Brian Wilson Brian WilsonBrian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
At this point there is nothing more to say about Brian Wilson, the psychotropic genius whose Beach Boys were unlucky enough to be operative in the same decade as The Beatles, who blocked the way to the “best pop composer of all times” mantle. The release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” marked a before and after in Wilson’s life. Feeling incapable of outdoing the Liverpool foursome, the Californian dedicated himself fully to consuming mountains of white dust which would eventually lead him towards schizophrenic chaos of the bipolar type, which in turn would cause him to withdraw from society altogether. In 2004, reconstructing the foundations the drugs had destroyed and thanks to his wife Melinda and composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, Wilson came back through the front door of the 21st century, re-establishing himself as the pop legend he always was and never deserved not to be. The delayed masterpiece he released that year was “Smile” (the Beach Boys’ lost record), and whatever we say about one of the most sublime collections of songs of the last couple of years, it’s too much. It’s already been said on the record itself, written in immortal lyrics.
When he was a little boy, listening to “Rhapsody In Blue” –the immortal notes of which aptly, like a perfect circumference, open and close the album reviewed here– for the first time, Wilson was fascinated by the compositional qualities of George Gershwin, a composer who, according to the canons of studied music, wanted to approach the masses by a series of productions of jazz standards that combined the patterns of the traditional American song with the right sophistication of classical music. You only have to remember the mythical words Maurice Ravel spoke to him when he refused to give him classes: “Now why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel if you can be a first-class Gershwin?” Wilson at his turn did the same thing, thirty years after Gershwin had died in an operating room: “Pet Sounds”, the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, was the perfect bridge between the pop song and studied music, recharging the (until then) inoffensive surfer’s hymns with suites and string arrangements, something completely unheard of at the time. When it came out, “Pet Sounds” was a huge failure, sales-wise (something that didn’t happen to The Beatles’ records in the US), but over the years everybody ended up recognising that this masterpiece, far from going adrift, was a musical manifesto far ahead of its time that to this day makes people shudder and get excited at the same time.
Getting back to the record we’re talking about, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” is a very interesting compendium of cover versions, failing at times –I’m sorry to say that in this case, “Summertime” doesn’t work: Wilson’s voice weakens, evidence of the huge cost of the excesses of his youth (fun fact: Wilson produced a version of the song for Sharon Marie in the mid-sixties)- but as a whole, the record climbs to a high note to revisit, from a very intimate and personal viewpoint, the career of one of those most responsible for the golden age of Broadway. The first part focuses mainly on the most popular songs from the “Porgy And Bess” opera –memorable as the triumphant arrival of African-Americans at the temples of illustrated elitism, aside from its unfading melodies. Beyond that Wilson draws on bossa nova arrangements –on “’S Wonderful”, a song popularised by Gene Kelly in “An American In Paris”– and recovers the vocal parameters of the Beach Boys, emulating Fred Astaire on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”and delivering a perfect outtake of “Pet Sounds” with “Someone To Watch Over Me”. He even dares to recover two pieces Gershwin left unfinished before he died, and that’s where the two biggest curiosities of the album are born: “The Like In I Love You” –I imagine them sitting at the piano shouting at each other– and “Nothing But Love”, which could perfectly be part of the early repertoire of his old band.
Wilson hasn’t toned down his extreme melodic thoroughness –those strings at the end of the instrumental “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” are proof of that- and he takes an infallible arsenal of untouchable pieces from the collective memory to his territory. The record sounds brilliant, precious, dressed with the elegance of the old big bands, without pedantic intentions: it’s a celebration of the great American music analysed by a great lover of Gershwin and recorded with the obsession for detail that has always characterised Wilson. We can breathe freely: those who thought we’re dealing with something similar to Rod Stewart’s “The Great American Songbook” were wrong. It’s not that “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” is the holy grail of Gershwin, far from it. If you want to dig deeper in the works of the composer you can find plenty of recommendable and carefully manufactured compilations out there. But it’s admirable that Wilson, with his good ways, having so little common in these times of carelessness and improvisation, reformulates some eternal pieces which, like his own, will never be forgotten
Sergio del Amo
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