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Monday, August 3, 2015

Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin


1) Rhapsody In Blue (intro); 2) The Like In I Love You; 3) Summertime; 4) I Loves You Porgy; 5) I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'; 6) It Ain't Necessarily So; 7) 'S Wonderful; 8) They Can't Take That Away From Me; 9) Love Is Here To Stay; 10) I've Got A Crush On You; 11) I Got Rhythm; 12) Someone To Watch Over Me; 13) Nothing But Love; 14) Rhapsody In Blue (reprise).

It would be okay, I guess, except for the title. Why shouldn't Brian Wilson, an icon of American pop music from another age, find the time to pay tribute to George Gershwin, an icon of Ameri­can pop music from before another age? However, «paying tribute» is not quite the same thing as «reimagining» — the latter implies that you will somehow be able to look at the music in a com­pletely different light. For my money, Janis Joplin singing ʽSummertimeʼ is a textbook case of genuine «reimagining»; whether Brian would at all be capable of a comparable feat remains an open question, even upon multiple listens to this platter.

Naturally, this album here sounds nothing like Bing Crosby, or Ella Fitzgerald — as you can easi­ly predict, the arrangements are one hundred percent Beach Boys/Brian Wilson: instrumentation, harmonies, rhythms, you couldn't mistake this for not the author of Pet Sounds in a million years. This is the way Brian works, and this is his paradigm into which he will gently force everything that comes his way, Gershwin or Cannibal Corpse. From this point of view, this is certainly a «re­imagining» — sometimes a «mutation», even, as is the case with the introductory and outgoing bits of ʽRhapsody In Blueʼ over which Brian plasters a thick wall of Smile-style harmonies. But in all other respects, this is just an album of Gershwin covers, no more, no less.

Really, there are two reasons to justify an album like this. First, Gershwin songs are vocal pieces, so it makes sense to crave for a new rendering once a fresh new vocalist with a special twist comes along. I guess it is pretty obvious that a 68-year old Brian Wilson does not fall into this category: it is nice to see that his singing has not at all deteriorated in more than a decade, but he still has too much of a hard time trying to hit and hold all the notes so as to divert his brain to other tasks — such as special ways of vocal modulation or inflection that would depend on par­ticularities of the lyrics. Nice, but expendable.

Second, one could try to somehow load the original songs with additional layers of depth — truly «reimagine» the songs so that, for instance, ʽI've Got A Crush On Youʼ would not properly sound like he's really got a crush on you, but made it ironic, or melancholic, or stalker-ish, or something. These interpretations, however, are all pretty straightforward and, I must admit, fairly bland. ʽSummertimeʼ has a few nice things going for it (like the grim cello line and the little orchestral climax at the end, hinting at the song's implied darkness), but on the whole, never rises above «nice», a pleasantly loungey delivery. ʽIt Ain't Necessarily Soʼ sounds like a school professor explaining to the kids the meaning of metaphor, rather than a cynical drug dealer taking pot shots at religious faith, which is what it used to be. So, okay, you could perhaps object that «disney-fying» the songs (almost literally so, because the album was released on the Walt Disney label, in exchange for the courtesy of Brian covering Disney songs on his next record) is a sort of «re­imagining», but would that be an objection in favor of the record?

Ultimately, there are no two big reasons to subject yourself to this, but there may be two small ones. First, it is cute to hear how Beach Boy rhythms and melodies, sometimes directly reminis­cent of classics, make their way into Gershwin songs — for instance, once ʽThey Can't Take That Away From Meʼ blasts out of the speakers, most of us will probably want to hum "little deuce coupe, you don't know what I got" before the real lyrics even start; ʽSomeone To Watch Over Meʼ sounds like a Pet Sounds outtake that could have, with a few twists, become ʽI Just Wasn't Made For These Timesʼ; ʽI Got Rhythmʼ ends with harmonies directly transposed from ʽFarmer's Daughterʼ, etc. Again, I wouldn't call this «reimagining» (no more than a thick Russian accent out of the mouth of a native Russian speaker of English would be «reimagining English»), but it's charming and certainly unique.

Second, also on a technical note, there are two «new» songs here (the second and the next-to-last tracks, symmetrically), permission to use and finalize which were granted to Brian and his pal Scott Bennett by the Gershwin Estate — reason enough, I guess, for hardcore George fans to sit up and take notice, even if the original melodies were obviously «wilsonized», and, frankly spea­king, the songs are not all that special. Well, I guess ʽThe Like In I Love Youʼ, as you can already see from the title, offers another small collection of Ira Gershwin's trademark word games, so at least there's some linguistic interest. Other than that, I can't think of any more exciting associa­tions — clearly, it is at least more rewarding to listen to Brian sing Gershwin than to listen to him singing ʽCan You Feel The Love Tonightʼ (a coming-up experience), but maybe it would have been a better idea to have him record all these songs around, say, 1969, when he was mad, un­cool, and unclean, and the results may not have been so predictable.


  1. The only track that really stood out for me was "I got plenty o' nuttin'": Brian's version positively bristles with depth and energy thanks largely to the Pet Sounds-like production, with the harmonica and bass harmonica driving the melody. Brian has a bit of history with the bass harmonica, most notably on the Pet Sounds song 'I know there's an answer' (the solo is wonderful).


  2. Perhaps if they hadn’t used the word “reimagines” in the title, you’re review wouldn’t have been quite so dismissive. What exactly were you expecting -- a Brian Wilson album not to sound like Brian Wilson?

    I find this to be an interesting hybrid between more traditional arrangements and Brian’s own style. Of the former, stuff like “Summertime” or “S’Wonderful”, Brian and his band at least add some appealing, distinctive vocals instead of just trying to emulate people like Sinatra or Tony Bennett. He actually takes one risk in not altering the gender of the protagonist in “I Loves You, Porgy”, taking on the persona of either a woman or a gay man, depending on what you’re into, I suppose. And did he alter the melody of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”? The only other version I’m familiar with is that of the Moody Blues – which is substantially simpler.

    Still, the stuff which evokes the Beach Boys is more fun. The drums on "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' " remind me a lot of the original version of “Holidays”, from “SMiLE”; “Someone to Watch Over Me” is similar to that album’s “Wonderful”; "They Can't Take That Away from Me" does indeed borrow the rhythm of “Little Deuce Coupe”. “I Got Rhythm” doesn’t sound like a particular BB’s track, but it’s hilarious. Opening and closing with a vocal version of “Rhapsody in Blue” is as fitting as opening “SMiLE” with “Our Prayer”.
    This was yet another artistic triumph for Brian. Unfortunately, it looks like his last…