Tuesday, 11 September 2007

That Lucky Old Sun - First Thoughts


Everyone at last night's (woefully under-promoted) Brian Wilson gig went in hoping for the best but expecting the worst. The word was that the new piece, That Lucky Old Sun, had Brian more excited than he had been in years. That it was the most ambitious thing he'd ever done. That he'd put it together almost in secret, not even letting many of the band members, or his closest advisers, hear it until the last minute.

If it was good, that would be OK. But no-one had any idea if Brian Wilson was capable of 'good'. While his last proper album, Gettin' In Over My Head, was excellent, it was mostly songs from 10-25 years earlier. And if it was a failure... well... Brian Wilson fans care a lot about the notoriously-fragile songwriter, and it could be very bad for him.

The first set was promising, at least. Brian was in great (for him) voice, playing with the lower end of his range, going into comical bass parts. The setlist was unusual. While the Smile shows in 2004 had concentrated on pre-Pet Sounds material, as opposed to the late-60s and 70s material Wilson had played on his earlier tours, this set took that to a ridiculous extreme - other than a few hits, the setlist concentrated entirely on the Today! and Summer Days... And Summer Nights! albums, covering obscure tracks like Salt Lake City, Girl Don't Tell Me and She Knows Me Too Well. The one exception was the Wild Honey oddity I'd Love Just Once To See You - one of Wilson's little tossed-off jokey songs, but one I've always loved.

However, we were all there to hear That Lucky Old Sun.

The suite starts with a slow, soulful arrangement of the title song, with contrapuntal vocals somewhere between the old Beach Boys song He Come Down and Brian's arrangement of Ol' Man River, before bursting into the Shortenin' Bread riff Brian has based so much of his music on. The band start singing "Ooh mow mama mama holy hallelujah" - a vocal line that Brian first mentioned in an interview thirty years ago - and the piece proper begins.

Is That Lucky Old Sun any good? I truly have no idea. It's too complex a piece, and too multi-layered, and the performance of it too bound up in personal expectations, for any kind of judgement to be made on one hearing. But in a sense, the question doesn't matter. That Lucky Old Sun is exciting - in a way that no-one could have expected. This is the work of a 65-year-old man. 65 year old men don't make exciting music. Paul McCartney's new album might be quite pleasant, but he knows no-one's going to remember him as 'the man who made Memory Almost Full', and it shows.

Brian Wilson appears not to have given up hope that he'll be remembered as 'the man who made That Lucky Old Sun', and it's just about possible that he might. While in some ways this new work bears comparison to the McCartney album, at heart it couldn't be more different. While both have lyrics looking back from the end of a life and recapping themes of old songs, in the case of That Lucky Old Sun they're working in tension against the music, which is overwhelmingly energetic, inspired, throwing off ideas like there's a million more out there to get to in a hurry.

Like I said earlier, this may well be a failure - I'm just not willing to trust my own judgement based on one emotionally-charged live performance - but if it is it's a glorious, fantastic mess of a failure, the kind of failure one might expect from an artist a third of Wilson's age. And I suspect it isn't.

Part of this may be due to Wilson's band. While he's been working with essentially the same band for nearly a decade, they've been performing old material - sometimes in new forms, but always conceived before they started working with him. But for the first time Wilson is able to work with them as collaborators. Keyboardist Scott Bennett wrote many of the lyrics, bandleader Darian Sahanaja (of the Wondermints), the Billy Strayhorn to Wilson's Duke Ellington, helped Wilson structure the piece and teach it to the band, and woodwind player Paul Mertens arranged the strings and horns. Van Dyke Parks, Wilson's most sympathetic collaborator, wrote the linking narrative and at least some of the lyrics.

But while Wilson may need help realising his vision, it's his vision - this could not be the work of anyone other than Brian Wilson. Little touches creep in from previous works - a vocal part from the unfinished 60s song Can't Wait Too Long, a full song ( Going Home ) from his mid-90s sessions with Andy Paley - and Wilson's musical signatures are all over the piece. But at the same time, it's not just Wilson staying within his comfort zone - the mariachi-flavoured Mexican Girl, for example, is utterly unlike anything he's done before.

The narrative, such as it is, is rather abstract as far as I could tell (I couldn't make out many of the lyrics). It deals with love, California, the sea - themes Wilson has touched on before on occasion, as you may know - but through the eyes of a man in his sixties rather than his twenties, drawing on the loss of his brothers. There is also a very strong religious theme throughout the material. Given that Wilson and Parks' previous collaboration, Smile, was practically an invocation of the sun-god, I wish I could have heard more of the lyrics to make out how important this was. The spoken narrative, written by Parks, is in rhyming couplets over musical pads, and reminiscent of the Beaks Of Eagles section of California Saga, if that track had been infinitely less pretentious and infinitely more interesting.

There were definitely flaws in the piece as performed last night, but it remains to be seen how much of that is the piece and how much the first-night performance. At times in the earlier sections of the piece, the whole band vamps on two-chord riffs, similarly to the sections of Smile where they play the Heroes & Villains riff (That Lucky Old Sun is to Shortenin' Bread as Smile is to the Bicycle Rider chorus), with the various instruments playing different variations at the same time. These sections seemed to me overlong and lacking in dynamic range, but there may well be subtleties in there I couldn't hear - the mix seemed at times to be murky, and the sound engineer seemed unprepared for how loudly Wilson was singing (a couple of times the vocals distorted). If this is more to do with the night than the material, it could possibly be Wilson's best album ever. If not, then at least he tried.

And there are some pointers to it being a success. I was extremely wary about the piece from the demos of two songs ( Midnight's Another Day and Forever My Surfer Girl) posted on Wilson's website, which are frankly fairly poor. However, in context, and with the additional orchestration, both are much stronger than those recordings suggest. Midnight's Another Day, in particular, had me in tears - and this is a song I'd dismissed as tedious.

I have no idea how I'll modify my initial impression of this piece when I listen dispassionately to the finished recording, but the sheer invention, joy, energy and vigour of the piece has to be heard to be believed.

After his normal hits encore, Wilson performed She's Leaving Home, in an absolutely audacious rearrangement that has to be heard to be believed - he's turned the verses into a 4/4 uptempo piece of sunshine pop owing equally to the Beatles' Getting Better and his own Let Him Run Wild, while keeping the waltz time chorus identical to the original. It turns the song upside down and inside out, and I've been unable to stop humming it since. It's the work of a musician at the height of his powers and confidence.

For the last ten years, fans have been expecting Brian Wilson to (at best) retire and (at worst) drop dead. From the release of his album Imagination, which re-established him as a solo performer, time and again he's done things (touring, performing Pet Sounds in its entirety, facing the legacy of Smile, completing Smile) that we've said would have to be the peak, the ultimate. Time and again we've said "there's no way he can follow that. It'll all be downhill from here - but that's OK, he's given us more than we could hope already." Time and again he's not only followed it, but done something exponentially, unimaginably better. Even if That Lucky Old Sun proves in the cold light of day a lesser work than Smile, it's a work that can be compared to it, and he wrote it in a matter of months rather than over a period of forty years. For a man people were writing off as having lost it before I was born, that's an astonishing comeback.

For the first time, I feel confident in not saying "he can't top that" but instead saying "how's he going to top that?"

I can't wait to find out.

Love Punks released

Just a very quick post to say that Love Punks Want To Make You Cry, the new EP from my band The National Pep, can now be purchased by paypalling $5 US/ £2 UK to andrew@thenationalpep.co.uk , and will shortly be available from our CDBaby page , where our previous EP, Citizen Gomez, is still available for $5 (or $1 as MP3s).

I'll be posting a review of the Brian Wilson gig this evening. For now, I'll just say... wow...

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Love Punks Want To Make You Cry - Some Crass Commercialism

I mentioned briefly in my last post that my own band, The National Pep, have an EP coming out in just over a week. Since posting that, I've received the final mixes from my collaborator Tilt Araiza, and have put them up on last.fm for streaming. If you can, please check them out - I'm especially proud of Jaded, which I honestly believe is the best track you'll hear this year (and I say that despite, rather than because, of my co-authorship of it). And those of you who came here from my comics blog will find the lyrics to Degrees Of Freedom strangely familiar.

If you like it, it'll be on sale in a little over a week. And right now you can buy our first EP, Citizen Gomez, for $5 as a physical CD or $1 as MP3s from CDBaby (or you can buy the tracks from iTunes if you prefer DRM'd .aac files).

Let me know what you think - I'll try not to do too many of these commercial posts.

That Lucky Old Sun

September 10 sees the premiere of a major new work by possibly the most important songwriting team alive today.

But enough about Love Punks Want To Make You Cry by The National Pep...

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks are premiering their new song cycle, That Lucky Old Sun, in London on September 10th, and I am amazed at how little anticipation there is for this work.

The last ten years have been amazing ones for Wilson. After his brother Carl's death in early 1998, he released his first solo album of new material in ten years, Imagination and then did what many people would have thought unthinkable - started touring regularly. And not just that, he kept setting the bar higher and higher for himself.

First, he got together what is, bar none, the best live band in the world today. The technical skill, devotion to the music, and feel for music his band have is extraordinary. (To take just one example, I'll buy any record featuring multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, despite him being 'merely' a sideman, because he's invariably on good stuff - he plays with the Wondermints, Cosmo Topper, The Negro Problem, The Now People, Stew, The Mello Cads and probably half a dozen more bands I can't think of, and every one of them is excellent).

He then started performing some of his most obscure, but greatest, songs live. Most of his fans would have bet ten years ago that they'd never hear live performances of The Night Was So Young, 'Til I Die, Busy Doin' Nothin' or Friends - Wilson showed that those 'unperformable' songs could be performed in a live setting and would work, and raised the bar so far for what people expect from a live performance of Beach Boys music that now even Mike Love's touring 'Beach Boys' perform 'Til I Die and Friends on tour.

Then he performed the whole of the Pet Sounds album live, and then followed that with something that no Brian Wilson fan could have dreamed of - the completion of the album, Smile, that had been left unfinished for nearly 40 years.

Smile, in its final form, is a masterpiece I want to talk about at a future date, but the important thing about it is that it was infinitely better in its finished version than the bootlegged and released individual selections from it suggested. This was partly due to the structure of the album, and partly due to the additional lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, which tied together all the themes of the album quite brilliantly.

The structure is what's important when considering what That Lucky Old Sun will be like. Wilson has always been a master of dynamics and juxtaposition - several times he's elevated rather weak material to something like greatness. Much of Pet Sounds, for example, taken song-by-song, is actually only average for Wilson. It's the flow of the album, the way he guides you through the emotional peaks and troughs, and the placement of the few truly great songs, that makes the album what it is.

I point this out because some people (myself included) are rather underwhelmed by the one track from That Lucky Old Sun we've heard so far, Midnight's Another Day ( available for free download at http://brianwilson.com ). A few people appear very impressed, but I honestly can't see why - it sounds like the kind of impressionistic mooing we got on Cry from Imagination.

However, this song doesn't sound like a Wilson/Parks collaboration - there are problems with the lyrical scansion ( the stress on 'sun' and 'over' in the second and third lines, the melisma on 'now shades of grey', and many more) that suggest the lyric is at least in part Wilson's - being primarily a musician Wilson sometimes ignores the natural stress-patterns of the English language rather than change his melodies. Parks is usually a good enough lyricist to make this unnecessary.

So as an individual song, this is unimpressive. But as part of a larger work, it could be astonishing. And there is every evidence it will be. Wilson and Parks have two great collaborations behind them - Smile and Orange Crate Art (the latter effectively a Parks solo album, but with Wilson on lead vocals). Both are also adept at working in pre-rock songs into their work - neither man is a rock & roller by nature.

But what really interests me is that Wilson has announced that the piece will be a narrative, with ten songs in five sections with spoken narration between them. Wilson has attempted this form before, on the startling "Mount Vernon & Fairway: A Fairytale" from the Holland album. That piece, which I urge you to track down and listen to, is the most outrageously brilliant, audacious, avant-garde thing Wilson ever did. If Wilson and Parks can come up with anything even close to that, I will be the happiest man alive on September 10. And even if not, well, it'll still be a great Brian Wilson gig, and ten years ago I never thought I'd see one of those.