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Monday, August 10, 2015

Brian Wilson: In The Key Of Disney


1) You've Got A Friend; 2) The Bare Necessities; 3) Baby Mine; 4) Kiss The Girl; 5) Colors Of The Wind; 6) Can You Feel The Love Tonight; 7) We Belong Together; 8) I Just Can't Wait To Be King; 9) Stay Awake; 10) Heigh-Ho/Whistle While You Work/Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me); 11) When You Wish Upon A Star.

According to the Disney people, In The Key Of Disney was «the album that marries the vision of two men who shaped the image of modern California». That may be so, but it still does not exactly explain who on Earth came up with the romantic idea of having Brian Wilson record a bunch of Disney movie songs, and why on Earth had the decision been approved by Walt Disney Records. Were they that out of touch with reality? Did they think it could have any chance to be­come a strong seller? Or could it be true that somebody on top there was really enchanted by what it would be like to have Brian sing ʽCan You Feel The Love Tonightʼ — and damn the tor­pedoes and all? So many silly questions, so few answers.

Anyway, one thing and one thing only is for sure: in terms of musical arrangements, all these songs are better than their movie counterparts (well, maybe except the two Randy Newman ditties from Toy Story 1 and 3, because, well, Randy is Randy). Either Brian took the job seriously, or by now he and his band are just doing this automatically, but most of the songs are dutifully Wil­sonized to the same extent that Gershwin was — with harmonies, chimes, baroque atmospheres, indeed, it has to be stated that there is far more Wilson vision here than Disney vision. And yes, some of these songs were quite decent in the first place, but it is Brian that performs here the te­dious, but rewarding task of «de-cloying» them.

The selection, as you can see, leans heavily towards the «Disney Renaissance» era, probably be­cause it is these songs that 21st century listeners would seem to relate to rather than the old stuff, but then one shouldn't also forget that Brian himself grew to some of those cartoons, and it may be assumed that at least ʽBaby Mineʼ from Dumbo and ʽWhen You Wish Upon A Starʼ meant something to the man long before he became a star in his own right (in fact, ʽWhen You Wishʼ, according to Brian's own confession, had influenced ʽSurfer Girlʼ to some degree). And out of ʽBaby Mineʼ, at least, he managed to make a minor Wilson classic — now it is a lush, but totally non-sappy Beach Boyish waltz with perfect harmonies. If they ever remake Dumbo, I do hope this version will make it to the soundtrack, especially since there will probably be nothing else worth re­membering about such a remake anyway.

Another really pleasant surprise for me was the cover of ʽColors Of The Windʼ from Pocahontas, which probably has the single finest vocal delivery from Brian and puts the awfully and predic­tably overwrought vegasey version by Vanessa Williams to sleep — and the quiet organ, electric guitar, and flute arrangement is as much an epitome of good taste as the usual Disney arrange­ments are the epitome of cheese-a-rama. Brian's magical talents are not quite sufficient to salvage every wreck: ʽCan You Feel The Love Tonightʼ, unfortunately, retains its pompous power ballad core, and ʽWhen You Wishʼ... well, people don't like tampering with that song any more than they like tampering with ʽYesterdayʼ, and that makes the cover fairly useless.

But the major weakness of the album, and the one which makes it hard to recommend it to any­body except as a curio, is that there is really no point in having Brian sing all these songs. One or two could have been nice, but they are all character impersonations, and Brian was never much good at character impersonation. When he can really get into it just because he knows, deep in his heart, what that song's mood is all about (ʽBaby Mineʼ is definitely up his alley, and I guess the naïve environmentalism of ʽColors Of The Windʼ was also something he could heartily relate to), it works; but ʽI Just Can't Wait To Be Kingʼ? ʽKiss That Girlʼ? ʽHeigh-Ho, To Work We Goʼ? These are comical numbers that call for «getting into character», and it is predictable that Brian can't do it and won't do it, so why bother? And even if he might empathize with the message in ʽThe Bare Necessitiesʼ (not to mention that he does look a little Baloo-like these days), the bare necessity of that song is to deliver the message with comic precision and timing.

So, despite my sincere amazement at the intelligent and tasteful transformation of some of the songs, the idea on the whole does not work: there is just not enough of Disney's musical legacy for one Brian Wilson to absolve it all. It is not quite as absurd, pointless, or sacrilegious (the latter depending on whether you'd think Wilson desecrates Disney, or Disney desecrates Wilson) as it may seem, but it ain't no thirty-minute miracle, either. What could be a miracle would be a Dis­ney (or, preferably, Pixar) cartoon about Brian Wilson, with a Brian Wilson soundtrack — given that Brian, particularly at this point, somewhat resembles a cartoon character himself. Come to think of it, a cartoon about The Beach Boys could very well qualify as «family entertainment», especially if they remember to focus on drugs, wild sex, Charlie Manson, and Mike Love's wife-beating escapades all the way through.


  1. The (quite humorous) final paragraph is in the wrong font.

    Somehow, this album seems pretty interesting to me. The older films had far more tasteful soundtracks, imo, and like you said, Newman is Newman (and I'm not one to pass up a cover of Newman's material).

  2. Why does this album exist? You might ask well ask why Bob Dylan albums of old standards and Christmas carols from this same time period exist. It’s simply because artists that reach this status can indulge in their (no pun intended) pet projects. This is certainly less crazy than ol’ Bob singing “Silent Night” or something.
    You do make a couple of interesting points. First, outside the context of the movies, the songs can easily come off as absolute Tin Pan Alley schmaltz. Secondly, they are frequently sung by the actors portraying the characters in the films, because they have to be acted as well. Brian is pretty much, especially at this point, good at only being himself. He’s too sincere to take on other personas, for the most part.
    The two songs that are exceptions are those from “The Lion King”, because Elton made his own versions independently of the movie. Brian, I agree, doesn’t do much more with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” besides the usual nice backing harmonies. On the other hand, adding a Bo Diddley beat to “I Just Can't Wait to Be King” is a lot of fun, and Brian’s singing isn’t nearly as campy as Elton’s.
    Highlights, for me, are the Spector-esque “Kiss the Girl”; and “Stay Awhile” (once again, the harpsichord and harmonies recall “Wonderful”). Brian does add extra emotional resonance to “Baby Mine” and “When You Wish upon a Star”. The “Heigh-Ho..” medley is a cleverly done slice of fun, as well. The rest is certainly listenable.
    However, the songs don’t give Brian quite enough to work with in the first place, so it was never going to be an all-out classic. There is enough here for both Brian fans and Disney fans. We should also be grateful that the album came out before the movie “Frozen”. Nobody, not even Brian Wilson, can save “Let it Go”. Nobody.