Brian Wilson's new album isn't an "old 60s star sings the standards" LP, but a true, creative, concept album. Brian does more than simply cover tunes, but brings his own, distinctive musical outlook to Gershwin's songs.
Wilson and Gershwin is a more natural combination than you might think. Brian grew up loving "Rhapsody and Blue" and, via his love of the Four Freshman, included many jazz-like harmonies and chord changes into his Beach Boys hits. Really this is a case of one brilliant composer/arranger who knows the rules of music inside and out exploring the works of a fellow master.
The first of the Brian-finished tunes appears early on the album, following a brief vocals-only excerpt of "Rhapsody" (a bit like the "Our Prayer" opening of Smile). At first listen, it struck me as a little AOR, and modern Brian tunes can sometimes be that way. But it's a grower. It's a lovely melody and has nice lyrics. The more I hear it, the more I like it. This is a followed by a nice, jazz/bluesy medley of "Summertime" and "I Loves You Porgy" (the latter of which Wilson sings without changing the gender-orientation in the lyrics, which is kinda cool and brave).
Up next is a bouncy, delightful, instrumental take on "I Got Plenty O'Nuthin" that sounds like it's straight off Pet Sounds, complete with bass harmonicas and banjos. A relatively straight, bluesy take of "It Ain't Necessarily So" follows. It's hard to think of a much "whiter" sounding band than the Beach Boys, but Brian has always had the capability to sound credible on rhythm-and-bluesy sounding material, and he sounds good here.
"S'Wonderful" is another trip into AOR territory, but pleasantly done in a bossa nova manner. The next tune, "They Can't Take That Away from Me" is another delight: Done to a "Help Me Rhonda" beat with great background vocals. This could've been a Beach Boys hit back in 1964-65. "Our Love is Here to Stay," a simple gem in the Gershwin catalog, follows and is given a pretty straightforward treatment -- not much different from the way Ella Fitzgerald performed it on her Gershwin albums (although I hear a little theremin in the background). "I've Got a Crush on You," is given a retro, 1950s malt shop arrangement that's cute. Maybe a little to kitschy, although I love the "wop, wop, aah" background vocals.
"I Got Rhythm" is another standout, opening with yet another little bit of "Rhapsody" followed by cool, low-register surf guitar riffs, soaring backup harmonies and a rocking beat. It sounds like another lost Beach Boys hit.
"Someone to Watch Over Me" is performed as a cousin to Wilson's tender "Caroline, No," with harpsichord, gentle background vocals and Pet Sounds-y percussion. Lovely.
"Nothing But Love," another Wilson-complete Gershwin tune is pretty up-temp and poppy. Nice stuff. It sounds much more Wilson, than Gershwin.
And then the whole thing wraps up with more of the vocals version of "Rhapsody," a neat pop-meets-standard done in a concise 41 minutes.
I can't think of another 1960s star doing music this enjoyable, this imaginative, at this point of his or her career. While Paul McCartney still turns out some fine albums and tunes, his albums are pretty inconsistent. Dylan is doing great work, but is still Dylan. There's not a lot of harmonic or melodic innovation going on. Brian still delivers the goods: Creative arrangements, beautiful vocal harmonies, unexpected material. His ultra-capable band helps considerably, I'm sure.
If you love the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, you won't be disappointed.
One more note: iTunes has a bonus track available for download, a take of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which is a Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Armstrong-like take on the tune performed by Brian and, I presume, his longtime backup vocalist Taylor Mills. Fun stuff, but it wouldn't have fit well on the album.