When Brian Wilson announced that he was working on an album of Gershwin covers, I was skeptical. Brian Wilson is, of course, a master arranger and crafter of recordings but his glory days seemed behind him. I wanted to hate this album after the disappointment of “Lazy Old Sun”, his previous album and in many ways I do hate this album but I also enjoy it a great deal of it.
The first bit that I love is the album cover. I don’t know why I find it so visually appealing but I do, so there. Also, I find the production on this album to be inspired and fresh. If you like Wilson’s style, you’ll enjoy this album. Each track is expertly produced and arranged and is a treat to listen to full blast in the car or on your headphones. The vocal arrangements blend beautifully with the instrumental tracks and are imaginative and lovely. I’d also like to point out Todd Sucherman’s fantastic drum work. Of all of Wilson’s work in the past 40+ years, this is the best drums have ever sounded and the parts that Sucherman creates are very enjoyable to listen to.
Now, the negative. Brian Wilson’s voice is not appropriate for this album. While his arranging and producing powers are still sharp, his vocals do not have the power and emotion required to pull of “Summertime” or “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Wilson was not the lead singer for most of the Beach Boy’s songs for a reason and his age has not improved his lead vocal ability. Also, who thought it was a good idea to have him sing “I Loves You, Porgy”? He does know that Bess sings that song right? I’m also not a fan of some of the choices he made in “reimagining” these classic songs. While I like the idea of turning “I Got Rhythm” into a driving surf song, the execution falls flat. First off, he changed the chords! In jazz, “I Got Rhythm” is the holy grail of chord progressions. So holy, in fact, that many songs use the same changes and they are commonly known as Rhythm Changes. Every good jazz player knows how to solo over these chords in every key and can name at least a half-dozen songs that utilize the progression. Wilson, however, took the most famous chord progression in the American Songbook and turned it into a typical three chord surf song which almost works except that the melody doesn’t match the chords in some spots. I do enjoy the track in general but I can’t listen to it as the Gershwin classic.
The most anticipated portion of this album, for me at least, was the new collaborations where Wilson finished some Gershwin tunes. The first track you hear, “The Like in I Love You” is the weakest song on the album both musically and lyrically. The second “new” tune, “Nothing But Love” may be my favorite track though. The lyrics and music aren’t great, one wonders why it went unfinished, but the overall sound of this track, in particular the chord progression and sax section, are insanely catchy and filled with hooks. I’ve listened to this song several times and as cheesy and corny as it is, I just can’t turn it off. This track proves that Wilson’s talents aren’t designated for the history books when he’s inspired to do great work.
As a collection of Gershwin songs, this album has nice moments but none of these versions will become definitive Gershwin covers the way Ella Fitzgerald’s have. If you take Gershwin out of the picture, however, and listen to this album as the newest Brian Wilson recording, it’s actually quite good. If you’ve never heard these songs before or only have a casual knowledge of them, you may enjoy it a great deal. If you’re a Gershwin enthusiast, you may find some of this album blasphemous (I’m looking at you, I Got Rhythm). I don’t regret the $10 splurge and I’m sure I’ll listen to it plenty but it’s not going to get the attention and sharing that “Smile” received when I purchased that masterwork. Check it out and enjoy it for what it is.