Brian Wilson (Sire/Reprise 25669)
Slick as it is, Brian Wilson's 1988 solo album is a great album packed with the by far the best songs Wilson had written in 30 years. I remember the first time I saw the album, a local record store had just got in a shipment of the CD, and the girl behind the counter was stickering the longboxes, and I asked if she'd heard it yet. Her response: "Brian is BACK. This album IS Pet Sounds."
I didn't particularly take that as a good thing, only because it was so sterotypical of a music store clerk to say. I'm glad I finally got a chance to get that off my chest. (?)
Actually, I don't think I'd heard Pet Sounds all the way through at that point, since it hadn't yet been released on CD. Knowing both albums pretty intimately now, I'd actually go so far as to say that if this one weren't so overproduced, it'd be a better album. I like the songs a lot more, although I would never try to say that the synths and deep well of reverb on this CD are superior to the pristine wall of real sound on the Beach Boys classic. And sure, Pet Sounds has Carol Kaye, but Brian Wilson has Terence Trent D'arby. Fair trade! (?)
Okay, enough with the displaced question marks already. The strong points on this album are plentiful, and the weaker moments are generally kind of forgettable rather than, say, irritating (like the oft-bootlegged "Smart Girls") or baffling ("Johnny Carson"). Brian may be a "genius" or whatever, but he's made way more terrible music than good music.
But when his music is good, it is pretty fucking fantastic. The songs on Brian Wilson are stellar, from the instant classic "Love and Mercy" to "Walkin' the Line," the gorgeous "Melt Away," the zesty "Let it Shine" and the charming and brilliant epic "Rio Grande."
The songwriting is generally quite simple, especially lyrically, and all of the songs are throwbacks to the old Beach Boys sound in the same way that "Kokomo' was. Speaking of "Kokomo," it came out around the same time as this album did, and I was heavily into both this CD and the Cocktail soundtrack at the time. That shows how unpurist I am regarding Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Only recently have I come to revere their established masterpieces, and I still argue that Mike Love is deserving of far more respect than he gets. I mean, at least the guy can finish stuff without going all nutty and then spending 30 years trying to recover. Wish I could say the same for my record reviews.
Brian covers all the vocals, heard to best effect on the Beach Boys homage "One For the Boys," an a cappella tribute that shows he can still sing. His voice was never the greatest, but the way he sings is something else. He is totally committed to what he's singing on this disc, and sounds inspired by the goodness of the songs.
Plus, it's nice to hear him singing about something other than, like, how he's going to eat breakfast soon, and the mush-mouth quotient is minimal. These are good old-fashioned love songs much more similar to the early Beach Boys singles than anything from Pet Sounds.
Most of the songs have the sort of Christmasy feel that characterizes a lot of the Beach Boys' stuff, especially tracks like "Little Children" (which namechecks Wendy and Carnie Wilson) and "Let It Shine." "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long" is nearly offensive but quite catchy. "Meet Me in My Dreams Tonight" is a trifle, but a really good trifle. I couldn't tell you how "There's So Many" goes, even though I just listened to it five minutes ago.
"Rio Grande" is a blatant attempt at a Smile-esque Van Dyke Parks Americana pastiche a la "Cabinessence," and it's ridiculous in some respects, but it's also a damn good song probably my favorite on the album, actually. It's consistently interesting and the only ambitious thing about the album, other than getting Brian to make it in the first place.
"Love and Mercy" and "Walkin' the Line" are timeless, and while the arrangements here aren't quite as tasteful as the acoustic/non-slick versions done on I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, they're so powerful that you can't really fault the production.
In fact, I'd almost say the slickness suits the occasion quite well, because it creates an insular sound world as unique as Wilson is and though there is a lack of dynamic range to the instrumentation and general production approach, the overall effect is warm and welcoming.
A rollicking, fun listen. The remastered edition adds a bunch of demos and b-sides (including the superfun "He Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body to Move) grab that one.
Review by Iceberg Lettuce