BRIAN WILSON (w. VAN DYKE PARKS): ORANGE CRATE ART (1995)
1) Orange Crate Art; 2) Sail Away; 3) My Hobo Heart; 4) Wings Of A Dove; 5) Palm Tree And Moon; 6) Summer In Monterey; 7) San Francisco; 8) Hold Back Time; 9) My Jeanine; 10) Movies Is Magic; 11) This Town Goes Down At Sunset; 12) Lullaby.
Apparently, this album seems to have gone down in history as a catastrophic failure — critics and fans alike, at least in retrospect, never seem to have any kind words for it, and the only reason I can see is that formally, the record is a bit of a hoax: credited to «Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks», it actually consists almost exclusively of compositions by the latter. According to legend, a short while after the pair of old friends found themselves in the studio, Brian said: "Wait a minute, what am I doing here?" and Parks said "you're here because I can't stand the sound of my own voice" and Brian said "oh, okay then", and the tapes were rolling. To Parks' credit, he always insists that he did try to get Brian to collaborate more creatively, but he wouldn't — partly out of humility, partly because he was still recuperating from Landy's «therapy».
Well, color me crazy, but I not only like this record, but also think that it was conceived and executed strictly in the genuine Beach Boys spirit — maybe Van Dyke Parks is not a great composer, and maybe his lyrical skills leave something to be desired even from a slightly more sophisticated perspective than Mike Love's, but Van Dyke Parks did bring something to the table in 1967 when he worked with Brian on Smile, and, judging by these songs, he took even more off that table, because the themes, the vibes, the melodic moves, the harmonies that we hear on Orange Crate Art, all these things are a clear throwback to the happy innocent days of baroque pop teen symphonies and that warm California sun.
Actually, Parks' concept goes even beyond that — thematically, the songs picture an even younger, pre-war era California, idealistically unspoiled by surfers, hippies, drug dealers, racial riots, oil spills, and whatever else you might think of. The music is totally relaxed, happy, dreamy, full of orange crates, palm trees, dove wings, and Monterey summers. It may not be great music, but it is totally adequate to its purpose. According to St. Thomas Erlewine of the All-Music Guide, "instead of making his melodies catchy, Parks makes sure they are complex, which means they are rarely memorable" — but the good sir must have confused Van Dyke Parks with Brian himself, because I could see where such an accusation could be (misguidedly) directed against the author of Smile, but certainly not at the author of the perfectly accessible, never too complex, and frequently quite catchy vaudeville and pop rock numbers on Orange Crate Art.
On the contrary, if there is one serious flaw to this show, it is its lightweightness. The whole thing almost literally floats on air — song after song of giddy romantic innocence, too cute, perhaps, for its own good. When the entire album pulsates with just one emotion, this can easily result in oversaturation, and the music can come across as a bit cartoonish (which, perhaps, suited Brian just fine at the time — it is no coincidence that the man would later do a whole album of Disney covers himself — but may feel alienating for those of us who have always appreciated the emotional depth in the best songs he wrote for the Beach Boys).
There are some excellent musical ideas here, though. ʽWings Of A Doveʼ, for instance, is on the whole a bouncy pop rocker, but with a delicious «swooping» hook to resolve the chorus — very simple, Mr. Erlewine, and quite memorable, as we are getting carried away into the sky by an out-of-nowhere keyboard arpeggio. ʽPalm Tree And Moonʼ seems to have both South American and Far Eastern elements in its colorful arrangement — perhaps it is this kind of «complexity» that perplexed the critics, but the melody is perfectly catchy and unpredictable (and I guess California could be described as standing in between the Far East and South America, anyway). And the mix between country-western, cabaret vaudeville, and Smile-style harmonies on ʽSan Franciscoʼ is probably the single weirdest (but still totally accessible) bit on the album to which you might find yourself inclined to return in the most unlikely moment of your life.
I guess there are some duds as well — for instance, the cheesily sentimental, accordeon-driven ʽMy Jeanineʼ (an attempt to crack the French pop market?) is way too silly, and ʽMovies Is Magicʼ lays on the orchestra too thick, threatening to become late Andrew Lloyd Webber at any time. It is also not clear if they really should have devoted six minutes to Gershwin's ʽLullabyʼ which you should probably rather hear somewhere else — even if we accept that conceptually, this little dreamy fantasy of George's does fit in well with Van Dyke Parks' vision. But really, there is no sense in nitpicking: Orange Crate Art is most likely either a record that you will like (or even love) as a whole, or dismiss altogether as corny fluff.
I would go with a thumbs up, though. Even if it is not Brian Wilson's music (but then again, who can really tell now, with no eyewitnesses around, how much he did or did not contribute to these arrangements?), it is the single closest thing to Brian Wilson's music that one could imagine, and it certainly has the Brian Wilson spirit in it a-plenty.