Having one of pop music’s master craftsmen arrange and record an album of tunes by one of the world most celebrated pre-pop songwriters is a bit like one of those social experiments where twelve children are fed a bunch of E-numbers and then left to play together. It was never likely to be boring, but there was always the possibility that it could get a bit out of control.
With the help of his trusty band, Brian takes classic Gershwin numbers (including two unfinished by Gershwin at the time of his death) and twists them into his own image; on a basic level, you’ll probably have a grasp of what it’ll sound like, but the big question is: is it any good?
Bookended by a chorale arrangement of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, naturally, ‘Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’ will never top Wilson at his absolute sharpest – and is unlikely to be as fondly written about as ‘Pet Sounds’ or the much documented ‘Smile’ – but there’s more than enough material here worthy of investigating. More importantly, this album stands as proof that Wilson is still a truly gifted arranger, even on those occasions when the material doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Of the two new songs, ‘The Like I Love In You’ is a gentle ballad, with a beautifully arranged vocal; by Wilson’s standards it’s not too “kitchen-sink”. While the vocal is the high point, a special mention must be given to a tasteful string and percussion arrangement, using the triangle and Wilson’s beloved woodblocks. Overall, this track is a little bit Disney-esque, but sets the mood for album quite nicely and is likely in keeping with a style Gershwin would have enjoyed. It’s less likely Gershwin would have enjoyed the other new number, ‘Nothing But Love’ quite as much. Here, in contrast to ‘The Like I Love In You’, Wilson grabs the opportunity to create something more complex. Sleigh bells, baritone saxophones and washes of harmony vocals drive something which could have been written by Wilson alone, and could have graced his 2008 outing ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ quite happily.
Arguably Gershwin’s most famous composition, ‘Summertime’ is probably one of the album’s weak links. This has much to do with Wilson’s vocal not always quite being as sharp as it could be. However, the inclusion of strings and brass help smooth out any overt raggedness, while a fantastic xylophone chips in for atmosphere. Similarly iffy in places, ‘I Loves You Porgy’ meanders a little, but is saved by tasteful strings and trombone work. Things then pick up with a sprightly instrumental rendition of ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’’, where Wilson’s arrangement goes off the deep end. With a Southern canter, at first driven by harmonica and what sounds like temple blocks, it’s upbeat style provides a welcome difference to both ‘Summertime’ and ‘I Loves You Porgy’. The jaunty rhythm is then augmented by superb brass and strings, to create one of the album’s standouts.
A slightly bluesy take on ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ – featuring a wall of strings and brass and then topped with harmonica – provides another high point, since it doesn’t rely so heavy on choirs of vocals to fill everything out. Even Wilson himself sounds far more comfortable in his role of lead vocalist. The end result sounds both warm and inviting; the louder moments taking on the epic nature of a sixties film theme. The shuffling samba of ‘’S Wonderful’ also finds Brian in a more restrained mood, his arrangement here surprisingly similar to Diana Krall’s 2001 rendition of the song. While Wilson has avoided any temptation to reconstruct this number completely in his own style, there’s a multi-layering of vocals which adds a great depth and a jazz flute solo which sits rather well.
‘I Got Rhythm’, on the other hand, gets completely Wilson-ed. After an intro taken from ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, Brian and co launch into a Beach Boys-esque piece of doo wop, with slight surf overtones. The sax breaks echo late 50s rock and roll, while a chorus of backing vocal ‘oohs’ come straight out of Brian’s famous formative years. Fantastic…just fantastic. With a harpsichord at the heart, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ also ends up sounding like something from the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ sessions – ‘You Still Believe In Me’, in particular – a feeling strengthened somewhat by the inclusion of upfront (yet gentle) bass work. Once you’ve thrown in a string quartet and the ubiquitous sleigh bells and clip-clop percussion, this was certainly created with a knowing nod to ‘Pet Sounds’, and as such, seems as if it was meant for Wilson all along. For ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’, Wilson opts for a simple stabbing piano, complimented by strings and harmony vocals. While not as interesting as some of his re-workings, the subtle guitar work, with lots of echo, is particularly pleasing.
For those who dislike light opera, musical theatre and its ilk, the idea of Wilson tackling Gershwin may not appeal in theory. In practice, however, most of this comes off very well indeed. This album comes with so much of Brian Wilson’s signature stamp all over it, it’s almost impossible to dislike. Surely, that’s a big enough seal of approval?