8:34 am Aug. 17, 2010
No one disputes that Brian Wilson is one of the most brilliant and influential figures in the history of pop music, and on paper, there's something intriguing about his pairing with an even more legendary songwriter, George Gershwin.
Who could resist the combination of Gershwin's melodies and urbane lyrics and Wilson's harmonies and shimmering productions? But the only people who should celebrate the release of the aimless resulting album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, are wedding DJs desperate for an alternative to tried-and-true Tony Bennett when it comes to underscoring the bride's dance with her dad.
This is an album for salad courses.
Wilson is now 68 years old. George Gershwin died in 1937 at the age of 38. It’s always been a question how Gershwin might have reimagined Gershwin in the intervening years. So it’s a high-stakes project for Wilson, a pretty bold way for him to prove his eminence. He even got permission from the Gershwin estate to complete two unfinished songs and add his own lyrics.
But one is reminded of that old line from the French composer Maurice Ravel: when Gershwin applied to be a tutoring subject, Ravel is thought to have said, “I could only make you a second-rate Ravel, when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin!”
What has resulted from Wilson’s effort is an album that's satisfying neither as George Gershwin nor as Brian Wilson.
Wilson's vision has always been Californian—outward-looking and expansive, even when his subject matter is internal, psychological (as it often was: see Pet Sounds).
He seems to have been flummoxed by Gershwin's jazzier, more detailed, less pastoral, more New York sensibility. Wilson tries to do what we're expecting him to do: to graft some Beach Boys onto the old standards. But his attempt, clearly full of a reverence for Gershwin that serves neither of them, feels half-hearted; the graft doesn't take, and the experiment turns out confused and uninspired. There's little hint of jazz, of ragtime, of theater; the songs, in Wilson's versions, are blandly presentable, tailor-made to provide a hint of sophistication in a Nancy Meyer romantic-comedy party scene.
Wilson, understandably, is drawn to Gershwin's epic "Rhapsody in Blue"; it's the piece closest to his own sensibility. He uses it to open and close the album, and inserts—well, imposes—riffs from it into some of the other tracks, which include classic Gershwin show tunes from Porgy and Bess and the 20-odd musicals he composed.
The opening "Rhapsody" is a strange and beautiful a cappella version constructed out of a slowly shifting wash of harmony, a glimpse of how compelling the entire album might have been. But the track is overtaken by traditional instrumentation, syrupy strings and all. It's a telling early moment in an album in which Wilson, out of respect or fear or something, doesn't go far enough to make the music his own, and retreats again and again back to easy-listening mode. Memorable moments are quickly buried under soft-shoe rhythms and schmaltz. There's no need for a violin solo, for instance, to interrupt Wilson's affectingly simple "Someone to Watch Over Me," and things get way too melodramatic as "Summertime" progresses. Throughout, the album lacks the straightforwardness and clarity that make even the silliest Beach Boys songs memorable.
But, in fact, the songs don't really hearken back to Wilson's early-’60s Beach Boys heyday, though there's a brazen attempt to bludgeon "They Can't Take That Away From Me" into "Help Me, Rhonda." And despite the gorgeously dazed opening, they don't have much to do, either, with the psychedelic sounds of the unreleased "Smile," the triumphant 2004 re-recording of which is largely responsible for Wilson's recent reputation and influence.
Wilson is clearly trying to recapture the lush melancholy of the Boys' 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. But this Gershwin album is unfortunately closer, in sound and spirit, to his self-titled 1988 solo album, which showcased his intact, lovely voice, but leaned heavily—and often gracelessly—on grand Phil Spector-esque production to support generic melodies and rote harmonies.
The productions on Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin are similarly big, and its emotions are similarly wan, eased along by almost pathologically easygoing light-jazz beats. In accumulation—a parade of Gershwin chestnuts from "'S Wonderful" to "Love Is Here to Stay" to "I've Got a Crush on You"—these gentle beats are gently maddening.
"It Ain't Necessarily So," which lurches from section to section and for which Wilson artificially roughens his still-sweet voice, comes the closest of any track to meandering off the rails, but there aren't any real train wrecks here. It's well played, well recorded, highly professional work, but it's meaningless—dull when it should be suave. (Suavity has never been Wilson's strong suit.)
This is the case particularly in the two songs based on unfinished Gershwin fragments: "The Like in I Love You" is a lethally bland ballad (on each listen, it gets closer to "That's What Friends Are For"), and "Nobody but Love" a slight, almost alt-country rock number that distantly echoes "Love and Mercy," the single off Brian Wilson.
But even the album's high points—that "Someone to Watch Over Me," featuring a heartbreaking catch in Wilson's voice on the last word of the line "I may not be the man some girls think of as handsome"; a restrained "I Loves You Porgy"—are missing the moments of pure splendor you listen for in Wilson's work, when the sounds are so overwhelmingly ravishing that even songs about surfing could make you cry.
And, in fact, there is a way in which Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin does resemble the work of the Beach Boys: its sense of suspended adolescence, a willful ignorance of any but the most superficial emotions. But, though Gershwin died young, his was always grown-up music. It's disappointing that Wilson glosses over these complex, witty, heartrending songs.
It's doubly disappointing because finding unexpected resonance in things that people assume are simple is something that Brian Wilson has proven he's able to do. After all, the Beach Boys were at their best, on Pet Sounds and tracks like "Surfer Girl" and "In My Room," when they intimated that even sun-kissed teenagers were possessed of unthought depths. It's too bad that Gershwin doesn't get the same treatment.
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks