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Brian Wilson

BRIAN WILSON remains an official genius, the most feted pop composer of the 20th century, but even he hasn’t been immune to the natural law of solo careers – almost without exception (NEIL YOUNG being one of them) failing to scale the creative heights of the bands which preceded them. But then his obstacles to even taking up that career have been more severe than almost any other solo artist, and – given the eternal silence of the late SYD BARRETT – one should be glad he’s still alive and making music. Save for the catharsis of “SmiLE” finally coming full circle, his albums have drawn largely mixed, often – understandably – polite and respectful reviews, and this was no different. An influence on everyone from PAUL SIMON and TODD RUNDGREN to XTC and SUFJAN STEVENS, he and his BEACH BOYS (now into their 50th year) have had an effervescent effect on the world of music.
Born June 20, 1942 in Hawthorne, California, the oldest of three talented brothers (DENNIS WILSON and CARL WILSON), Brian took his cue from the likes of PHIL SPECTOR and harmony group The Four Freshmen, as he began to instigate his path to fame. Taking The BEACH BOYS from a prolific and hard-grafting surf-pop combo to a studio-dominated outfit in only a matter of a few years, the mid-60s saw two defining moments in pop history: the evergreen “Pet Sounds” set from ’66, and its classic follow-on outtake 45, “Good Vibrations”; the latter was intended for the exhaustive shelved set, “Smile”.
It’s well documented that it was this BEACH BOYS album that broke the camel’s back; Brian’s long-standing psychedelic trips of musical insight and his competition with The BEATLES, leading to nervous exhaustion and a breakdown. Despite maintaining his support as a main songsmith for the BBs, the group subsequently faded from the limelight and into sporadic bouts in a comeback nature. Drug addiction and mental illness meant that Brian’s life was a lonely, isolated one, but then there were signs of light as the great man began to take hold of his life.
Inroads had been taken in 1987 as the soundtrack to Police Academy 4, utilised his `Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car’ song. Although not an immediate hit among the public, next year’s totally fresh eponymous album, BRIAN WILSON (1988) {*6}, set his solo career alight once again. Top 60 in his homeland and featuring some decent dirges in `Love And Mercy’, `Melt Away’ and `Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long’ (others were penned with LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM, JEFF LYNNE, Andy Paley and Nick Laird-Clowes respectively), the record was a mix of uplifting hook-lines and romantic ambiguity. Slightly perturbed by the lack of support (and ultimate shelving) of his next album, “Sweet Insanity”, the gifted musician took time out to recover.
Coming the same year as his cult collaboration with VAN DYKE PARKS: ORANGE CRATE ART {*5}, the “I WASN’T MADE FOR THESE TIMES” (1995) {*6} soundtrack to the documentary of the same name was masterminded by ubiquitous producer DON WAS, and performed by a venerable troupe of sessioners numbering the likes of Jim Keltner and Waddy Watchtel; even bringing in WILSON’s chart-topping daughters Carnie and Wendy (comically misspelled as “Windy” on the track list) for the re-vamp of The BEACH BOYS’ `Do It Again’; nostalgic even in its year of release: 1969.
Most of the album, in fact, comprised intimate BB interpretations, in some ways making it even more difficult for the man to live up to past glories and laying him open to the misplaced criticisms of BEACH BOYS diehards. Basically, this is what it is, WILSON singing solo on downscaled, sparely arranged oldies with the voice of a man in his fifties, occasionally slightly detached but still more than capable of inhabiting adolescent meditations like “Pet Sounds” opal, `Caroline, No’ (complete with fusion-esque flute). And at least Eugene Landy-era tracks `Love And Mercy’ and `Melt Away’ are rescued from the 80s production of his solo debut, but the most compelling (and inexplicable) inclusion, closer to the unknowable soul behind the enigma of BRIAN WILSON than any number of tastefully produced re-records, is the quavering home demo, `Still I Dream Of It’, a wracked monologue from the heart of his wilderness years.
His IMAGINATION (1998) {*6} set received rave reviews from the “old fogey” brigade, while reaching the Top 100 (Top 30 in Britain); he subsequently teamed up with BRIAN SETZER (ex-STRAY CATS) to record `Little Deuce Coupe’ for a V/A “save our beaches” benefit album, `Music For Our Mother Ocean’.
Brian’s musical rehabilitation went from strength to strength in the new millennium: a live solo album from the troubled genius would’ve been unimaginable only a decade earlier yet LIVE AT THE ROXY THEATRE (2000) {*6} was just that, an internet-only release delving into at least some of the kind of difficult, introspective material which the BEACH BOYS steered clear of on stage.
When the man went the whole hog and performed PET SOUNDS LIVE (2002) {*5} over a four-night run at London’s Royal Festival Hall, it was, understandably, the cue for grown men to weep in the aisles. Though the album was hardly a substitute for the living history of actually being there, critics were generally kind to it, and to WILSON’s weathered vocals/erratic stage presence.
GETTIN’ IN OVER MY HEAD (2004) {*6} took the same troupe of sympathetic and dedicated musicians into the studio alongside guests like PAUL McCARTNEY, ELTON JOHN and – with the help of studio technology – his late brother Carl, who’d passed away in 1998.
An obsession with studio possibilities had originally helped put the lid on SmiLE (2004) {*8}, the would-be masterpiece he abandoned in 1967. Re-recorded and finally released in full, as a gloriously seamless whole, the album was final proof that WILSON was more than capable of making up for vanished years and genius overreached. The chart positions – UK Top 10, US Top 20 – were the best he’d scored in decades, reflecting the magnitude of the project.
WHAT I REALLY WANT FOR CHRISTMAS (2005) {*4} wasn’t the most likely of follow-ups, even if the scope of the arrangements was as dazzling as ever, with contributions from the likes of Bernie Taupin and JIMMY WEBB.
Capturing nostalgia from Tin Pan Alley and other elements of his past, the transatlantic Top 40 set THAT LUCKY OLD SUN (2008) {*4} found the man in amiable and sentimental fashion; but it was a tad too self-indulgent or BACHARACH-friendly for some of his recent youth-y fanclub acquisitions. The same could be said for homage pieces, REIMAGINES GERSHWIN (2010) {*6} and IN THE KEY OF DISNEY (2011) {*5}, but at least on the latter he added star quality to songs from other key 20th century figureheads, RANDY NEWMAN and ELTON JOHN.
Surfing on the crest of a wave from some 50th Anniversary celebrations a la The BEACH BOYS’ studio comeback `That’s Why God Made The Radio’ (2012), producer/composer BRIAN WILSON was looking to capitalize on his reactivated resurgence – not for the first time. Abandoning time wasted with producer DON WAS and guitarist JEFF BECK, Brian dusted off the course sand off his shorts once more for another collaborative-type pop album, NO PIER PRESSURE (2015) {*5}. Surrounding himself with original BEACH BOYS, Al Jardine and David Marks (not forgetting mid-season member BLONDIE CHAPLIN), plus a raft of younger hit-makers (SHE & HIM/Zooey Deschanel, Sebu Simonian of CAPITAL CITIES, KACEY MUSGRAVES and FUN.’s Nate Ruess, among them), the transatlantic Top 30 record could hardly fail. Soft-rock to the point of sentimental slush, songs such as `On The Island’, `Whatever Happened’ and `The Right Time’, were all lost at sea; only film composer MARK ISHAM brought out a bit of instrumental decorum on the luscious `Half Moon Bay’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS / rev-up MCS Dec2012-Apr2015

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