Review: Two American classics meet on ‘Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’

08.15.10 7 years ago

Some albums arrive with such anticipation and weight that they crumble under their own expectations. There is no way that the whole of “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” out Tuesday, can be greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that some of it succeeds as well as it does given the breathy headiness surrounding the project (the Grammy word is already being tossed about), is an accomplishment of its own, but is it enough?

Take the music of George Gershwin, arguably the greatest American composer, and pair it with the brilliance of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who, like Gershwin, creates melodies from a seemingly otherworldly beautiful place for us mere mortals to enjoy, and pair their talents. Most great pop artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s, whether it be Lennon/McCartney, Billy Joel, or Wilson were deeply influenced by Gershwin’s stunning, classical-based piano works.  In the modern pop era, few artists come close to Wilson’s gift for vocal arrangement. Wilson has often said that “Rhapsody in Blue” was the first piece of music he ever heard. It’s a natural fit.

The album opens beautifully and with great promise as Wilson vocalizes over Gershwin’s most elegant piece of music,”Rhapsody in Blue.” (The album smartly ends with a reprise of the short intro). Despite a slew of high points, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” never again captures that apex.

The album’s centerpiece is a medley of four tunes from Gershwin’s masterwork, “Porgy & Bess.” Of the quartet, the two that work best are “Summertime,” which Wilson pays loving homage to, and an inventive, instrumental down-home take on  “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin.’” The less said about his “I Loves You Porgy,” the better.

Wilson, who co-arranged and orchestrated the music with Paul von Mertens, and handled all the vocal arrangements, treats the songs here reverentially, and, in some cases, too tentatively, such as on “S’Wonderful,” which has a tropical, breezy feel that lapses into easy listening. Wilson, whose voice has been spotty for years, sounds fine here vocally for most of the songs, although a  little disengaged. The surrounding backing vocals, led by longtime Wilson cohort, Jeff Foskett, are always on target except on “S’Wonderful,” where they sound like the cheesy, albeit tremendously successful, Ray Conniff Singers backing vocals that the Beach Boys helped conquer on the charts.

The tunes that work best are the ones where Wilson squarely merges the Gershwin melody with the classic Wilson sensibility of layered harmonies, bouncy keyboards, horns and doo-wop vocals to create the perfect mash-up between ‘30s Gershwin and ‘60s Beach Boys. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a jaunty, upbeat toe-tapper that sounds like it arrives in its own little deuce coupe (with a dose of “Little St. Nick” thrown in).

The hybrid also succeeds on “I Got Rhythm,” which takes flight at the end with its “I Get Around” vocals. The best blending happens on “Someone to Watch over Me” with its gorgeous “God Only Knows” layered backing vocals that enhance the heavenly feel of the original. The charming doo-wop take on “I’ve Got a Crush on You” is also winning.

Two songs, “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing but Love,” are unfinished Gershwin songs that Wilson and  a collaborator complete. The upbeat latter, which sounds like it could have come off of Wilson’s 1988 self-titled solo album, works best.

The entire album clocks in at around a little more than 35 minutes and that’s a good thing. Not because the listener has likely had enough by then, but both Gershwin and Wilson have an unerring sense that brevity is often key in creating pop masterpieces. If nothing else, Wilson has always known when it’s time to go.

“Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” is available in stores and online Tuesday.

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