Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No, not Brian Wilson ... the OTHER genius Wilson

Brian Wilson may have been the genius, but Dennis had the soul.

Criminally unavailable almost from it's original release in 1977, fans (and initiates) were finally treated to a Beach Boys "re-release" that is worth its weight in gold.

This is similar to the 1990s Capitol "two-fers" releases of the Beach Boys' 1960s albums, in that the listeners get what amounts to 2 albums and some bonus tracks. This deluxe reissue of Dennis Wilson's only released album "Pacific Ocean Blue" features some outtakes and materials from the aborted follow-up "Bambu."

"Pacific Ocean Blue" is the first full solo album released by any member of the Beach Boys, and it was critically acclaimed on its release (and even sold fairly well, too, reaching No 96 on the Billboard charts ... not bad for a guy who had zero name recognition ... even though the Beach Boys were HUGE in the news in 1976/1977, it was Brian-centric).

Then "Pacific Ocean Blue" disappeared. Dennis didn't tour in support of his new material, and the Beach Boys only worked a couple of the songs into concert set lists for a while. The songs faded away.

But for music fans (and Beach Boys fans, in particular), the search for good music (not just fun, but soulful or interesting or atmospheric or any other adjective you'd care to append) has kept "Pacific Ocean Blue" in general consideration.

What makes "Pacific Ocean Blue" so good? Well, the song quality is one reason. The production, with the instrumental variety and mood, would be another. The passion, both from Dennis' delivery and from the subject matter, would be a big key. And it sounds like the natural successor to the "Sunflower"/"Surf's Up"/"Carl and the Passions - So Tough"/"Holland" chain of albums much more than "15 Big Ones" or "Love You" do. If you listen to Dennis' "Steamboat" from "Holland," or "Cuddle Up" from "Carl and the Passions," you can hear the roots to his great solo work.

It's earthy. It's got soul. It's very much real life. There's rhythm, swagger, some vulnerability. There's not a whole lot of fun to a lot of it, there aren't many "I love you, you are wonderful" songs on it. It has a lot of dynamics, with the bass and drums really kicking things into shape (and plenty of bass harmonica for texture and rhythm, too).

Remastered sound really brings some of this material to a new life. I found a beat-up copy of a 1990 issuing, and was glad to have it ... but until the Legacy Recordings version was in my player, I had no idea just how good these songs were. Each one has an earnestness and a power that cannot be denied.

Dennis' contributions to the Beach Boys catalog is often unfairly overlooked. From 1968-1973, his songs had a power and emotional depth that the other members couldn't convey. And his songs on their later 70s and early 80s releases have a beauty all their own ("Baby Blue" is a killer).

Dennis basically taught himself. He learned from Brian (and Carl), and he had a few rudimentary lessons here and there during his youth. His emotional issues, stemming from the abuse the Wilsons' father delivered, made a profound impact on his musical outlook.

Like Brian, Dennis' music was by turns introspective and emotional or rollicking hedonism. Dennis' image as the "dumb drummer" was next to impossible for him to erase, and he had no end of frustration trying to express the music of his heart to people who thought that he was just a good looking hunk that bashed drums.

On this album, he embraces the freedom of being a solo artist. He invited friends and family to contribute (Ricky Fataar, one of the South African musicians who joined the Beach Boys during the "Carl and the Passions" and "Holland" years and who drummed for the group during that time, contributed some of the drum work here ... and you can't help but hear Carl Wilson's voice throughout the album), but this is a Dennis album ... don't look for Beach Boys stuff here. There ARE harmonies, but you won't find "Fun, Fun, Fun" or "Sloop John B" in any of these tracks.

What this release does is really show how wonderful, how soulful, how talented Dennis was. And with the materials presented on the 2nd disc, one can see how "Bambu" would really have put the Beach Boys' "MIU," "L.A." and "Keeping the Summer Alive" albums to total shame.

So let's take a look at this "Pacific Ocean Blue" reissue.

With the introductory song of "River Song," "Pacific Ocean Blue" kicks off with a tour de force. The piano notes in the beginning almost seem to reflect rain drops. Then the vocal swells come in, and you get the roar of the ocean tide. (Echoes of "I Love to Say Dada" / "Cool Cool Water," anyone?) Those musical flourishes suit the song, a tale of ecology and nature and the poisonous danger of city life and pollution.

On about any album the Beach Boys released post "Pet Sounds," "River Song" would have been a standout and considered a gem worthy of single release. But Dennis uses it as the intro to his album, content to let it merely open the doors and be washed away by the following material (and the following material is excellent enough to do just that). Dennis would carry this nature theme into the title track, with some fantastic lyrics by his cousin Mike Love (the two didn't get along, but they wrote some great stuff together).

The highlights to "Pacific Ocean Blue" are many: There are 12 tracks to the original album, and all 12 are fantastic. They rock, they roll, they croon and swoon. They swing from bravado to naked vulnerability. The white punk laments that he'll never make the headlines of the evening news, but still appreciates the love and applause from fans at the end of the show. It's a concept album only in that it gives you a peek into the heart and lifestyle of Dennis Wilson. But that life, which defined the early songs and image of the Beach Boys, makes for fertile and stirring music.

Then you take into account the outtakes, the tracks that were recorded during the album sessions and either unfinished or discarded as Dennis worked on other songs in their stead. "Tug of Love," my favorite of those on the first disc, is a masterful piece of work. One wonders who he was addressing with the lines "the world loves you / yes they do." Is he singing to himself? Is he singing to his brother, Brian? Or maybe to some nameless image of a person, the universal brother/sister/lover/friend? It is nonetheless an engaging and beautiful piece, with so much dimension and space. It's a sad siren song and a benediction at the same time, full of understanding and soft hope.

Then Dennis tackles "Holland" standout "Only With You," strips the arrangement down and sings the lead himself (taking Carl Wilson and Mike Love out of the picture) and it is just gorgeous. It's as gentle a ballad as you'll ever encounter, and deserves to be aired at weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, dates, etc.

The instrumentals that end the first disc are top-notch. "Holy Man" was almost a mythical song in the unreleased Dennis Wilson oeuvre. Wilson never recorded a lead vocal for the song, but the backing track is very interesting and combines different sounds for an interesting song. "Mexico" highlights his ability to weave different melodies and instruments throughout, building upon a theme, but never cluttering the picture. It's a triumph of production and artistry, and made for a very welcome addition.

The second disc is a combination of tracks recorded for "Bambu," the never-released second album, and different sessions Dennis held throughout the late 1970s and very early 1980s. The music is rougher, bolder. His voice has taken on more drug damage. But the sincerity and power and soul-bearing honesty he conveys make the material as engaging, as fresh, as anything in the Beach Boys universe.

Of the 17 tracks on the second disc, not all are gems (and not all are previously unreleased, either). But among the standouts are: "Under the Moonlight," "It's Not Too Late," "Love Remember Me," "Wild Situation," "He's a Bum" (surely one of the crudest and hilarious tracks laid down by any member of the group), the previously released "All Alone" and a version of "Holy Man" sung by Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins (who manages to croon a convincing Dennis-style vocal).

Combine the two discs and you get one hell of an amazing set, worthy of hours and hours of enjoyment and study. Listen to how sounds meld into each other, molding each other, creating such a dense atmosphere while at the same time presenting delicate thoughts and a zest for life that snare the listener. Top grade stuff, some of the greatest overlooked music from the Seventies (and from one of the most overlooked members of the Beach Boys).

My sole nitpick: Why not include "Lady (Fallin' in Love)" and "Sound of Free" as bonus tracks? C'mon! They're totally Dennis' songs, they're both marvelous. The Beach Boys have since released "Lady (Fallin' in Love)" on one of their periodic compilations, but "Sound of Free" is still officially unavailable domestically on compact disc or as an audio file. One can only hope that future releases will include these tracks, as well as the many, many, MANY others languishing in the vaults.

You don't need to be a Beach Boys fan to love this release. And even if you're a Beach Boys fan, don't expect "Sunflower" or even "Carl & The Passions - So Tough." This is Dennis, given free reign. The heart and soul that made the songs "Forever" and "Cuddle Up" from those respective Beach Boys albums is in full bloom in this release.

When it comes to most music, I try to stay fairly open-minded. I figure that it isn't always important if I like it ... if other people like it, then that music is great for them. But when it comes to music like this ... I can't stress enough just how vital and essential and powerful it is. It isn't CATCHY, per se. It isn't HIT MATERIAL. But this is the music of how life really IS, and how idealism and fantasy and reality and introspection and pain and grief and exhaustion and glory can all meld into beautiful sound in the hands of a competent and sensitive artist.

And Dennis Wilson was an artist skilled enough to pull that off.

With the Legacy Edition release of this two-disc set, the music is now more available and widely appreciated than ever before. It climbed to No. 8 on Billboard's vault releases, and new critics have been blown away by the quality and depth of Dennis Wilson's material.

But this music still hasn't found a wide audience, and seems to really only be enjoyed by devotees of the Beach Boys. This is a genuine shame, as the music stands outside the Beach Boys catalog and is as good as anything contemporaries in 1977 were putting out.

This is music that deserves to be heard. This is music that deserves receptive ears who will take the time to really appreciate how the music and the lyrics and the voices all work together. This is music that carries a lot of emotion and compassion. Open your ears, and your hearts, and you'll be well rewarded.


  1. Uncle Fester's ColonSeptember 21, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    Good stuff. Only really know beach boys hits, but the youtube clips are a nice touch and give me some idea of what your talking abotu.

    found your blog by clicking next blog at the top and its a good 1

    do you have a link to the full album?

  2. Heh, nice name. ;)

    Sorry, I don't provide links to albums. While I wish laws were different and that artists were compensated fairly WITHOUT gouging fans, I don't want to use my blog for file sharing.

    I tend not to use terms like piracy or theft, because I think that's too strong. Many people hear stuff they like, THEN buy it (sort of how radio works ... though downloads obviously last, whereas radio is impermanent).

    Sorry to make a long answer out of a short question. I hope you find what you're looking for. This material is fantastic, I listen to it several times a year. I hope the YouTube videos whet your eppetite for more Dennis Wilson music!


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