Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure

No Pier Pressure is, in effect, the latest Beach Boys album. Much like Al Jardine’s 2010 “solo” album A Postcard From California, it features so many contributions from other Beach Boys, along with various guest stars, that thinking of it as a solo record makes no sense.

If anything, this sounds far more like the Beach Boys than the last Beach Boys album, 2012’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. That album had a harmony stack largely made up of multiple overdubbed Brian Wilsons and Jeff Fosketts, to which a thin additional layer of Beach Boys was applied. This time, Brian and Foskett (who dropped out of the very extended recording sessions half way through, but still appears on many tracks) are joined by Al Jardine, Jardine’s son Matt (who was the falsettist with the touring Beach Boys for much of the 90s, and who recently replaced Foskett in Wilson’s band), Blondie Chaplin, and Scott Bennett from Wilson’s band. While Chaplin and Al Jardine are only specifically credited on tracks where one of them takes a lead vocal, they’re in the vocal mix on several other tracks. (Two session singers are also credited, but without a track-by-track breakdown, it’s hard to know what their contributions were).

So while Mike Love and Bruce Johnston don’t appear (although David Marks, who is touring with them on their UK tour next month, adds some guitar on a couple of tracks), there are four actual Beach Boys on this album — as many as on, for example, Summer In Paradise. The fact that it says “Brian Wilson” on the front doesn’t really make a difference here. This is a Beach Boys album.

It feels very much like a sequel to That’s Why God Made The Radio, in large part because on both albums Brian Wilson collaborated with songwriter and producer Joe Thomas.

I’m getting into very sticky territory when I try to look at what, precisely, Thomas does and doesn’t add to the recordings. A lot of people seem to suggest that Brian Wilson’s well-known mental problems mean he’s no longer capable of creating music, and that he’s a puppet for his collaborators. This is horribly offensive, not only to Wilson himself (and to anyone else with those problems), but also to his collaborators, who in the case of his band members are uniformly decent, principled, people who are being accused of acting horribly unethically.

On the other hand, Wilson is, and always has been, a very collaboratively-minded artist, and his collaborators’ contributions can’t help but show up. When he works with Andy Paley, who produces retro-sounding powerpop heavily influenced by Phil Spector, you get work that sounds very retro, powerpoppy, and Spectoresque; while when he collaborates with his own band, who were put together for their ability to reproduce the records he made between 1965 and 67, you get work that sounds very like his work between 1965 and 67.

Joe Thomas is an “adult contemporary” producer and writer, and so when Brian Wilson collaborates with him, you get something “adult contemporary” — glossy, shiny, with too much processing on the vocals, smooth-sounding, and often veering into something that could be off the soundtrack of a bad 80s teen movie (Thomas often brings in Jim Peterik, writer of Eye Of The Tiger, as a collaborator).

Those faults are present in this album, but to a rather lesser extent than even on the last one. Here, for the most part, the arrangements seem to fit the songs well, and strike a decent balance between pastiching Wilson’s old style on the one side and generic AOR blandness on the other. I suspect, though we don’t have track-by-track credits available, that this is because Wilson’s band were used to provide a great deal of the instrumental backing, augmented by session players (notably on drums, where none of Wilson’s band play, and the parts are provided by people like Jim Keltner and Vinnie Colaiuta).

It’s obviously a fool’s errand to try to separate out who contributed what to the songs, especially as we know that some of the material dates back nearly twenty years while other parts were pulled together in the studio — but then, I am a fool. Wilson has said in interviews that Joe Thomas provided the chord sequences, Wilson wrote the melodies, and both provided lyrics, but this seems like the kind of oversimplification that he comes out with in interviews — we know a great deal about the writing process for the last album, and there, at least, it seemed very collaborative (for example Think About The Days was a piano instrumental by Thomas to which Wilson added vocal harmonies, while The Private Life Of Bill And Sue had a verse by Wilson and a chorus by Thomas).

My guess is that in the songwriting process Thomas provided most, but not all, of the lyrics, which are often in an 80s-AOR mode that’s completely alien from Wilson’s normal preoccupations; that he shaped and structured Wilson’s ideas — the songs tend to be far more verse/chorus and repetitive than most of Wilson’s work (oddly, for a man who’s come up with some of the great choruses of all time, Wilson tends mostly to avoid them); and that he supervised the recording of, at the very least, the drum parts — there is more hi-hat work on the average track here than in the whole of Wilson’s work from 1961 through 1988 inclusive (Wilson doesn’t like hi-hats, but they’re skittering all over this album). I would also blame him for the overuse of processing on the vocals, which is horribly unpleasant to my ears on some tracks — but at the same time, I suspect he probably should get at least some of the credit for getting good vocal takes out of Wilson, who is not the most consistent vocalist in the world, but sounds better here than he has in years.

But having said that, Brian Wilson’s name is on the album, and he has to take the final credit or blame. Too many fans either claim Brian is incapable of doing anything and is the puppet of other musicians on one hand, or on the other think that he would be producing another Pet Sounds every three minutes were it not for the terrible collaborators sullying his perfect genius. Neither is the case, as far as I’m aware.

So, in this review from this point on, I’ll be treating Wilson as the auteur — relating things to his other work and in the context of his career. That’s not meant to take credit away from Thomas, but I only know Thomas’ work with Wilson anyway, and have no idea about how this album fits into Thomas’ general body of work, which includes live albums by Kenny Chesney, Bon Jovi, and Stevie Nicks, and studio work with Peter Cetera and Toby Keith.

No Pier Pressure comes in three different versions — a 13-track standard edition, a 16-track “deluxe”, and an 18-track extra-deluxe one that has two bonus tracks (a 2005 recording of Love And Mercy and a 1975 recording of In The Back Of My Mind). Amazon have still not got round to shipping my pre-ordered copy of the 18-track version, so this review is based on the 16-track version, which they have supplied as MP3s.

(All songs are by Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas unless stated otherwise).

This Beautiful Day is a promising opener. A simple, repetitive, song fragment (less than ninety seconds long), it starts with forty seconds of Brian singing solo over piano chords, in about the most natural voice he’ll be in all album (his voice clearly cracks on the line “hold on to this feeling”), before turning into wordless vocals, while Paul Mertens’ string arrangement restates the melody of Summer’s Gone, the last song from the last album, while a trumpet plays answering phrases, before ending on a percolating synth.
There’s not much song there, but it sets up a lovely atmosphere. Most of the credit there must go to Mertens, who has been a secret weapon on all Wilson’s music for the last decade or so. He’s often (rightly) criticised for his sax playing being too loungey, but his string arrangements, with their vague hints of Bartok and vaguely Eastern European feel, and unflinching spareness, have been an element that was, really, missing from Wilson’s work for the first forty years. His arrangements throughout this album, as always, are exemplary.
Lyrically, meanwhile, this sets up one of the big themes of the album — trying to hold on to something slipping away, whether that be youth, life, love, or the Beach Boys’ temporary reunion.

Runaway Dancer is the polar opposite. Featuring someone called Sebu, who is apparently a member of Capital Cities (a young persons’ skiffle group of some notoriety), who also co-wrote with Wilson and Thomas, musically this poor attempt at mid-tempo disco sounds like a Scissor Sisters B-side, but with added lounge sax. Lyrically, meanwhile, it sets up the *other* kind of lyric we get on this album — the string of meaningless lines that sound vaguely like the kind of thing that 80s MOR acts thought was cool (“Yeah, she’s been the talk of the town/She’s walking round everywhere, looking for an answer/Someone caught her fooling around/Acting like she don’t care, runaway dancer”). It’s almost three times as long as the previous track, and has about a third of the musical interest, just hammering on its tedious chorus incessantly.

Whatever Happened is a return to the sound of the first track, and a massive improvement. The chorus is a little too bombastic for my liking, but this is a very good attempt at making Pet Sounds-esque music. It also introduces a motif we’ll be seeing a lot — a plucked, reverbed, trebly, bass playing a descending melody. I’m sure Brian’s used this precise sound somewhere before, but the only example I can think of right now is that the melody is the same as the “doo doo” backing vocals at the end of the chorus to The Night Was So Young.
But what really makes this track worthwhile is the layering of vocal harmonies. Al Jardine doubles Brian at times and counters him at others, and the massed backing vocals sound like the Beach Boys, for the first time on a record since at least 1996’s Stars & Stripes album.
The track doesn’t break new ground, and is consciously looking back to Brian’s glory days, but within the confines of what it’s trying to do it does it well.

On The Island features She & Him, with the lead vocal being by Zooey Deschanel, and is absolutely lovely. It’s a Jobim pastiche, and a very good one, and Deschanel sounds wonderful, almost like Peggy Lee. Some of the lyrics seem to be very Brian in their unnecessary details — specifying that the TV they bought is a colour one, for example — and while there’s nothing very clever about the music, it’s catchy as hell and pretty. The only downside is that Brian’s “on the island” harmony line seems to have been cut and pasted over and over, rather than sung every time, which means that on the very last repetition, where he sings “’cause on the island”, there’s a jarring edit after “’cause”. Other than that I can’t find fault with this.

Half Moon Bay, featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, is a near-instrumental, just with wordless backing vocals, very much in the exotica/Jack Nitzsche style of previous instrumentals like Diamond Head or Let’s Go Away For A While. It’s long on mood, but short on actual melody, but it does set that mood very well. It also features a variant on that bass motif again. It’s about a minute too long for my tastes, but very pleasant.

Our Special Love is, frankly, horrible. Apparently this started as a Tommy James & The Shondells pastiche, until Wilson decided he hated the instrumental track, so instead the track was given to YouTube star Peter Hollens to turn into an a capella track. The opening and closing sections, featuring layers of Wilson, Foskett, Chaplin and the Jardines, are pleasant enough, if uninspired, but then Hollens comes in with his beatboxing and lead vocals, and it starts to sound like Title Of The Song, Davinci’s Notebook’s parody of bad boy band songs, but with more beatboxing. Beatboxing, for those who don’t know, is someone making stupid “tsst” noises over and over, so if you listen with headphones it’s like having someone spit down your ear.

The Right Time, on which Al Jardine sings lead, is essentially a rewrite of the earlier Wilson/Thomas song Lay Down Burden, with a little of Night Time thrown in. An underwritten verse leads to an over-repeated chorus, and we’re back to gibberish lyrics, but the track is inoffensive enough, and Jardine does a great vocal, although the autotune is a bit ham-handedly applied here (most noticeably on the word “never” in the first verse).

Guess You Had To Be There, featuring Kacey Musgraves on lead vocals, is a bouncy country-swing-sunshine-pop song in the vein of California Girls or California Saga, with some nice banjo, presumably by Probyn Gregory (the banjo isn’t credited on the album). Musgraves and someone called Andrew Saldago co-write with Wilson and Thomas. Apart from a dull rawk guitar solo and too much processing on Musgraves’ vocals, this is very pleasant — simple, but one of the catchier things on the record.

Don’t Worry, one of the songs that only appears on the deluxe version of the album, has been getting a huge amount of criticism, largely because of the use of synth horns. In fact, as a genre exercise in late-70s disco rock it’s much better than Runaway Dancer. The tiny nods to Don’t Worry Baby don’t spoil it, and Brian’s in very good voice. Inessential, but surprisingly fun.

Somewhere Quiet, another mid-album bonus track, is the 1965 Beach Boys instrumental Summer Means New Love, given new lyrics by Scott Bennett (one of the keyboard players and backing vocalists in Wilson’s band, and a frequent songwriting collaborator). Bennett’s a much better lyricist than either Wilson or Thomas, and while he’s hamstrung by having to write to a pre-existing melody not designed for vocals (thus leading to some odd scansion at points), he does an excellent job here, as does Al Jardine on the middle-eight vocal.
The original melody was already slightly old-fashioned fifty years ago, but with the addition of lyrics it becomes more classic than old-fashioned. While it’s patterned after 50s pop ballads, with its 6/8 time signature, you could imagine someone like Nat “King” Cole or Tony Bennett singing this, and it fitting right in with the great American songbook material.

I’m Feeling Sad is the last of the deluxe-only tracks, and is just lovely — an uptempo, bouncy, duet with Foskett, with slice-of-life lyrics that could have come off the Friends album, this is musically somewhere between Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach on one side and bands like the BMX Bandits on the other — a fragile, beautiful, piece of bouncy pop.

Tell Me Why is a return to the ersatz Pet Sounds of Whatever Happened, and again features a great vocal by Jardine on the middle eight, but is a blander song than that one — it’s the only song on the album that doesn’t have anything in it at all memorable. I’ve listened to the album a dozen or so times in the last week, and I couldn’t remember which one this was until it started playing, something I couldn’t say about any of the others. Too bludgeoning and heavy-handed for my tastes.

Sail Away, co-written by Wilson, Thomas, and AOR schlocksters Jim Peterik and Larry Millas (who co-wrote several titles on the last Beach Boys album), shares its title both with the title track of Wilson’s favourite Randy Newman album, and with a song Wilson performed on Van Dyke Parks’ Orange Crate Art album. However, this track has more in common with the similarly named track by Styx. This could be by any of those bands — Styx, Journey, Foreigner, Survivor, Toto — who only had one hit each in Britain but were apparently ubiquitous in the US thirty years ago. Personally, I loathe this style of music (and including the flute riff from Sloop John B just makes me think about how much better that record is), but a lot of other people seem to like this one.

One Kind Of Love, written by Wilson with Scott Bennett and without Thomas, is very much in the mould of their Southern California and Midnight’s Another Day. Like Somewhere Quiet, this has a melody that’s not very singable, but it’s one of the stronger songs on the album, and the breakdown where multiple Brians sing in counterpoint over just bass and a horn is lovely.

Saturday Night, written by Wilson and Thomas with Nate Reuss of the annoyingly-uncapitalised band fun, who sings lead, is another song straight out of 80s US radio — this time sounding like the kind of thing Kenny Loggins or Huey Lewis would write for a teen film starring Michael J Fox, right down to a line about “playing our music too loud”. There are some good arrangement touches — the banjo part (again presumably played by Probyn) is very pleasant — but this is uninspired, dull, hackwork.

The Last Song serves much the same purpose as Summer’s Gone did on the last album — a calculated attempt to tug at the heartstrings, with the Spector kitchen sink turned up to twelve (to mix several metaphors horribly) in an attempt to disguise the lack of song.

Overall, the album feels like the result of several different, conflicting, ambitions — to make something “adult contemporary”, to make something vaguely arty that sounds a bit like Pet Sounds, to make something that sounds like contemporary pop radio, and to just make another Brian Wilson album of nice songs. One could pull together an eight- to ten-track short album from this that would rank with anything Brian’s done in the last thirty years — but given that the bonus tracks are among the best things on the album, it’s unlikely that whoever made the final sequencing decisions would have made the right choices when putting one together.

As it is, we’ve got an album few people will love from beginning to end, but in this age of playlists I doubt it’ll be listened to that way all that often. Instead people will rip it to their MP3 collections and only listen to the good tracks (whichever they think those are) — and on that basis, rather than as a unified, whole, work, this is an album worth buying.

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7 Responses to Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure

  1. Pete says:

    A good rewiew. I got rid of Runaway Dancer and now the album is listenable.

  2. TAD says:

    Enjoyable review as always, Andy! Not that I agree with all of it, mind you. :)
    Do you think Brian wrote most of the words for “Guess You Had to Be There?” I like to think he did, or at least that he wrote the best lines in it. Actually, anytime I hear a somewhat witty line that’s a bit quirky, I assume it’s Brian. I was disappointed when I read the lyrics though, and found out that what I thought was “weed” was actually “we’d.” Although given how the song is about the 60s and Brian’s hangout pad at that time, maybe a double meaning is intended there. “Guess You Had to Be There” might be my favorite track on the album.

    I know a lot of people don’t like “Our Special Love,” but I like it a lot. I love Peter Hollens’ voice….his range leaves me in awe, how he goes from low to high and remains expressive throughout. I don’t think it’s the best song on the album, but (for me) it’s the most interesting in many ways. I like how the chorus kind of tip-toes in, too, rather than slam in with a big arrangement behind it. A non-commercial song perhaps, but a pretty cool arrangement and performance.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m assuming Kacey Musgraves and the other credited co-writer wrote most of the lyrics.

      • TAD says:

        The lyrics are all about Brian and his friends (and hanger-ons) from the 60s, so I’d think a lot of the words were written by Brian? Unless he just described the general scene from that time, and Kacey ran with it and wrote the words around that idea.

  3. Bill Reed says:

    Not the same Sail Away. Those who can do, those who can’t write reviews.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      And those who can’t read comment on them, apparently. What I said was:

      shares its title both with the title track of Wilson’s favourite Randy Newman album, and with a song Wilson performed on Van Dyke Parks’ Orange Crate Art album. However, this track has more in common with the similarly named track by Styx.

      In other words, that it’s not the same song as any of those.

  4. Phillip Lovgren says:

    This is a exceptionally well crafted album including the songwriting, vocals and arrangements. It took me several listens to really warm up to this album as I had many of the same thoughts about it as you and other critics have stated but like someone whom you meet for the first time and notice their faults it may turns out that those faults are what eventually attracks you to them. It’s just a wonderful listening experience.

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