On Sunday night, I'll have the great fortune of seeing Brian Wilson perform live. It'll be my third concert of his (I saw him in Kansas City for the "SMiLE" tour, and I saw him in Minneapolis on the "That Lucky Old Sun" tour), and I'm just as excited about this concert as I've been for the other two.
I'm going with my fiancee (this will be her second Brian Wilson show), my parents (this will be my dad's second show, my mom's first), my grandmother (her first), my aunt and uncle (their first). It should be a great time, all around.
This concert will parade his hits (the Beach Boys stuff, especially, with some solo stuff sprinkled in), and he may also perform his newest album ("Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin") in its entirety. Pretty cool, right? A Beach Boy on what may be his final tour, at the historic Surf Ballroom (the last place Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens played before they died) in Clear Lake, Iowa, in the summer? Um, yeah, pretty awesome!
The Gershwin album is pretty good; it's not anything too challenging, but it's very enjoyable. Wilson's harmonies with Gershwin's material, with some "reimagining" of the music combines for a pretty tasty album. As is always the case with Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans, reviews were decidedly mixed ... but they have been for years and years now. I've always listened for myself and determined what I like for myself, rather than depending on others to tell me why I should (or shouldn't) like something. Yeah, that's right, I'm a music individual. Or something. ;)
Anyway, the Gershwin album did OK with critics (mostly positive reviews, with enough negative ones sprinkled in to keep it realistic) and the album even charted at No. 26 on the Billboard 200. It fell to No. 53 in its second week, then vanished all together. So it didn't have the shelflife of "SMiLE" or "That Lucky Old Sun," but it was still pretty successful for this kind of music and this artist in this day and age. Heck, it even hit No. 1 on Amazon.com and No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz albums chart. Not too shabby, by any stretch.
When the Gershwin album came out, I sprung on the fan pack and got a signed copy of the vinyl album (along with a CD copy and the digital download of the album, and it was all pretty reasonably priced). For this show, I'm taking along some of his best works on vinyl and hoping I can get them signed ("Pet Sounds," "The Beach Boys Love You," "SMiLE" and "That Lucky Old Sun"). Wish me luck!
Anyway, my favorite of Brian Wilson's solo materials is the 2008 album "That Lucky Old Sun" (I don't let myself count "SMiLE" purely as his solo work, as most of it has roots in the 1966/1967 Beach Boys history ... if I did count it, "SMiLE" would be my favorite). Critics gave it mostly positive reviews, and it climbed to No. 21 on the Billboard 200. The Gannett media chain hyped it, with ads on newspaper and television websites, including free streaming of the full album. Critical praise, media exposure and a Top 30 album are nothing to sneeze at, but the album didn't really seem to take off in the mainstream. You don't run into much of it on TV shows, movie soundtracks, etc. Ah well, it's still a joy of an album!
To round out this entry, I'm going to include an essay I wrote when "That Lucky Old Sun" was released. I bought about a dozen copies of the album and gave them away to my good friends, along with a copy of my essay. I had a big emotional attachment to the music, and I wanted to share my thoughts with them. So, here it is:
You're probably looking at this CD and thinking to yourself, "Um ... thanks?"
I'm sure of all the music in the world, Brian Wilson's newest release isn't exactly the one you'd leap up and grab. Which is one big reason why I decided to pick up a copy for you.
As you're undoubtedly aware, or soon will be, I'm a huge Brian Wilson fan. I'm pretty much nuts about the guy. I own every legal Beach Boys release there is, and several (ahem) less legal materials. I've read dozens of biographies, histories, reviews, analyses, etc. I even saw the guy during his "SMiLE" tour!
(Why should you care? Well, I'm trying to explain to you why I think this CD is so important.)
It's seldom that I get too emotionally involved in music. I love music. I get excited about music. I can talk for hours about music. Doesn't matter if it's the Beatles, Weezer, Queen, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, whatever. You wanna chat about music, I'll gladly (and actively) participate.
But the Beach Boys? Or, Brian Wilson in particular? This is some music that means a lot to me.
The Beatles were my first "love" as far as music goes. When I was a little boy, my dad would play his records. He owned a lot of Beatles stuff. I'd really groove to "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Hey Jude." One of my earliest memories is sitting in the back seat of my folks' car as my dad was driving to Iowa State University campus, and hearing the rain on the top of the car while "Here Comes the Sun" was playing on the radio.
So when I hit my teenage years, it only made sense that I'd gravitate towards the Beatles. And the more I read about the Beatles, the more I kept coming across Brian Wilson. "Pet Sounds." How the Beach Boys were competitors. "No way," I scoffed. "They just did silly, dopey songs like 'Little Deuce Coupe,' they weren't so great."
Then my dad went to the library and checked out the Brian Wilson "biography" (long since discredited as not being at all written by Brian Wilson), and I read it. I started reading about how the Beach Boys' leader was spiritual. Afraid. Haunted. How he heard all this music in his head. I was intrigued.
So I went to the library myself. I checked out the Beach Boys' box set, "Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys" and actually paid attention. The early stuff was all there, at the beginning. I got "Surfin' USA" and "Shut Down" and "Catch a Wave." Those are songs everyone knows. But I started hearing stuff I hadn't heard before. Songs like "Don't Worry Baby." "God Only Knows." "Heroes and Villains."
The songs took on a new life for me. This was stuff that was so easily accessible, pleasant on the ears. But it was complex. It wasn't as simple as I'd thought. Nor was it so meaningless and inconsequential. It got to be where I started phasing out a lot of my Beatles music (much to the relief of my brother, who to this day can sing along with every Beatles song on the radio because of me ... and he considers that a mixed blessing, at best) just so I could listen to more Beach Boys stuff.
I started getting into their albums. I was buying some at stores, when I could find them. Ordering some on eBay. I started filling in the blank spots of the Sixties materials. "Surfer Girl." "All Summer Long." "The Beach Boys Today!" Each disc had songs I'd never heard before, and they really blew me away. Even now, when I listen to "Kiss Me Baby," I get chills up my spine at how perfect the song is.
Then I took a big step and bought the "Good Vibrations" box set. The library was probably getting tired of me checking it out every week, anyway. The only Sixties album that I hadn't bought of the Beach Boys, oddly enough, was the established classic ... "Pet Sounds." I kind of was avoiding it. Everything I'd read said it was really heavy. Profound. I guess I was torturing myself a bit. I saw it as a dessert, and didn't want to spoil the rest of the meal. Yes, I am in fact a nerd.
Then I came across "The Pet Sounds Sessions." Another box set! The complete album in stereo and in mono. And just the instrumental tracks. AND vocals-only versions! And alternate takes! Okay, that was enough of a lure to me. I bought it.
And it became the only thing I listened to for a month. For two months.
When I went before my review to complete the requirements for my Eagle Scout honor, I had "God Only Knows" playing on my headphones to calm myself with. When I was called before the committee and they informed me that I had earned the honor, and congratulated me on my achievement, I was excited. I went back out to the car and I cranked "Wouldn't It Be Nice" at full volume.
(This is getting long. If you're still reading this, I apologize. If you're not still reading this, then this note is just another line of text that you won't be reading. I'm a brilliant master of observation.)
All of this added to a new musical appreciation for the Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson in particular.
When I started college, I initially only took a couple dozen CDs with me. A handful of Pink Floyd, a handful of Beatles and a handful of Beach Boys. (With a little Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Weezer ... for variety.) And with such easy access ot the Internet (and it wasn't dial-up!), I started finding Beach Boys articles and songs that I hadn't come across before.
And I started to learn more about "SMiLE". There are some good songs from "SMiLE" on the "Good Vibrations" box set, but it always seemed like the "weird stuff." The stuff I'd occasionally listen to, but just couldn't absorb. It was interesting, just wasn't my thing. But college is a good time for experimentation and trying new things. So while some people try drugs or whatever, I was trying music that had seemed too fringe even a few months earlier.
I started realizing that "SMiLE" was an achievement that worked on a lot of levels. It was a slice of Americana. It addressed American history and folklore with "Heroes and Villains" and "Cabinessence" and "Do You Like Worms?" It was very spiritual (which makes sense ... Brian, in 1966/1967, referred to it as a teenage symphony to god).
Songs like "Wonderful" and "Surf's Up" were wistful, poignant vignettes that didn't necessarily make narrative sense, but packed in symbolism and beautiful vocals to express these mental images.
"SMiLE" was also primal. It tackled nature in terms of having an elements sequence (Earth - "Vegetables," Fire - "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," Air - "Wind Chimes," Water - "I Love to Say Da Da). Weird titles. Weird themes. The Beach Boys, going beyond straight lyrics, straight topics ... going into psychedelic art?
"Good Vibrations" was the lead-in to this never-released album, following on the heels of "Pet Sounds."
So, as my first year of college wrapped up, I was a total "SMiLE" addict. I worked throughout the summer, and then got a big bombshell: The 1970s Beach Boys albums, which hadn't been available for more than a decade, were all being rereleased. Needless to say, this excited me. I bought them all and devoured them. I listened to the Beach Boys try to move away from Brian Wilson. I listened to Brian Wilson return. I listened to the Beach Boys giving up on progress and listened to the band become a pale parody of itself, an oldies act.
It was quite a roller coaster. Very interesting to consider. And with the progressions and changes, and with Brian's self destruction, rehabilitation and return, it made me curious about the solo works.
I picked up his solo releases and found them enjoyable. Some songs, like "Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight" were fantastic. Others, like "Night Time" were disjointed or kind of crappy. It was pretty hit-or-miss, but I was a fan nonetheless.
I graduated from college owning just about everything available by the Beach Boys. In about five years, I'd become a bigger fanatic about the Beach Boys than I'd been in the previous 17 years of growing up with the Beatles.
When I got my internship in North Carolina, I stayed on some of the message boards that I'd found in college. Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans from several different countries, with so many bootlegs. And theories. And stories. It's quite a community, this brotherhood of Brian. On par with the Dylan communities (though I'm sure there are several Dylan fans who would find this laughable). And it was through these message boards that I learned that Brian Wilson was resurrecting "SMiLE." Not only was he going to rerecord it and finish off the songs that had never been completed, he was going to perform it all live. Live!
I moved to St. Cloud in Oct. 2004, one month after "SMiLE" was released on CD. "SMiLE" was kind of my "starting a new life" soundtrack. A new job. A new car. A new city. And with the music being so experimental and challenging, it totally fit. And when I saw that Brian Wilson was going to hit the Midwest in 2005 to bring "SMiLE" to new audiences, I got tickets. I saw it with my dad, and it was a truly amazing show.
My dad, who had strictly been a "hits" guy for Beach Boys music, was blown away by the audience reaction. There were people in their early 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. And we all sang along. With the hits ("Sloop John B," "I Get Around," "Help Me Rhonda") and with "SMiLE." And it was the first time my dad had ever heard me sing in my adult life (I did all the high parts, while most of the audience always did the lead parts, the melodies). It was a special night.
So where does this CD, "That Lucky Old Sun," come into this? And why do you have a copy?
Simply put, this CD has everything from all my years of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson adoration ... on one disc.
This is "Pet Sounds 2008." This is the new "SMiLE." This is "California Girls Redone." It has all of that to it.
Brian Wilson took the old standard song, "That Lucky Old Sun," and he made it a Beach Boys-ish song. He realizes that he really liked it, really felt a personal attachment to it. And he got inspired. He started writing songs, some of them personal. Some of them about California. Some of them about love. And he wove it all together to make this CD.
This is not a perfect album. There are moments that might make you scratch your head and say, "What? Why'd he do this?" (Especially the "narratives," the spoken-word segments between songs.) But it's ... different. It's alive. It's warm. It's a dash of old and a dash of new. It's as personal and devout as "Pet Sounds," and as catchy as a lot of the early Beach Boys stuff ("Going Home" is a fun li'l rocker).
It's a nostalgic album. He talks about the "California dream." The hopes people had. Going to the citrus groves. Finding gold. Drilling for oil. Going to Dodgers games. Becoming actors. Hitting the big time. Becoming famous. ("California Role" addresses the acting/singing parts of this beautifully, with a kitschy but PERFECT 1920s vocal intro.)
It's a personal album. He talks about drug abuse. He talks about his dead brothers. He talks about being afraid. ("Midnight's Another Day," "Oxygen to the Brain," and "Southern California" address some of these
It's a retrospective album. He incorporates some old nuggets that were never officially released, or used on albums. A real treat for fans (like me) who heard this stuff on bootlegs. (He resurrects a song called "Clang" and brings back "Can't Wait Too Long," and "Live Let Live" sounds like it was a rewrite of "Sail On Sailor.")
It's a clever album. There are some subtle musical nods that some fans might notice, some might not, and it doesn't hurt the album either way. For example, the intro to the Beach Boys' 1965 song "The Little Girl I Once Knew" is played in the background of "Good Kind of Love," about 53-55 seconds in. It's done by strings, around the "run to him" lyric.
Brian is a very perceptive, musical man. And I don't know if he knows what leit motifs are, by name, but he undoubtedly understands the concept. Using a melody, or a fragment of a melody, to tie things together. Many artists, especially in the classical music mold, would use leit motifs to tie works together. You'd hear a melody that would bring back something from an earlier movement and understand that it was building a narrative.
Could this "Good Kind of Love," then, be a narrative continuation of the story told in "The Little Girl I Once Knew?" Could "Good Kind of Love," the him/her song about "how they fell in love" ACTUALLY be a reference to Brian Wilson's pre-Pet Sounds single? Could it? Could it?
I love to think it is. It adds just another level. And it's not a level that matters ... if it's not the case, then it's not the case. Doesn't hurt anything. If it is the case, it won't matter if people never heard it before because the song stands by itself.
This album does two things for me: It gives me a sense that Brian has resolved himself with his past. SMiLE may have exorcised the demons, but "That Lucky Old Sun" shows Brian at peace. Second, it gives me some assurances about the future. While I certainly hope this isn't Brian's swan song, and that he'll have more recordings in the future, this album does what so many feared was impossible ... it gives Brian a late-life renaissance, without falling on the "gimmick" of "SMiLE" (and believe me, I don't consider "SMiLE" a gimmick ... but plenty of critics pointed out that the myth of the album did as much to sell it as Brian's talents did).
Brian put himself back on top. This isn't just another recording. This isn't a "Memory Almost Full" done Beach Boys style (a reference to Paul McCartney's last album ... which is okay, but isn't gonna go down as his best work). This is "Pet Sounds 2008." A man who has been married, divorced, has had deaths in his family, family separations, legal battles galore, questionable medical/psychological assistance ... and has come out alive.
In these hard times, this album gives me hope. And hope is something that should always be shared, especially with people you care about.
And I wanted to share this album with you, because you mean something to me.
Like the album, or hate it. Listen to it a hundred times, or listen to it once. Keep it, or give it away. My feelings won't be hurt. And if you do nothing else, listen to "Southern California" once. Try to remember the first Beach Boys song you heard. See if you can remember where you were, how old you were. Let the emotions and power of the song speak for themselves. It's sentimental without being sappy. It's harmonious, without being overwrought. And it ends with such power that it sends a chill up my spine and makes my throat swell because I want to sing along. Every time.
All of this is why you're holding the CD. This is why this music is so important to me, and why I want to share it with you.
Here's a review I wrote of the album for the Facebook LivingSocial albums app:
When it comes to former Beach Boy Brian Wilson's solo work, I'd be the first to say that I'm biased: I worship the music, I study the material and I admire the man.
I love Brian's debut, and I think "Imagination" is a lot better than some critics and fans do/did. "Gettin' In Over My Head" had some good stuff, and "Orange Crate Art" gets better the more I listen to it ... (though I wish there was a release of the "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" piano/vocal version of the title track ... I preferred the stripped down sound).
"SMiLE," of course, is an amazing work of art. One of my top 5 albums.
But "That Lucky Old Sun" is consistently brilliant. And it does a good job of jogging around different themes, moods, tempos. The melodies are memorable, the hooks keep the album fresh. There's no "drag" to this album. Even the spoken word narratives (grating for some, perhaps) are full of that verbal riposte that Van Dyke brought to the "SMiLE" project.
TLOS isn't "Pet Sounds." And I am not pretending that Brian Wilson is back to peak form. But ... Some of TLOS is just among Brian's finest work. Period. 'Midnight's Another Day." "Southern California." "California Role." "Good Kind of Love." "Live Let Live." "Goin' Home." ... Heck, I could name all the songs, and stand by each choice. The way we get some Beach Boys nuggets ("Clangin'"/"Clang", "Been Too Long") and some powerful new grooves shows that Brian has recaptured much of his old skill and spirit, weaving together materials that once stood apart (a la "Good Vibrations" and "SMiLE," especially). He's even bringing back some "old" sounds ("Live Let Live" sounds like "Sail On Sailor" redone, but in a good way ... and did anyone else notice the intro to "The Little Girl I Once Knew" being played in the background of "Good Kind of Love" about 53-55 seconds in? It's done by strings, around the "run to him" lyric).
Everything about "That Lucky Old Sun" excites me. I hear more and more everytime I listen to it. There's a huge palpable warmth to it. Brian is very straightforward with "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl," "Oxygen to the Brain," "Midnight's Another Day," and "Goin' Home" and "Southern California." Very personal. But it's not depressing. It's not moody. It's not withdrawn. There's no "woe is me" on this album. This is a dude who has had a rough life, continues to struggle with medical issues ... and has fashioned some beautiful, inspiring and fun music. Arguably his strongest material since the 60s (and I love "Sunflower," "Love You" and Brian's earlier solo works).
When I listen to this music, I hear and can almost see the man who wove together an album of teenage exploration, excitement and heartache ("Pet Sounds") and ended it with a train charging by, to some unknown land. When "Pet Sounds" came out, Brian was a young adult and had a future as wide as the ocean he often wrote about. With "That Lucky Old Sun," Brian is much older and his past is as much an anchor as it is a safety blanket. And "That Lucky Old Sun" touches on all of those elements. It really does seem like an album that reclaims his roots and puts Brian Wilson back on the (train) track from where he'd left off all those years ago.
(Now, if only "That Lucky Old Sun" had STARTED OFF with a train cruising by ...)
And that wraps up the blog post. My blog has been in existence for about a full week at this point, and I've had almost 100 page views. Pretty dang good for a blog that can't be found on a Google search and isn't listened on the public registry of blogger! Thanks for checking in!