Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Brian Wilson -- That Lucky Old Sun (2008)

Brian Wilson -- That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol)

The latest Brian Wilson album is his most ambitious solo project yet. It’s pretty apparent that getting the Smile monkey off his back has him feeling really good. Perhaps it’s better than he’s ever felt before.

So he’s off and running with a new song cycle, with Mr. Song Cycle himself, Van Dyke Parks providing some contributions with some narrative links between the songs. But the main collaborator on this album is Scott Bennett. Bennett is a Chicago area musician who met Wilson during the days of the Imagination LP, when Brian lived in St. Charles, Illinois.

Bennett had his own band back in the ‘80s. I once saw them do a version of Elvis Costello’s "Pump It Up" that was laughably bad, in a Holiday Inn lounge sort of way. Which isn’t to say Bennett has no talent, but a rocker he ain’t.

And he’s no Eugene Landy, either. Remember how Dr. Landy took co-writing credits on all of the songs on Wilson’s first solo album? And how that album is still Wilson’s best solo disc of original tunes? Maybe Landy should have helped on this. (NOTE: If my memory serves me, subsequent litigation led to Landy’s name being removed from the credits).

Wait, that makes it sound like this isn’t a good album. It sure sounds good. The Brian Wilson Band, with all of those Wondermints, and Jeffrey Foskett, among others, are ace as usual. No complaints about the playing or singing.

But the songs are, for the most part, second rate. Most of them lack emotional resonance or any compositional inventiveness. For example, "Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl" is an adequate composition that is slightly evocative of the great Beach Boys songs of the past. But the melody is pretty average and it’s only saved by the performances.

I feel pretty much the same about "Good Kind of Love", a pleasant trifle that barely sticks in the brain pan. I actually like the melody in the verse -- it has that first solo album feel. But the chorus is just alright. So it’s 67% good, I suppose. It just doesn’t pay off as well as it could.

Then there’s "Mexican Girl". The Latin flavor is swell, and a nice touch. But the lyrics, even by Brian Wilson’s standards are pretty dopey. Not racist, but when the song segueways into the narration, entitled "Cinco de Mayo", there’s a patronizing quality. I find that most of the narrative links are pretty disposable but not irritating, except for this one.

On "Oxygen to the Brain", the compositional ideas of "Vegetables" are revisited, not as successfully as on the original. The song even shares the idea of "Vegetables" -- clean living will get you far. Especially if you’re in California. There is one personal lyric that sneaks in: "How could I have got so low/I’m embarrassed to tell yo so/I laid around this old place/I hardly ever washed my face." I do think it’s cool that Brian has opened up a little.

With "Oxygen", the album takes a turn for the better and finishes strong. "Midnight’s Another Day" is cut from the same cloth as "Surf’s Up". Is it as good? No, but it works really well. This is the most emotionally connected song on the record, as the rich chords and Wilson’s best vocal come together for a top notch track.

This is followed by "Going Home", a silly R & B number that fits in with Brian circa 1967 through 1977. This is also a trifle, but it’s a really fun trifle.

The album concludes with "Southern California". While not a magical Brian Wilson composition, it has a great chorus and as Wilson looks back at California and how it inspired Brian and his fellow Beach Boys, his connection to the tune is unmistakable. It’s a lovely conclusion.

There is enough on this album to give one hope that Wilson has another terrific album in him. He is fully engaged in the material, and while he’s not the singer he was in the ‘60s, he knows how to sing, and his weathered voice still has an innocence and optimism that is perfect for his music. But Wilson needs a collaborator who can push him to his full remaining potential, and I don’t think Scott Bennett is that guy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"You know, Brian's whole thing is juxtaposing the brilliant with the stupid."

(Carl Wilson)

Matt Berlyant said...

It's true that via ligitation, Landy's name was removed from the songwriting credits for the '88 s/t solo album. This lawsuit (which basically deals with Landy's attempt to take Brian for all he was worth) is also why his 1991 solo album Sweet Insanity, was never released. That's too bad because I think Sweet Insanity is a great album. In any case, nice review, though I think I like the album a little more than you do.