Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

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, 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.

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.

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4 Responses to Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

  1. TAD says:

    I just got the album today. I’ve listened to it 3 times through, so far. Early highlights for me are “They Can’t Take That Away” (true, it’s a knock-off of the old Little Saint Nick arrangment, but it’s still a fun performance…you know Brian dug singing it), “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (love the doo-wop arrangement, and it might be Brian’s best lead vocal on the album), and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (a little to baroque for my tastes, but it’s a lovely song and arrangment).

    This is *way* better than Al’s solo album. LOL…..I definitely have to disagree with you on that one. Not that Al’s album is bad (it’s a nice album, in its modest way), but Brian’s is much more of an artistic statement.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I disagree – it doesn’t feel like much of an artistic statement at all. Which isn’t to say it’s not something Brian wanted to do – it obviously is. I just don’t feel he has anything to say about this material – it’s not so much Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin as Brian Wilson Reverences Gershwin.

  2. TAD says:

    You’re right about Scott Bennett’s lyrics. Not that they’re bad, but they’re embarassingly pedestrian when sitting next to Ira Gershwin’s work.

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