of musical material. With one exception, the songs come from either films made in Walt Disney’s lifetime or from the “Disney Renaissance” of 1989-99, with nothing from the poorly-regarded twenty-year period between The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid, or from after the mid-90s. (The one exception is “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3, which was the most recent Disney/Pixar film at the time the album was recorded).

The material from 1967 and earlier is music from Wilson’s childhood and early adulthood, and comes from a pre-rock-and-roll tradition which has strongly influenced Wilson in much the same way as the Gershwin material had. By contrast, the material from the 90s is largely written by near-contemporaries like Randy Newman and Elton John, whose songwriting is redolent of the 1970s sound they helped define. Wilson is a fan of both those men, but he is not the most comfortable interpreter of that idiom, and it shows.

The album works best when Wilson is singing the simple songs of his childhood, but is ultimately a minor work in Wilson’s discography, and it was released with almost no publicity. By the time it came out, it had already been overshadowed by two new developments – a five-CD box set of The Smile Sessions was to be released, and the Beach Boys were reuniting for their fiftieth anniversary, for a new album and tour…

You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Songwriter: Randy Newman

The album opens with one of the weaker tracks, unfortunately. Brian Wilson and Randy Newman are both great admirers of each other, and as two of the great Californian songwriters of their generation it might seem that the pairing would be a natural one.

Unfortunately, the strengths of their art are in almost total opposition to each other. Newman is, fundamentally, an ironist – someone whose entire oeuvre should be listened to in inverted commas, and which requires a knowing interpreter if it’s to have any effect at all. Wilson, on the other hand, is almost the embodiment of sincerity. His art is all about direct, unmediated, emotional connection.

The result of Wilson singing a Newman song, then, is to remove all the nuance and character that defined it, and this isn’t helped by him rearranging Newman’s jovial shuffle into a chugging rock beat with a similar feel to “Morning Beat”. The middle eight, in particular, is horribly affected by this – where Newman’s lazy, laid-back, vocal makes the extra syllables of lines like “some other folks may be a little bit smarter than I am” seem like casual thoughts, Wilson here gabbles to try to get them into a tighter space, and the result sounds more like pressured speech than a friendly chat.

The Bare Necessities
Songwriter: Terry Gilkyson

This, on the other hand, is an absolute joy. The original song is a trifle, but a catchy one (and incidentally the first professional arranging work of Wilson’s old songwriting partner Van Dyke Parks), and Wilson’s take has a similar joy to it. Starting out as a marimba duet, with Probyn Gregory’s banjo coming in for the first verse before the whole band join in, this has a wonderful sense of dynamics. The song wanders through different genres of Americana, from the Smile-esque intro and breakdown (where the marimbas are joined just by “bom bom” vocals), through almost country-flavoured early verses, all banjo and acoustic guitar, to a Dixieland rave-up at the end, with Paul von Mertens adding some lovely Sidney Bechet-esque clarinet.

Baby Mine
Songwriters: Frank Churchill, Ned Washington

Another song from an early Disney film, and another very good track. This lullaby from Dumbo is taken absolutely straight, and arranged in a similar fashion to some of Wilson’s mid-sixties ballads (there’s a clear family resemblance to “Kiss Me Baby”). I could have done without the answering saxophone phrases on the last verse, but otherwise this is a very restrained, stately, arrangement of a pretty, gentle song.

Wilson’s vocals here are the best on the album, and some of his best of his solo career. He’s hitting notes here that he’d normally strain at, and doing it with a strong, clear, voice, and without losing the emotional thread of the song.

As with all the tracks on this album, what one thinks of this will depend heavily on one’s opinion of the original song. But assuming you have any fondness at all for the song, this is as nice an interpretation as one could hope for.

Kiss the Girl
Songwriters: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman

Or “sexually assault the girl”…
This song from The Little Mermaid was never one of Disney’s finest moments. I’ve never seen the film and am reliably informed that in the context of the film the song isn’t particularly creepy, but out of that context, the message of this song’s lyric seems to be “just go up to the girl you’re attracted to, who isn’t talking to you, and kiss her without asking. She might like it.”

(Again, I’m talking here about the song as a song, not as part of a larger narrative. This is a problem with excerpting songs from musicals, but that is what this album does, and how it asks to be read.)

It’s such a shame, too bad – because the tune itself is insanely catchy, and Wilson’s reinterpretation of it improves significantly (at least to my ears) on the calypso-tinged original. After an incongruous burst of soulful saxophone and Hammond, and a couple of descending scales as a guitar intro, the song becomes something halfway between Phil Spector’s more Latin-flavoured early singles and Wilson’s own early Beach Boys tracks, “Don’t Worry Baby” guitar going up against “Spanish Harlem” castanets. Wilson’s vocal here sounds better than on any of the other late-period songs on this album, and the whole track is a lot of fun.

Speaking of the vocals, I’d love to be able to access the multi-tracks of both this and “Baby Mine” and see exactly what was done with Wilson’s vocals. Both recordings have very strong, natural-sounding vocals, which if you listen closely seem put together from multiple takes and either artificially thickened (there’s quite a bit of processing done on the lead vocals here, but done with a very light touch) or very closely multi-tracked.

That isn’t a criticism at all in case it reads that way – it’s exactly what every professional vocalist does in the studio, and it’s very, very well done. But what’s interesting to me is that there are a couple of tiny points – odd syllables like “the” in the “kiss the girl”s at the end of each chorus – which sound a little like Foskett singing. I don’t think it is him, but I’m wondering if there’s a tiny bit of him doubling Wilson here and there, mixed very low compared to Wilson’s main vocal. Or possibly Foskett did a guide vocal (as he occasionally did with Wilson in the studio) and Wilson copied a little of his phrasing. Or possibly my ears are playing tricks on me. But I’d love to know for sure.

Whatever it is I’m hearing, though, if you can get past the lyrics there’s a lot to love in this track.

Colors of the Wind
Songwriters: Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz

And we now enter the sluggish middle of the album.

“Colors of the Wind” is a song from Pocahontas, and as the aphorism goes, it contains much that is good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.

Musically, it’s clearly and blatantly ripped off from the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain” – the verse melodies of both songs are near identical for three of the four lines, and close for the fourth, and both titles have the same unusual pattern “[sensory impression] of the [meteorological phenomenon]”. The middle eights are different, but otherwise the main difference between the songs is that “Colors of the Wind” is taken at a much slower pace, as befits its ponderous newage lyrics about oneness with the Earth and its animals.

As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of this song, and Wilson’s arrangement unfortunately does little to improve my opinion of it – with its flute tootling evoking every romantic cliche about Native Americans, this could be a particularly dull 1990s Sting album track.

Can You Feel the Love Tonight
Songwriters: Elton John, Tim Rice

At least this, unlike the original from The Lion King, doesn’t continue the Hollywood pseudo-ethnicity – Wilson is covering the version of the song released as a single by its composer, rather than the version used in the cartoon’s narrative, and the arrangement is fairly closely modelled on that one.

The backing vocal arrangement is nice, but the song itself is simply not a very good one. In particular the syllabics on lines like “When the heart of this star-crossed voyager beats in time with yours” work against the melody in a way that makes it almost impossible to sing (Elton John got away with it by eliding a syllable, and singing “voy’ger”). Rice’s meaningless lyrics and John’s tuneless tune could never be salvaged.

We Belong Together
Songwriter: Randy Newman

This one might actually be an improvement on Newman’s original in many ways. While the cover version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” that opened the album replaces Newman’s swing with a more rigid rock beat, this one replaces Newman’s rather clumping arrangement with a twist beat, making the song a lot more fun. And while Wilson doesn’t sell humorous lines like “and I cheer up to where I’m less depressed” as well as Newman, and his vocal style doesn’t suit the lyrical asides like “least I hope you do”, his reading of the line “I just can’t take it when we’re apart”, speak-singing it in a strained voice, is one of the funniest examples of Wilson’s own deadpan humour on record, and a much better take on that line than Newman’s.

It’s not one of Newman’s best songs, and as a result no recording of it is going to be wonderful, but it’s not a bad take on the song at all.

I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
Songwriters: Elton John, Tim Rice

Another cover version of a song from The Lion King which uses the lyrics from the Elton John solo version rather than the duet used in the cartoon. The arrangement here uses elements from both versions, combining the swamp rock feel of John’s version with the pseudo-African rhythms of the Michael Jackson pastiche that is the film version, giving a Bo Diddley feel to the verses (though there’s a jolting feel when one goes into the middle eight, which has a very different rhythm).

One’s feelings about this will very much depend on whether one thinks Tim Rice is as clever as he evidently believes himself to be, as that will determine whether the juxtaposition of contrived punning lines like “it’s easy to be royal if you’re mighty leonine/It isn’t just my right, even my left will be divine” with the rather less erudite “My reign will be a super awesome thing” seems clever or annoying to you.

Stay Awake
Songwriters: Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman

This is actually the second time Brian Wilson recorded a song by the Sherman brothers (the writers of much of the music for Disney’s films in the 60s). The first was in 1965, when the Beach Boys had backed Annette Funicello on “The Monkey’s Uncle”, a song about being in love with a primate which includes lines such as “what a nutty family tree/a bride, a groom, a chimpanzee”.

Thankfully, “Stay Awake”, their lullaby from Mary Poppins, is slightly more memorable, and for better reasons. A clever little song, sung by Poppins in the film as she sends the children to sleep while pretending to urge them to stay awake, it has one of their prettiest melodies, and Wilson rises to it in the same way as he did to the similar “Baby Mine”, or to “Someone to Watch Over Me” on the Gershwin album. Backed mostly by harpsichord and celeste, Wilson gives a gentle vocal performance here that fits the song perfectly. It almost makes one wish for a Wilson album of lullabies.

Heigh-Ho / Whistle While You Work / Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)
Songwriters: Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, George Bruns, Xavier Atencio

This is great fun – a largely instrumental (apart from a couple of vocal choruses) medley of “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work”, with a few interspersed interjections of “yo ho yo ho a pirate’s life for me”. There’s all sorts going on here – bicycle bells, glockenspiel, what sounds like a sampled bicycle horn playing the melody, bass harmonica, ukulele, musical saw…this is exactly the kind of imaginative reinvention the album could have done with more of. Gloriously fun.

When You Wish Upon a Star
Songwriters: Leigh Harline, Ned Washington

And the closing track to the album is a song that meant a great deal to Wilson. “Surfer Girl”, the song he often refers to as the first he ever wrote, was closely modelled on this song from Pinocchio, and Wilson takes the song reverently here. As with all the tracks on this album, your opinion of it will vary depending on your opinion of the original, but here Wilson is singing as well as he does on the entire record.

bonus tracks
Two bonus tracks were included on early copies of the album sold through Amazon, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” only on the CD, and “Peace on Earth” only on the download version.

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes
Songwriters: Mack David, Al Hoffman, Jerry Livingston

Unlike with some of the bonus tracks around this period, it’s hard to see why this pleasant cover version of the ballad from Cinderella was left off the album proper. The arrangement is modelled after “Sail on Sailor”, but the more complex melody and changes of the older song do interesting things when poured into that 12/8 soul ballad mould, and the combination sounds in retrospect very much like a trial run for the title track of the next album we’ll be dealing with.

Peace on Earth
Songwriters: Peggy Lee, Sonny Burke

A simple, stripped-down, version of the Christmas song from Lady and the Tramp, this has something of the sparse splendour of Wilson’s version of “Joy to the World”. The vocal is much rawer than the rest of the vocals on the album, but the vocal arrangement is gorgeous and the simple instrumental backing (acoustic guitar, with a very faint organ pad, bass, hand percussion, and a few single reverbed electric guitar notes) is perfect for the song. Had this and “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” been included on the main body of the album, with maybe “Colors of the Wind” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” relegated to bonus tracks, I suspect the album would have received a rather warmer welcome at the time.

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