It was always a little frustrating to be in love with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. For every fabulous pop gem from the early years of surfing, cars and fun — I Get Around, The Warmth of the Sun, Be True to Your School, Help Me, Rhonda, you name it — there was just as much filler, throwaways like Chug-a-Lug or Alley Oop.
And during the British invasion by all those bands of sexy rockers in Victorian garb — the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Who — the Beach Boys' striped shirts and white pants started to look kind of dorky.
But soon enough, the brothers Wilson and the rest of the guys in the group got cool, letting their hair grow long, sporting beards and putting out some mind-blowing albums, peaking with Brian's masterpiece, Pet Sounds, in 1966.
The Beach Boys never really went away. Years after the deaths of Dennis and Carl Wilson, and the abdication of Brian, a band under that name continues to tour, with original Mike Love and longtime member Bruce Johnston still on hand. Brian has periodically resurfaced with projects that recapture, here and there, glimmers of his all-American genius. In 2004, there was even the release of a completed version of his abandoned Smile, the opus that was going to revolutionize pop music after Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys' groundbreaking single, Good Vibrations.
Smile was greeted like the second coming, but I don't think I was alone among diehard fans in finding it to be a disappointment; except for the brilliant Heroes and Villains, it felt precious and a bit addled. A little of Van Dyke Parks, the arty lyricist for many songs on the album, always went a long way for me. Smile didn't seem all that different from the bastardized Capitol Records release in 1967, Smiley Smile.
Now the Beach Boys' mastermind is back again with a fascinating new album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (Disney Pearl Series), in which he brings his soaring harmonies and intricate orchestrations to standards by Broadway's great brother act, songwriters George and Ira Gershwin. At first, I thought it could be a disaster — Rod Stewart croaking through Till There Was You, anyone? — but then I heard the opening track, a lush vocal version of Rhapsody in Blue, and my ears perked up. Wilson has acknowledged George Gershwin's 1924 classic as a seminal influence (he says he first heard it at 2 years old), and his homage bookends the CD and serves as a segue between some tracks.
When you think about it, there's an uncanny affinity between George Gershwin and Wilson. Both had tremendous pop success, yet each composer wanted more, Gershwin with his forays into classical music and opera, Wilson with the grand ambition of Pet Sounds and the obsessive perfectionism that went into Good Vibrations, which he called his "pocket symphony.'' Gershwin died young, at 38, and Wilson made a long retreat into drugs and mental illness after Smile was shelved, and was never the same.
There have been countless Gershwin covers, of course, and Wilson does several of the songs relatively straight, such as his languid performance of Love Is Here to Stay, but even the traditional takes have something fresh and interesting in the arrangements, like the bossa-nova-meets-Burt-Bacharach vibe of 'S Wonderful. It's impossible not to wonder what might have been when listening to Wilson caress Ira Gershwin's inimitable lyrics to Someone to Watch Over Me: "Won't you tell her to please put on some speed/Follow my lead/Oh how I need/Someone to watch over me.'' Lyrics were never Brian's strong suit.
At 68, Wilson's voice is coarsened and reedy at times, but he still has enough of the sweet high notes of his prime to bring the memories rushing back. In a Porgy and Bess medley, when he moves into his upper register on Ain't Necessarily So, you can't help but remember the ecstatic choruses of California Girls, Fun, Fun, Fun, All Summer Long and the rest. The instrumental version of I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' is reminiscent of Pet Sounds, with its use of bass harmonica.
For all the pleasures of Gershwin songs, this CD is mostly about Wilson, especially when he pulls out the stops on They Can't Take That Away From Me in an arrangement that includes outrageous musical quotes from Little Saint Nick and Barbara Ann. The stacked harmonies of the vocals are exhilarating. Paul Von Mertens' rumbling sax on I Got Rhythm is another delightful throwback to '60s rock.
Two of the songs on the album were written by Wilson from music left unfinished by Gershwin when he died of a brain tumor in 1937. The Gershwin estate allowed Wilson to choose from among 104 song fragments.
"There were 30 to 45 seconds' worth of chords,'' Wilson told the Los Angeles Times. "Just music, no lyrics. We listened to all 104 of them and we finally concluded that we liked these particular two. We wrote around the (existing) theme. We'd get a couple of chord changes and borrow from that.''
The result (Brian Wilson Band member Scott Bennett contributed lyrics) is The Like in I Love You and Nothing But Love, and they are beautiful, full of trademark Wilson ethereal touches.
Paul McCartney once said that he cried — tears of joy — when he heard Pet Sounds, which inspired the Beatles in the making of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Those days are long gone, and Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is more like an entertaining footnote to Wilson's epic career than a major achievement. But as another summer winds down, it's wonderful to hear his sound again.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.