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Monday, July 6, 2015

Brian Wilson: Gettin' In Over My Head


1) How Could We Still Be Dancin'; 2) Soul Searchin'; 3) You've Touched Me; 4) Gettin' In Over My Head; 5) City Blues; 6) Desert Drive; 7) A Friend Like You; 8) Make A Wish; 9) Rainbow Eyes; 10) Saturday Morning In The City; 11) Fairy Tale; 12) Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel; 13) The Waltz.

Cured as he was, it is notable that Brian did not actually engage in that much new songwriting ever since getting rid of the evil Dr. Landy: the majority of his new albums either revisited old territory, or were filled with covers and tributes, or, like this one, were a rather choppy-chompy mess. Here, at least four or five of the songs were re-recorded from Sweet Insanity, an aban­doned project from 1991 — and quite a few others were pulled from various older projects as well. And for the really new songs, Brian gets himself extra security with the presence of three giants as guest stars: Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Paul McCartney.

Knowing Brian, though, «messy» is not necessarily a bad word when it comes to assessing the albums of a man who had once made it his business to arrange genius in messy ways, and wren­ching beauty out of chaos. The songs written for Sweet Insanity were more or less on the same level as those written for his self-titled debut; the presence of such eminent guest stars on a Brian Wilson record could hardly hurt, and, most likely, many fans had waited an eternity to hear Brian and Paul on the same record (technically, they already did, but Paul's carrot chomping is not nearly as distinctive and recognizable as his singing). There's even the ghost of brother Carl making a cameo here on ʽSoul Searchin'ʼ, an old outtake from which brother Brian erased all the vocals but Carl's, then added his own touch. Possibilities ahoy!

Critics and fans alike destroyed the album, though — almost literally knocked it to the ground, in a rather vicious way at that — and I am somewhat at a loss as to why, because I kinda like it. Now it is certainly true that it is not at all ambitious: clearly, the idea was to make a simple pop album, without aspiring to scale Smile-type heights. It is also possible that true fans, who were already well acquainted with Sweet Insanity through bootlegs, were disappointed about not get­ting their money's worth (not that they paid that earlier money to anybody except bootleggers). And it is also true that the lyrics to most of the songs are kinda crappy, but then Brian's never been a great lyricist on his own anyway.

But on the whole as well as in parts, Gettin' In Over My Head still offers enough cute, harmless fun — enough to empathize for the old guy and brighten your day, particularly if you're an old guy too (this is very important: ever since his «revival», Brian has stayed completely out of touch with the young generation, while at the same time staying young at heart — this is a paradox that can either irritate or amuse, depending on your initial attitude). The songs are reasonably well (self-)produced, relatively catchy, completely amicable, and each one contains a small drop of the Brian Wilson essence — maybe that ain't enough to love it, but I sure do not see that many rea­sons to hate it, either.

Of the three superstar collaborations, ʽHow Could We Still Be Dancin'ʼ is probably the best one. You really can't go wrong with Elton banging the keys like crazy on this sort of «pub pop» (his vocals, unfortunately, are rather dusty), the harmonies are top-notch, and the optimistic vibe of this typical «old geezer anthem» feels totally sincere. (Also, kudos to the line about "how could we still make music after MTV?", which is delightfully ambiguous). ʽCity Bluesʼ, with Clapton, has an almost surprisingly harsh blues-rock lead guitar part all over it, and although the Clapton / Wilson link is far from the most natural thing on earth, it is not the least credible, either: Brian's sad, melancholic side ("the strange loud people made a mess of the world", he complains) is quite compatible with Eric's trademark blues licks.

Weakest of the three, unfortunately, is the Wilson/McCartney collaboration. ʽA Friend Like Youʼ is just a bit too obvious a title for such a collaboration, and things get even more confusing when you realize that the title is the only line in the song that Paul is allowed to sing solo — when his is clearly the stronger of the two voices at the time (in fact, Brian now sounds like Ozzy's younger brother at certain times, which is all the more eerie considering how much Ozzy is a fan of senti­mental piano ballads, too). Even so, denying the song's catchiness or sincerity would be an insult to both of the elder statesmen.

Occasionally, the retro vibe does get corny — ʽDesert Driveʼ is a flat-out re-write of ʽ409ʼ that does not even try to mask this fact, and we do not usually take lightly to self-plagiarism, even if it invites us to take it symbolically and realize that Mr. Wilson still feels a very tight connection to the old days of pre-Beatlemania. It is also hard for somebody like me who is almost alergic to make-merry musicals to harbor positive reactions on cheerful dreck like ʽSaturday Morning In The Cityʼ (sorry). But, if anything, this all contributes to the rather colorful diversity of the record: having its relative ups and downs is probably a better fate than staying permanently jammed in consistent mediocrity. Even if Brian is not pushing for greatness, he is at least continuing to ex­periment with format, and that's unequivocally a good thing.

Ultimately, a thumbs up here: missteps and dumb lyrics ("she had a body you'd kill for / you hoped that she'd take the pill for" would be moronically sexist if it weren't already so completely ungrammatical) aside, it's too much of a fun-fun-fun carousel ride to be dismissed with an intel­lectual or musicological blast of arguments. You'll probably have to wait to hit at least forty to make an objective assessment — a twenty-year old hipster who reveres Brian Wilson for Pet Sounds and/or The Beach Boys Love You will hardly be impressed at this stop.

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