Album Reviews

Brian Wilson – Reimagines Gershwin

(Virgin) UK release date: 30 August 2010

Brian Wilson - Reimagines Gershwin One of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century performs the work of another: it was never going to be a hard sell. A love of the Great American Songbook has been a constant in Brian Wilson‘s work, from his early passion for the Four Freshmen right up to 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, a suite built around the 1949 song of the same name. This album, bringing together Gershwin, Wilson and Disney, is a summit meeting of American pop culture, an aural apple pie.

Gershwin’s songs are, of course, among the most recorded of all time.  Summertime just manages to stick its head above the morass of versions with some woozy harmonies and a powerful cello-driven outro, but is followed by the plodding MOR of I Loves You, Porgy. Given that this song was written for a woman, it doesn’t jar too severely (Wilson’s delivery has always had a sexless quality), but it’s certainly not about to eclipse Nina Simone‘s version. It feels churlish to criticise Wilson’s vocals – it’s heartwarming that he’s still singing at all – but transmissions from Planet Brian don’t kindle the most intimate relationship with the listener. Rather, the heart of the album is in the arrangements.

There is an odd double-pronged nostalgia going on here. At one level, Wilson is celebrating Gershwin and Broadway’s golden age; at another, he’s celebrating his own legacy, imbuing his interpretations with a very Californian, 1960s sound.  They Can’t Take That Away From Me is kitted out with wap-bap-ba-na-ne-na backing vocals and an endearingly square boogie-woogie galumph. I Got Rhythm, substituting simplified surf chords for the classic ‘rhythm changes’, could be a 1963 Beach Boys single; Ira’s breezy lyrics might almost have been written for the band. Someone To Watch Over Me features Pet Sounds harpsichord, woodblock and Fender bass, while I Got Plenty Of Nuttin’ employs that album’s distinctive bass harmonica sound.

For all the resemblances to Wilson’s melancholy 1966 masterpiece in terms of instrumentation, this is a resolutely sunny record.  Without any bitterness to balance the saccharine, some of the arrangements cloy, notably the bossa musak of ‘S Wonderful. The secret of Wilson’s songwriting is in the smuggling of jaggedly odd melodies and song forms into pretty parcels; Gershwin’s songs, tending to operate within more conventional parameters, do not produce the same tension when thus packaged.

The album is bookended by snippets of Rhapsody In Blue, with multitracked harmonies from Wilson recalling Our Prayer, the opening of SMiLE. Wilson is one of the modern masters of rhapsody: that is, the turn-on-a-dime mood changes that characterise Pet Sounds and, especially, SMiLE. Characteristically, some of the most enjoyable moments on Reimagines Gershwin are the intros or outros of songs, dissolving into a new key or a contrasting feel – such as the ending of Nothing But Love, which quotes both Heroes And Villains and Rhapsody In Blue in the same breath.

Nothing But Love’s fresh power-pop is one of two Wilson ‘collaborations’ on unfinished Gershwin songs, along with The Like In I Love You, which save the album from being simply a pleasant but indulgent curio.  The latter, based on the fragment Will You Remember Me, moves through a sweet, cheerful chord progression with throwaway lyrics, but what takes the song onto another plane is its neck-prickling bridge, with ethereal harmonies that perfectly match the lyric “Gliding in a starless sky / Till we found the inner light”. It’s the album’s most magical moment by far.

Wilson is backed by an orchestra in addition to his fine live band – perhaps the equal of the 1960s Wrecking Crew. Among them is Scott Bennett (who wrote the lyrics for the semi-originals), Paul Mertens (who, with Wilson, wrote the arrangements) and Darian Sahanaja (the architect of 2004’s SMiLE premiere). They have studied Wilson’s style with incredible care, like a top-class tribute act or one of those computer programmes capable of writing a Mozart symphony. The result of the flawless playing and polished production, however, is ultimately a too-perfect sound, lacking drama and grit. With his darkest years behind him, Wilson seems willing to use only the brightest colours in the paintbox.

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