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.

This blog post is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. It’s honestly worth getting a better sense of the context for ‘Kiss The Girl’. You can see the relevant clip from the movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axZ6mG__ZqU (or just Google it if WordPress doesn’t allow links in comments).

    It’s not merely ‘not particularly creepy’ – the point is that in order to get legs and be able to meet her prince, Ariel has forfeited her voice to a sea-witch. So she can’t speak, but part of the deal was that she would become the witch’s captive if the prince hadn’t kissed her within three days. We’re on day three when the song takes place, so she now desperately wants and needs him to kiss her (as you can plainly see from her body-language in the clip). But she can’t say that with her voice, so her friends stage the song to do it for her. The eel-like creatures you see at the end of the song are the sea-witch’s minions, carefully ruining everything so that Ariel doesn’t get her kiss and becomes the sea-witch’s slave.

    I do take your point about songs out of context, but presumably Wilson could assume most people buying this album would have a reasonable acquaintance with Disney songs?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s