Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Brian Wilson Or, How I Learned To Stop Believing and Just Love The Beach Boys

There's a scene in "Annie Hall" where some third-rate comedian is looking to hire Alvy Singer as a joke writer. Woody Allen's character sits in horror, wearing that "frozen smile," as this buffoon preens and prances his way through some embarrassing schtick, to show Alvy, the potential employee, the kind of material he needs. This "frozen smile" is the exact expression that remained on my face for the entire 38 minutes of "That Lucky Old Sun," the new release from Brian Wilson. I couldn't believe my ears.

I will set the record straight. I love the Beach Boys. You know, many don't. Some hear "I Get Around" and "Fun Fun Fun," and, well...all of the Boys' 60's hits as nothing but novelty songs for summer. (They are wrong, of course) More than a few have never even heard a note from the groundbreaking 70's albums "Holland," "Surf's Up," and "Sunflower." And really, is there a more perfect pop tune than "Don't Worry Baby?" I think not. Brian Wilson is a legend, a genius, one of the world's greatest composers and a national treasure.

That said, I have no problem tossing aside those accomplishments like a half-eaten chicken wing when the bleu cheese is gone, once I listen to any of Brian Wilson's solo work. From his overrated, eponymously titled debut of 1988, through the painful and mostly laughable collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, "Orange Crate Art" of 1995, to the much-hyped 2008 release "That Lucky Old Sun," Brian Wilson sounds like a shell of his former self. That's because sadly, he is. We all know of his health problems, and his is one of the sadder stories in music. For this, the man gets an A for effort, but his solo output falls far short of that passing grade.

"That Lucky Old Sun" plays as one long suite, a love song to Brian's beloved state of California. Interspersed with narrative, the album is a hokey pastiche, that sounds less like the SoCal of the 50s and 60s that Brian is paying tribute to, and more like a dinner theatre revue about the Beach Boys. Wilson's husky vocals, even when singing about happy things like "A Good Kind Of Love" or the woman who will forever be his surfer girl, are lugubrious. It's an uneasy combination that even with my love and respect for Mr. Wilson, I cannot endure.

I love you Brian. I hope you have another 10 records in you. I'll suffer through them all with you. But I needed to tell it like it is.


ken d said...

I don't share your loathing of all of Brian's solo output. Certainly thumbs-up for the "I Wasn't Made For These Times" soundtrack. And my opinion of "Smile" improved a lot after seeing the making-of documentary that ends with a full concert version in London. Try it... hopefully it won't cause you a 2-hour "frozen smile."
That said, this new one looked like a loser from the get go.

Anonymous said...

I am also a big Beach Boys fan but never really dug the forced Brian solo stuff. He is a songwriting legend, and rightly so. As I tell people, for starters listen of course to Pet Sounds. Caroline No (among others) still gives me strong goosebumps and sometimes brings a tear to my eye, that's brilliance.
Back to the solo efforts. If it had not been for the countless younger musicians who were lucky enough to play with him over the years and make his music sound slightly pleasant and tolerable he would probably still be in his bathrobe in the sand playing on the little toy piano.
I myself as/was a musician would have loved the chance just to have met him, shake his quivering hand and tell him how his music changed my life, as he probably would look at me with a glazed stare and and his half crooked mouth and just nod.
But one thing is for sure the music he wrote in the 60's before he went bonkers will always be timeless and stand out. I agree with Sal, just love The Beach Boys.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous,
My wife and I were lucky enough to see Brian at B.B. Kings in NYC a few years ago when he was doing the Pet Sounds tour. We went to the early show and paid 45 bucks each to stand at the bar. The early show was all the hits and more . When towards the end of the set some guy next to us was talking during a quiet song , my wife knowing that I would tell him to shut up asked him very politely to keep it down . He did and turns out was one of the promoters of the show ,invited us to stay for the late set ( Pet Sounds in it's entirety ) and took us backstage where we met brian. It was exactly as you thought .We were brought into a dark room where Brian was sitting ,we were all introduced by name ( it seems Brian doesn't like surprises ) and shook his quivering hand and told him Thank you, and he looked at us with a glazed stare and and his half crooked mouth and just nodded and said "Enjoy the show ".
It was a night I'll remember as long as I live . I met Brian Wilson.