The Beach Boys on CD: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

After completing That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson went into one of his periodic creative slumps, discovering that he was, at least temporarily, unable to write new songs. Making an album of cover versions seemed the obvious option to keep his revived recording career going, and so when Disney asked him to record an album of songs from their films, he agreed – but on one condition.

Before recording the Disney songs album, he wanted to record an album of cover versions of Gershwin songs. Wilson had been inspired by Gershwin ever since, as a tiny child, he had first heard Rhapsody in Blue at his grandmother’s house (from what he’s said over the years, it was probably the Glenn Miller version, which is a leaden, lifeless, thing, but which clearly contained enough of a hint of the piece’s full majesty for a small child to see its beauty). Rhapsody in Blue had been one of the touchstone pieces of his career, one of those pieces like “Be My Baby” that one can hear echoing throughout his work, and now Wilson wanted to record an album of songs by its composer.

The Disney company agreed, and Wilson and his band went to work. Wilson and musical director Paul von Mertens selected the songs together – mostly going for the obvious choices, and selecting among them based on what was in Wilson’s vocal range. Based on their discussions, von Mertens came up with rough arrangements which he taught the band, before Wilson went into the studio and reworked the arrangements.

Based on this description of the working method, it might seem that this is more Paul von Mertens Reimagines Gershwin than Brian Wilson, but listening to the record itself it becomes very apparent that this isn’t the case. If nothing else, it’s always obvious when Wilson doesn’t care about the record he’s making – his vocals when he’s less than totally enthused can be painfully bad.

On this album, though, Wilson hits what may be the vocal peak of his solo career. He’s still a somewhat eccentric vocalist even here, and it’s a massively courageous decision to try to take on songs which have been famously performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and the rest of the greatest interpreters of American popular song. Any performance of “Summertime” or “Love is Here to Stay” will immediately invite comparison to those recordings, and the fact that sometimes the comparison isn’t a laughable one is in itself a major success. Wilson apparently worked on the vocals here harder than on anything he’d done in the studio in years, and it shows.

Not everything here works, but more does than one might imagine, and while some of the arrangements might seem a little Wilson-by-numbers, there’s a freshness to many of these interpretations that’s a million miles away from when Wilson’s contemporaries suddenly decide in their 70s that they’re going to put on a smart suit and sing the Great American Songbook backed by an orchestra playing ersatz Gordon Jenkins or Nelson Riddle.

Interestingly, this marks the only time Brian Wilson ever got a number one album on the Billboard jazz charts.

Rhapsody in Blue/Intro
Songwriter: George Gershwin

The album opens with a mostly a capella performance of the main musical theme from Rhapsody in Blue. A stack of wordless Wilsons in harmony are joined by von Mertens’ clarinet, until the last few bars when a full orchestration takes over. A sweet little introduction to the album – and fragments of the piece will be heard throughout the album, as orchestral linking tracks.

The Like In I Love You
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Brian Wilson, Scott Bennett

And unfortunately the first proper song on the album is one of the worst things on it. When the album was first mooted, the Gershwin estate gave Wilson access to some compositional fragments, unreleased songs, and so on, with the offer that he could turn some into finished tracks. The first and last songs on the album are the result of that, with Wilson and Scott Bennett completing Gershwin melodies.

But in this case, the melody they were completing was actually a full song – “Will You Remember Me?”, a song which Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira (whose own talents are often unacknowledged, but whose lyrics are often as subtle as his brother’s music is beautiful) had written for the 1924 musical Lady Be Good, but which had been dropped from the finished show. [FOOTNOTE: At the time of writing, Michael Feinstein’s performance of this song can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8FUHNcNFIo ]

Quite why it was dropped is a mystery – “Will You Remember Me?” is not in the very first rank of the Gershwins’ songs, but it has a stately, sparse, beauty to it that makes it a minor classic that deserves revival.

What Wilson and Bennett do to it though, is less revival than putting it out of its misery. A new, meandering, verse melody is attached to Gershwin’s refrain (which becomes the chorus and bridge of the new song), and Ira Gershwin’s simple but elegant lyrics are replaced with utter drivel like “Gliding in a starless sky/’Til we found the inner light/Now we can duplicate the universe”. The whole thing is turned into something that could have been a track off Imagination, albeit with more organic-sounding backing, and Wilson frequently has to go out of his vocal range to hit the high notes. A poor start.

Summertime
Songwriters: George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin

This is much, much, better. Most of the first half of the album is taken up by a medley of songs from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (a racially problematic work in the way that only well-meaning white men writing about the lives of black people can be, which nonetheless contains some of the best music Gershwin ever wrote), and this arrangement of the opera’s most famous excerpt gives it a slow, leisurely, languid, blues feel which suits the song perfectly.

von Mertens’ orchestrations here are much thicker and heavier than his usual sparse work, evoking a heat haze in the Deep South, and the cello part in the extended instrumental outro may be von Mertens’ finest arrangement contribution to one of Wilson’s records. Jeffrey Foskett and Taylor Mills add some great high wordless vocals, and the casual vibraphone answering phrases in the early parts of the song provide a crucial hint of improvisation for what might otherwise be perhaps too rigid an interpretation of the song.

I Loves You, Porgy
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Du Bose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin

The second of the Porgy and Bess excerpts is a fairly conventional treatment of one of the opera’s better-known standards. There’s nothing remarkable about the arrangement, and while Wilson’s vocal is competent enough, it’s never going to compete with Nina Simone’s interpretation.

What is remarkable about it, though, is that Wilson sang it at all. It’s indicative of his increased level of self-confidence and comfort that someone who was embarrassed of his beautiful youthful voice because he thought it made him sound effeminate would now sing a song like this – a love song to a man, asking him to protect the singer from another man and not “let him handle me with his hot hands”.

In that situation many singers choose to gender-swap the lyrics or otherwise alter them, but when von Mertens discussed that possibility, or the possibility of performing the song as an instrumental, with Wilson, Wilson just said “I’m gonna sing it.”

I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Du Bose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin

He didn’t, however, sing this – the third of the Porgy and Bess numbers, and one of the great highlights of the album. A lovely, jaunty, instrumental take on the song, this is reminiscent of tracks like “Barnyard” from Smile, as von Mertens switches between harmonica and bass harmonica to play the melody, while Probyn Gregory’s banjo drives the track forward. Guaranteed to raise a grin.

It Ain’t Necessarily So
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Du Bose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin

And we’re back to a more conventional arrangement for the final Porgy & Bess number. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is one of the most slyly cynical songs the Gershwin brothers ever wrote [FOOTNOTE: All the Porgy & Bess songs are credited to all the collaborators on the opera, but many featured just one lyricist; Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for this and “I Loves You Porgy”, while Du Bose Heyward wrote the words for “Summertime”]. Sung in the opera by the character Sportin’ Life, the lyrics wittily present his view that many of the stories in the Old Testament are less than historically accurate, but what many in the opera’s original audience will not have realised is that the melody he’s singing is the same as the aliyah (the blessing sung in a synagogue before reading from the Torah).

Wilson’s reading of the song, like most, cuts out the last verse (about Methuselah) and the tag, removes the Cab Calloway style call-and-response scat sections, and has a repeat of the “to get into heaven” section, giving it a more conventional song structure. The arrangement is a relatively standard one, as well – a gospel-tinged, organ-driven take, whose only unusual features are in the middle eight (some banjo arpeggios, and “bom” backing vocals that remind me a bit of “Cherish” by the Association).

Wilson’s vocal is a little too earnest for the song – its dry east coast wit is not a great fit for Wilson’s open sincerity – but it’s still a very competent performance.

‘S Wonderful
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

Wilson’s take on this song, first performed by Adele Astaire in the 1927 musical Funny Face, is clearly inspired by João Gilberto’s 1977 bossa nova version, although Wilson sings Gershwin’s melody straight rather than in Gilberto’s half-spoken style. While the song isn’t one of the Gershwins’ best, this is a decent enough performance.

They Can’t Take That Away from Me
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

One of the few real missteps on the album, this classic is redone as a shuffle, with a backing almost identical to that of “Little Saint Nick”, call-and-response backing vocals, and a sax solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dion single. The uptempo poppiness clashes badly with the song’s wistfulness.

It was probably necessary for Wilson to include at least a couple of songs in something approaching his early-60s pop style, but it really doesn’t work well with the Gershwins’ songs, and this is the most skippable track on the album.

Love Is Here to Stay
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

The very last song George Gershwin ever wrote, its lyrics added by Ira after his brother’s death, this is given one of the most straightforward arrangements on the album, but is none the worse for that. For the most part it’s taken very conventionally, as a small-group lounge jazz arrangement, with drums played with brushes, vibraphone, and a string section playing a pad in the background. The only unusual element is Gregory’s theremin solo (actually played on a tannerin, an instrument designed to sound like a theremin but be somewhat easier to play).

It works, though. It’s a touching little song, and Wilson sings it well.

I’ve Got a Crush on You
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

A more radical restructuring this time, as Wilson turns this standard into a doo-wop ballad, all piano triplet chords and “wop wop wop wah” backing vocals. It works surprisingly well, thanks largely to the wide-eyed sincerity of Wilson’s vocal.

I Got Rhythm
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

Another rearrangement into early-60s Beach Boys style, this one works much better than “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, with its clanking piano, honking sax, surf guitar, and Jeffrey Foskett’s wailing falsetto giving this a real feel of 1964 (though the song it sounds most like is from much later – this is very like “Desert Drive”) and the simple uptempo joy of the song means that it’s a perfect candidate for this kind of treatment.

We could possibly have done without the tag, in which Foskett sings “I’ve got, I’ve got rhythm” to the tune of the old Beach Boys album track “Farmer’s Daughter”, but otherwise this is a nice bit of fun.

Someone to Watch Over Me
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

The penultimate song proper on the album, this is also far and away the best thing on it. The song itself is one of the Gershwins’ very best, a lovely, vulnerable song. Its themes of longing and insecurity, and the childlike way in which they are expressed, are perfect matches for Wilson’s own songwriting – it’s the only song on here that one could imagine Wilson himself having written.

Arranged here as a simple, harpsichord-driven, ballad with ideas reminiscent of both “Wonderful” and “Caroline, No”, this rises head and shoulders above the rest of the album, and Wilson’s touchingly sincere vocal performance is as good as anything he’s managed in his solo career.

Nothing But Love
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Brian Wilson, Scott Bennett

The second of the reworked Gershwin fragments, this is based on a song from 1929, “Say My Say”, which as far as I know has never been heard by the public.

It’s a better song than “The Like in I Love You”, though it doesn’t sound very Gershwin to my ears (apart from some of the chord changes around the line “I’ll tell you what’s timeless/Nothing but love”). In fact, it sounds like nothing so much as some of the uptempo tracks from That Lucky Old Sun – it has some of the same chugging rock feel as, say, “Morning Beat”.

According to von Mertens (in a 2015 interview with David Beard), the basic rhythm track was recorded before the melody and lyrics were written, and Wilson improvised a wordless melody line over the track, to which Bennett later added the lyrics.

It’s not a great song, by any means, and has none of the best of either Wilson or Gershwin in it, but it’s listenable enough.

Rhapsody in Blue (Reprise)
Songwriter: George Gershwin

And the album ends with another stack-o’-Brians, singing a fragment of Rhapsody in Blue over strings.

bonus track

Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off
Songwriters: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin

An iTunes-only bonus track, this duet between Wilson and backing vocalist Taylor Mills was left off the album proper for good reason. Neither Wilson nor Mills sound remotely interested in their performance, and none of the care which is evident on the rest of the album is here. The song itself is a classic, of course, but this performance won’t ever take the place of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version in anyone’s heart.

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One Response to The Beach Boys on CD: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

  1. Andrew Hickey says:

    Heh. And I just clicked on the review I wrote of this when it came out six years ago, since it shows up in the related posts. My opinion of the vocals on this has clearly improved a lot, but it’s also interesting how little the rest of my opinions have changed since the first listen.

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