Review: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
I’m a lyrics guy myself. Nothing gets to me more than a great Dylan or Kristofferson song and both have stated in the past that crafting memorable melodies is not really their strong suit (although both have done so time and time again). With that said, I love a great instrumental from time to time, can’t get enough of the Grateful Dead, and believe that George Gershwin and Brian Wilson are arguably the two greatest composers of the 20th century. Now the two work together in a way on this new album which will be released on August 17th.
The two composers share several qualities: both worked very closely with their brothers (Dennis and Carl Wilson both being members of the Beach Boys and Ira Gershwin serving as George’s lyricist for most of his career). Both peaked early on, composing their masterworks at ages 26 and 28 respectively. Gershwin died at age 39 and at that point in Wilson’s life he was creatively dead while battling serious mental illness, drug addiction, and a tyrannical therapist/manager before resurrecting his career in the mid-’90s. And Wilson cites Gershwin as a major influence on his career, having heard “Rhapsody in Blue” as a child and being drawn to it. So it only makes sense that Brian Wilson would record an album of Gershwin tunes and pay tribute to one of his musical heroes, but if you’re thinking that this is simply another of the endless “Great American Songbook” albums that once-great pop artists have churned out in recent years, you clearly don’t know Brian Wilson.
One of Wilson’s greatest strengths, as anybody who has ever listened to the Beach Boys knows, is arranging harmony and he displays this on the opening track, a snippet of “Rhapsody in Blue” performed a cappella with Wilson’s voice overdubbed to perform every part. He follows this with “The Like in I Love You,” the first of two collaborations, so to speak, between Gershwin and Wilson. Brian completed this unfinished Gershwin piece with the blessing of his estate and the resulting ballad sounds like a lost classic in the vocal pop canon, but is given an early ’70s soft rock arrangement with background harmonies, strings, and plenty of piano.
Up next, Wilson treats us to four tunes from Gershwin’s 1935 “folk opera” Porgy and Bess: “Summertime” (don’t expect it to be as great as Janis Joplin’s version and you won’t be disappointed with this ’30s-styled rendition), the ballad “I Loves You, Porgy,” an instrumental version of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” complete with banjo and harmonica, and a Waitsian rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which is charmingly irreverent.
This is followed by two of Gershwin’s most popular songs. “‘S Wonderful” is given an upbeat arrangement with calypso guitar and drums and wonderful backing vocalists. On the other hand “They Can’t Take that Away From Me” sounds like a mid-’60s R&B classic by the Temptations.
“Our Love is Here to Stay” is arranged for a small jazz combo and basically sounds like the sort of arrangement Bing Crosby may have used on the tune. “I’ve Got a Crush on You” is reminiscent of the sort of ballad Elvis did back in the ’50s complete with Jordanaire-esque harmony vocals and the piano and guitar both sharing the hook throughout the song. “I Got Rhythm” sounds like classic uptempo Beach Boys in their era of classic singles before Pet Sounds turned them into seminal album artists.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” is performed as an acoustic folk-pop ballad with Wilson displaying a strong sense of longing in perhaps his best vocal performance of the album. Next is “Nothing but Love,” the second Gershwin-Wilson co-write. It is an uptempo classic rock number with a great guitar riff and a late ’60s Muscle Shoals feel. The album ends with a reprise of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
To keep this short, Wilson’s best work is from the mid-’60s and most these tunes (minus the two new ones) were given their definitive versions in their own era. Nor is this the best album of Wilson’s career as a solo artist. But it is a fun collection of great pop songs without a clunker in the bunch, and in these days of Auto-Tuned, overpolished bubblegum that is something there isn’t nearly enough of.