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The Battalion

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The Battalion

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The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin shows off songwriting talent

 
 

Before I get into the actual album, let me take you through a bit of the inner conflict I faced in this review.
I love Brian Wilson – I truly believe his Beach Boys stuff in the mid-1960s (the Today! album through Pet Sounds) was as good as anything anyone had written in the 20th century. Every child, fresh out of the womb, should be given a copy of Pet Sounds to learn how music should be written and emoted. After that album, however, Wilson fell into a deadly mix of overindulgence — everything from food to sleep to drugs — and mental illness — depression and tardive dyskensia, caused by a large amount of antipsychotics in the mid-80s.
In recent years, he’s released a few albums, including the long-aborted Beach Boys product Smile, most with critical acclaim. Some attest this is more because of the “kid gloves” Wilson has been treated with since becoming capable of writing and recording.
So the debate becomes this — do I treat him with a bit more sympathy, considering what he’s gone through, or treat him like any other artist who’s coming down the pike?
The answer is neither and both. You can’t treat Wilson like anyone else because he hasn’t been down the same road, but he can’t be graded lightly — this man was the best songwriter in the 1960s.
All of that aside, let’s get to the actual album. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is exactly what you’d expect — Brian Wilson and his band, The Wondermints, plus an orchestra backing on occasions, putting their own spin on 12 George Gershwin songs. The album also includes two songs the composer didn’t finish (“Nothing But Love” and “The Like in I Love You”) due to an early demise at the age of 38.
From the very beginning, with the nearly a capella, stacked vocal in “Rhapsody in Blue,” the thing that hits the hardest is the newfound vigor in Wilson’s voice, which had been hit hard by age and drugs.
His previous album, That Lucky Old Sun, saw the transformation start, but now it seems like he’s stronger — he says he went to a vocal coach to prepare for the album — almost to the point of being where we’d expect a 68-year-old star to be as a singer (any one, that is, not named Sinatra or McCartney, who didn’t and don’t age vocally).
Next comes the first of the two songs he chose to complete, “The Like in I Love You.” Honestly, it’s the gem of the album because Wilson doesn’t have to stick to a game plan set to him by Gershwin’s original composition. It sounds like a warm, cozy love song which, let’s face it, is Brian Wilson’s bread and butter. And give that credit to Wilson the Arranger — none of the instruments overpower the backing voices, or the other way around. Instead, we’re treated to the two working together to carry Wilson’s still-not-perfect voice.
“Nothing But Love,” the second completion by Wilson, isn’t the home run that “Like” was, but still is more than serviceable. It features strong guitar (but alas, only in the beginning), and has a toe-tapping charm to it, even if it’s not going to be 100 percent memorable by the time you’re done with it.
The rest of the album connects strongly like the four-song Porgy and Bess suite (especially the instrumental “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” which could sneak its way onto Pet Sounds). While the cover of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” isn’t legendary, the song has the same driving sound as “Help Me Rhonda” and is still damn good. “I’ve Got a Crush on You” is sweet and nostalgic-sounding (think 50s doo-wop) without the annoying feeling that it knows it’s being nostalgic like so many rock stars who release standards albums (here’s looking at you, Rod Stewart).
The one song that is completely up in the air for me is “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” which bounces between fun cover and grating track, bordering on radio jingle schlock.
Wilson’s best work was in the 1960s — I will admit that, although I hope for one last gasp of excellence. While this may not be it — it’s tough to make a definitive statement on works such as Gershwin’s — it’s still a very good album from a very good musician, who can arrange music in a way that’s pleasing to the ear and has substance to it. Not many musicians can do that.
It isn’t Pet Sounds, but Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is an enjoyable album from beginning to end.

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