By Chris Moore:
RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
For songwriters with strong, distinct voices, albums populated by covers are typically stopovers between other, more serious efforts. For Wilson, it appears that projects such as this are where he looks these days to keep himself occupied while he waits for inspiration to strike.
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin delivers just about what you’d expect from the former Beach Boy: lush harmonies laid over a bed of smart, tight pop music, albeit the pop music of a bygone era.
Perhaps the slogan for this release should have been, “Brian Wilson updates the music of the Gershwin brothers… to the sixties!”
The greatest criticism I can lob at Reimagines is its apparent contentment to revisit the established. Wilson was given access to fragments of songs written but never finished by Gershwin that numbered in the triple digits, and yet there are only two new compositions — “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love” — which provide the bookends for the full-length tracks.
Simply put, this is what prevents Reimagines from reaching the same creative heights as Mermaid Avenue (the original, and Vol. II not so much), a similar project conducted by Wilco and Billy Bragg. The key difference there, of course, was that they dipped exclusively into unfinished lyrics and wrote the music for them. The results on Mermaid Avenue should be attributed just as much to Wilco and Bragg as to Guthrie, whereas Reimagines often reads as a collection of Gershwin tracks with the Brian Wilson filter applied.
In other words, Reimagines often plays more as a tribute from Wilson and his band than as a fresh and creative project.
On the other hand, to label Reimagines as a straightforward tribute to the Gershwin brothers would be to unfairly marginalize the creative spirit that Wilson so evidently brought to these recordings, not to mention the crispness and emotion that each of his lead vocals are imbued with. There can be no question as to his intentions; he clearly threw himself into the project, as supported by reports that he would spend eight hours a day in the studio perfecting his vocals.
There are many, many positive words to be said about this record.
For starters, even on a project that lends itself to slow paced, old-school compositions — and he does indulge at times — Wilson and his crack band of music makers manage to carve out a record that verges on rock. As would be expected, there are some beautiful bass lines and some wonderfully fun harmonies that beg to be sung along with.
There are other touches, many of them subtle, that should allow for Reimagines to be accepted among Wilson’s studio discography, as opposed to a one-off side effort. Paul Von Mertens’ contributions can’t be overstated, serving as a link between the instruments that were employed on many of the original recordings of these songs and Wilson’s more rock/pop-oriented arsenal of drums, guitar, and bass. Likewise, Probyn Gregory’s acoustic guitars add significantly to many of the tracks, filling in the gaps admirably. The acoustic guitar is not an instrument one might readily associate with Wilson’s general sound, which makes it all the more notable.
“Rhapsody in Blue,” snippets of which serve as the intro and outro of the record, should be familiar to fans as a song that Wilson has noted in past interviews as one of his influences. That this is the song he chose to place at the corners is quite fitting, and that he would choose to sing the multiple vocal tracks entirely on his own may, if nothing else, be read as a sign that he is still in command of his music. Reports of his mental acuity — or lack thereof — may not have been greatly exaggerated, but no one should presume to claim that Wilson is present on his recordings in name only these days.
“Summertime,” the first full-length cover, touches on bits of Billy Stewart’s chart-topping 1989 version in the intro but quickly spreads out into a ballad filled out with horn blasts, twinkling bursts of piano, and strings that loom ominously on the horizon. This version is a bit slow, but after the recognizable Wilson-esque romp of “The Like in I Love You,” it’s as though he is flexing his classical muscle, as he continues to do on “I Loves You, Porgy.”
Subsequently, the instrumental “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'” sounds like it could have been found on a Pet Sounds outtakes tape, the bass harmonica adding greatly to that feel. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is probably the first track on the album that is a fully realized blending of traditional and more modern styles, to the point that the two are difficult to distinguish between.
This is when Reimagines works so well: when Wilson manages to blends a traditional approach toward these songs with his own distinctive sound. Contrary to some recent criticism, Wilson does not merely reconfigure the words to fit over instrumentals that conjure his previous songs, except perhaps for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Where it works exceedingly well, by the way.
Where the album does fall short is on tracks like “‘s Wonderful” and “Love is Here to Stay” that fail to transcend lounge music, being little more than standard covers that don’t diverge all that much from the originals.
“I Got a Crush on You” sounds like it was ripped off a best ballads of the fifties disc, and it works surprisingly well. It is followed by “I Got Rhythm,” which sounds like a cross between SMiLE and surf rock on the intro, before settling down into a groove that sounds like all the best parts of a sixties Beach Boys song. Then comes the indisputable latter-half gem “Someone to Watch Over Me,” easily one of the most beautiful little tracks Wilson has recorded in years.
The original tracks are the strongest efforts on the album, and it is for this reason that the decision to stick primarily to covers will always baffle and disappoint me. It is the single strongest justification for why I’ve denied Reimagines a rating of 4 stars: for all the promise of what could have been. It is still an enjoyable record and I would argue that it has earned its place as a serious effort, in league with Wilson’s recent and quite excellent albums.