Friday, April 10, 2015

Runaway Talent - Review of Brian Wilson's No Pier Pressure

I'm a bit of an oddball when it comes to music, for my age. I grew up on the mission field in Italy in the early 80s. So, I missed popular American culture at the time. I remember that Elvis was really huge over there. Big TV events were the reruns of old Elvis movies. The Beatles seemed to share that level of contemporary status over there, too.

For me, though, I found instant joy at hearing the Beach Boys' Surfin' Safari album. Then we got a copy of the Beach Boys' Concert. I eventually took my sister's cassette tape of Beach Boys songs (which she titled 'The Beach Boys Live & dead). Long story short, I was hooked on the Beach Boys for the duration.

Fast forward, I was watching a TV show where Brian Wilson was being interviewed (and he's always been a bit awkward in those situations). I asked my dad who that guy was. His reply, "That's Brian Wilson, the guy who basically made the Beach Boys." Take that quote as a loose, living translation of what he actually said.

I had to get this guy's album! So, I got his solo album, which featured Love & Mercy, Melt Away, Rio Grand and several other great arrangements. It wasn't a Beach Boys album, but it still resonated with me. Since then I've bought nearly every album of his. I haven't purchased That Lucky Old Sun. But I have the others, and they each offer high points. For instance, Imagination  had wonderful, catchy songs, but Lay Down Burden stood out as a powerful classic. The way Love & Mercy did on his first solo effort.

But, after several "cover" albums, such as Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin or In the Key of Disney I was beginning to think he'd run out of songs. He was still an expert producer and arranger, but maybe he was out of tunes.

Then the 50th anniversary album came out with the Beach Boys. I was really skeptical. How good could this be? And reports made it sound like he was raiding the vault of unused songs from his work with Joe Thomas back during Imagination. And yet, That's Why God Made The Radio (a title that could have been better) had some great tunes on it and some really fresh arrangements. I loved Shelter and The Private Life of Bill & Sue. The only song I really didn't care for was the title track.

I was encouraged by the rumors that Brian had experienced a flux of creativity while on tour with his old band-mates and was hopeful. Of course, it wouldn't be the Beach Boys without drama, falling out, etc. Then came the "Jeff Beck Sessions" the hype, the articles, the fallout.

Is this guy in his 70s, or is this some new, young artist? I guess "creative differences" know no age bracket.

Fast forward and No Pier Pressure is announced with a slew of guest vocalists. Rumors began that this will be some conspiracy to capitalize (pun not really intended) on Brian's "genius" status and work in younger, hipper artists. I felt that way, too. I'm certain Capital execs like the idea of bankable talent boosting a project they're investing in.

The 30 second samples didn't help me decide to want to pre-order this album. In fact, they were a let down. Runaway Dancer sounded horrible! He's doing disco? What? The Right Time sounded like a turn on Lay Down Burden. Then I heard Sail Away. He obviously samples a melody trill from Sloop John B, but the song unexpectedly grew on me. Suddenly, I loved the lyrics, the arrangement and the song was just plain infectious!

I listened to the live performance of Runaway Dancer and was hit with the fact that Brian combined loungy sax with dance beats and jazz harmony and tempo changes. As a whole, the song is awesome.

The country-tinged I Guess You Had To Be There with Kasey Musgraves is a bouncy tune, easy to get stuck in your head. It also covers ground that the Eagles did with Hotel California, but Brian's not so morose.

Each of these started to show that the 30 second snippets don't give this album any sort of justice. Brian doesn't make songs that allow for a good 30 second sample of the whole. Think about Good Vibrations. If you heard the wrong 30 seconds you'd get the wrong impression of the song.

So, I bought this album. I've listened to it for the past few days. Some parts do NOT sound like something Brian would have done. But, then, neither did the stuff on Wild Honey compare with The Beach Boys Today or Summer Days (and Nights!). Or, for that matter, the songs on Friends resemble stuff from Wild Honey or Pet Sounds. Come to think of it, the Friends album didn't sound very similar to 20/20, which came next. Love You didn't have much resemblance to any of those albums.

I've read some claim that Brian is being trotted out by Capital and Joe Thomas to "collaborate" with folks he doesn't even know. The picture this presents is some addled old man who gets shuffled around to do stuff. I'm not buying that.

This album has a clear Brian Wilson opening with Beautiful Day (an almost Our Prayer type of opening). It weaves through various styles, but always has the trademark Brian Wilson arrangements, harmony and melodies. Standouts include Special Love (which has a middle part that surprises, but the overall feel is very fresh and BW), I'm Feeling Sad (a classic album cut send-up from Brian), Sail Away, Runaway Dancer and Last Song. The album, when listened to from start to finish has a Pet Sounds cohesiveness.

What it suffers from, though, is Joe Thomas. I'm not opposed to autotune for aging singers. That's fine and understandable. But something flattens out the productions so they sound computerized. I'm certain real trumpets are on Don't Worry, but they sound like a keyboard. Brian's work on his last few albums were better produced than this.

Yet, Brian's talent runs through this album and manages to survive the techno crap that Joe Thomas (and Capital) must think it needs.

Enjoy a few samples of this album that I've linked below.





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