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First Listen: 'Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin'

 Brian Wilson Band Gershwin listening party 7-28-2010 
The announcement last fall that Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson would pay tribute to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, including completing songs left unfinished at George’s untimely death in 1937 at age 38, gave reason for both anticipation and consternation.

Anticipation at the prospect for a meeting of kindred but disparate spirits across time: one the quintessential musical voice of the Jazz Age in New York, the other the prime architect of the rock era’s California myth of hot rods, bikini-clad girls and fun in the sun.

Consternation because much of the beauty of Wilson’s once-wondrous voice had been ravaged for nearly 30 years by personal and professional traumas, from which he’s been charting a steady recovery in the last decade. But the question looms of what the creator of “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls” could bring to the revered canon of one of America’s cornerstone teams from the Great American Songbook.

At a listening session Wednesday night in West Hollywood, an audience of about 100 invited guests, including record company executives, journalists and others, got a listen to the result, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” the album scheduled for release Aug. 17.

The key word here is “re-imagines,” not “interprets,” because more than simply presenting a collection of mostly familiar Gershwin classics in Wilson’s voice, the album processes them through his one-of-a-kind musical imagination. It makes his excursion through material that’s been so widely performed for the better part of a century a uniquely illuminating outing.

One of the key things Wilson and George Gershwin share is the ability to absorb the traditions that preceded them and forge them into something new and utterly individualistic. Both men also longed to expand the structural boundaries of the music of their times.

Wilson brings his signature skill at vocal harmony, musical arrangement and orchestration to bear, relying extensively on the endlessly resourceful backing of the members of the Brian Wilson Band that’s been with him in concert and on record since his musical renaissance began at the end of the '90s.

He’s delivered another thematically and musically contiguous opus that leads one song into the next by way of inventive instrumental segues, threading what’s just been sung and played to what comes next.

It opens with an a cappella rendering of the climactic melodic motif from “Rhapsody in Blue,” the song Wilson has often cited as his first musical memory, akin to “Our Prayer,” which kicked off “Smile.”  That opens the door to “The Like in I Love You,” one of the two fragments he and songwriting partner Scott Bennett completed with the blessing of the Gershwins’ estate.

The chorus reflects Ira’s signature witty wordplay: “The pain in painting, the muse in music, the like in I love you,” but Wilson doesn’t try to replicate George’s melodic or harmonic style, instead doing what he’s known for: achingly pretty pop melodicism.

Next is a four-song medley from “Porgy & Bess,” through which Wilson colorfully weds instruments rarely combined by the classic pop singers who usually take on this stuff: twangy electric guitars next to atmospheric vibraphones, bass harmonica, banjo, trombone and baritone sax along with those tapestry-like vocal harmonies of his.

As a singer best known for white-boy pop-rock, Wilson shows he nevertheless has absorbed the blues inflections that so fascinated Gershwin. He exhibits no qualms about his distaff version of Bess’ showpiece “I Loves You Porgy,” bringing a fetching emotional openness to the lazy-swing jazz-blues arrangement.

The most radical re-invention may be “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” This ode to a classy and civil romantic farewell, once a sublime breakfast-table duet between Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, in Wilson’s hands becomes a musical joy ride down PCH with the top down, all sunny enthusiasm for the gifts given and received in this relationship.

His take on “I Got Rhythm” taps the rock pulse of the Happenings’ version that brought the Gershwins’ music to the upper reaches of the pop chart in 1967, and which itself was inspired by the Beach Boys-Four Seasons vocal sound raging at the time. 

Wilson’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” by contrast, is elegantly, disarmingly straightforward  in communicating George’s exquisite melody and Ira’s yearning lyric.

“Nothing But Love” is the other newly completed song, a big beat rocker that’s more Wilson, where “The Like in I Love You” is more Gershwin.

It ends with a reprise of the “Rhapsody in Blue” choral theme. This won’t trump the latter-day high watermark Wilson hit in completing his own long-lost masterwork “Smile” in 2004.

There’s no doubt that Wilson’s album will elicit some squawking from those who prefer a Sinatra-Tony Bennett-Ella approach. But it does provide an undeniably fresh perspective on some of the most widely recorded music in history.

Who could ask for anything more?

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of the Brian Wilson Band (l-r): Nelson Bragg, Probyn Gregory, Darian Sahanaja, Wilson, Jeffrey Foskett and Nick Walusko, who prefaced the playback of Wilson's Gershwin tribute album Wednesday with a brief a cappella performance in West Hollywood. Credit: Brian Lowe


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Comments () | Archives (8)

>>As a singer best known for white-boy pop-rock...<<

If by that you mean that thousands of white boys have gone on to imitate the sound Brian Wilson invented, you might have a point.

But if you look at the influences on the formation of Wilson's style, this is laughably inapt. The jazz chords that Gershwin used lead directly to one of Wilson's two biggest early influences, The Four Freshman who, despite their Wonder-Bread name, were harmonically sophisticated. Another big influence was Chuck Berry, not exactly a white boy. A third key influence was doo-wop music as well as its offshoot, the girl-groups who recorded for Phil Spector. "Be My Baby" is Wilson's favorite song, he has said. You also can't ignore the influence gospel music has had on Wilson's songs.

No less than Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones or, for that matter George Gershwin, Brian Wilson's music embodies the synthesis of many American and European cultural strains, and as such is heavily influenced by African-American music.

To me, the appellation "white boy pop-rock" best applies to the so-called "indie" strain of rock starting with R.E.M. who worked assiduously to purge rock of its blues roots to create music primarily aimed at the head, not the body. The Shins, Belle & Sebastian, Pearl Jam, Interpol, the Flaming Lips, Vampire Weekend -- there are your white-boy rockers.

Brian looks fantastic

Wilson's gifts to pop music - ALL music - can't be overstated. He is the most under-rated musical genius of our era. The Fab Four ended 40 years ago; most of them had comparable solo careers but nothing compared to their career as a group; many of the celebrated ground-breaking acts of the Beach Boys' era (including the BB's themselves) are now nostalgia plays. but Wilson is the one still breaking boundaries and challenging ears. He's more than a "white boy rocker," he's a credit to the industry. Pop music wouldn't have been the same without him.

I'm thrilled about this album and can't wait.

Vail Beach hit the nail squarely on the head, I could not have put it better myself, thank you for that Vail. I myself was surprised to read Brian Wilson being described as "white boy pop-rock", knowing full well who his musical influences were. I take it that Randy Lewis knows next to nothing about Mr. Wilson, and did not bother to do any research on him before writing this piece? Is there any writer on here who actually bothers to do their job properly? Is true journalism dead?

Darien's such a control freak!

Hey Vail Beach;

A SPOT ON analysis of Brian's influences. That concise paragragh should be required reading in every Music Appreciation course.

Nothing about "Our Love is Here to Stay"? I would think the brotherliness of the song would at least warrant a mention or was it not played?

As one of the "hundred or so" on hand to listen to Brian's opus last Wednesday, I can attest that "Our Love is Here to Stay" was heard. After the live a Capella opening of "Rapsody in Blue," we were treated to a vinyl album played on an over-the-top Steinway sound system that would make Steve Jobs envious. Musicphiles claim correctly that a digital CD doesn't have the bandwidth to equal an analog vinyl recording. This is why Disney (thanks for doing this) is releasing both.
Question: Why do trendy people think it's okay to chatter incessantly during a recording presentation? They were generally rude. And we in LA think NY is rude!
Brian looked great, relaxed and friendly. Better than we've seen in years. Welcome back, Brian. We've been missing you for the longest time.
My humble advice: run don't walk on Aug. 17th to get your own copy--that you may enjoy in the quiet privacy of your vehicle or home, away from the madding crowd.


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