Monday, July 14, 2008

Dennis Wilson -- Pacific Ocean Blue (Deluxe Edition) (2008 reissue)

Dennis Wilson -- Pacific Ocean Blue (Deluxe Edition) (Epic/Caribou/Legacy)

The only solo release from the Beach Boys’ drummer had only briefly appeared on CD, and has been out of circulation for more than a decade. Its reputation has only grown in the interim.

I’m here to tell you that this album lives up to the hype. Dennis Wilson composed music that mixed earthy R & B with some stately piano melodies. You can certainly hear The Beach Boys in some of the harmonies and atmosphere surrounding these tracks. But Dennis had his own vision.

The deluxe version of this disc is well worth getting. It includes a whole disc of songs intended for a second album that never came to be, Bambu. Not everything on the second disc lives up to Blue, but there are some gems on there that confirm what a shame it was that Dennis Wilson and his messed up life prevented him from making more music.

The first four songs of Pacific Ocean Blue really encapsulate the breadth of his talents. The first track, “River Song”, combines great harmony vocals in a Beach Boys style with a gospel chorus, with a combination of a strong piano line and solid drumming propelling things. The song is about getting away from the congested city. The first two verses lead to a spectacular choral vocal interlude which builds and builds, finally receding to angelic female harmonies, while Wilson ruminates further. It’s a killer.

It’s followed by “What’s Wrong”, which is a silly, fun rock ‘n’ roll number. How fun? This song, tested under scientific conditions, narrowly edges out brother Brian’s giddy “Honking Down the Highway (from The Beach Boys’ Love You), as the silliest, funnest Beach Boys associated track of the ‘70s. The lyrics are pretty simplistic, but what good would complexity do on this song? The horns add so much to this track. Throughout the album, the horns are cleverly deployed.

This is followed by the lush “Moonshine”. This is a swooping majestic ballad, with Wilson lamenting a lost love. Here, the melody is basic and stately, and the harmonies are again superb. The song is romantic and fatalistic, with the line “you said you love me now in another way” cutting to the quick.

“Friday Night” starts off with a dramatic piano crescendo, something that could have come off The Who’s Quadrophenia. It sets a real tone, rising up and then fading out, as the song settles into a pointed mid-tempo piano piece with some R & B undertones. Wilson’s singing is very raw here, fitting the slightly bitter and angry tone of the lyrics.

The breadth is not just in the variety of things Wilson incorporated into his music. There are a lot of emotions at play here. Like Brian, although Dennis’ lyrics were very simple, both the music and the performance gave them substance. This gives the album even more pull, whether it’s the bopping “Pacific Ocean Blues” or the wistful “Time”, which is almost Sinatra-esque in capturing loneliness and longing, with an out-of-nowhere instrumental break which ups the energy and provides a needed release.

Once the main album is over, there are other delights to be had. The final bonus cut on the Pacific Ocean Blue disc is an instrumental called “Mexico”. It’s a haunting piano piece, where Wilson plays a few different simple, elegant piano lines. When the piano is doubled up by horn accompaniment, the piece takes on a whole new world of emotion. This song is so fucking beautiful.

Listening to the Bambu tracks, I’m struck by how, had Wilson been able to devote full attention to them, rather than (ahem) other pursuits, he might have equaled Pacific Ocean Blue. No, there aren’t as many top notch songs amongst these tracks, but there are some. With more focus on a cohesive collection, Wilson could have had another winner.

My favorite track is “Constant Companion”, which seems to be a mix of Wilson’s own style with the influence of Stevie Wonder and maybe even a little Steely Dan. This is a really creative ‘70s album rock type song, with great horn work. “School Girl” is a fine rock number that could have been a great Beach Boys track, with an aggressive vocal. On “Are You Real”, a self-indulgent streak rises up, with an instrumental break where the keyboards and drums suggest that Dennis had just seen Genesis in concert. Oh, I like it by the way. Meanwhile, “He’s a Bum” is nearly a dead ringer for Randy Newman.

And there are more of those superb ballads. But the best on Disc 2 is saved for last. And I’d never figure that a Foo Fighter would be involved. The instrumental track “Holy Man”, featured on the first disc, ends the second disc with lyrics and vocals from Taylor Hawkins of the Foos. I was skeptical, but this is one of Wilson’s most beautiful musical compositions, and Hawkins comes up with a credible set of lyrics and turns in a vocal performance that doesn’t ape Dennis, but isn’t far off from his vocal quality. It’s one last classic from a great performer who discovered his true talents too late in his short life.

1 comment:

Thierry said...

Sounds like you were luckier than I was - the packaging is beautiful, but I quit trying to find a copy that played after opening my second scratched cd (they seem to fit too tightly in the digipacks). I've waited 10 years to hear a proper copy of this album, I guess I can wait a couple more weeks until my vinyl copy of the Sundazed reissue comes in my mailbox...