Sunday, 30 March 2008

More on That Lucky Old Sun

I've not written anything about music in far too long - other commitments (mostly work, but also my course, the book I'm working on and my comic blogging) have kept me from it. And now, when I'm starting to blog about music again, it's about the same thing I wrote about six months ago, That Lucky Old Sun.

It's strongly rumoured that this album will never be finished, and if it isn't that's one of the biggest crimes I can imagine. Even in the unfinished forms in which we have it, it's a minor masterpiece. The rave reviews I wrote six months ago when the album first came out were a little hyperbolic - I was writing those after only one hearing, and that hearing was at the live premiere of the piece. Given that I'd gone into it merely hoping that it would be OK, hearing it and discovering it was really good was enough to start me raving.

I was going to wait til the actual album release to do a more balanced appraisal of the music, but given that that may never happen, and that I've recently managed to obtain a copy of the demos (no, I'm not sharing these publicly - I don't want to even give the appearance of eroding the market for this) , as well as having had an audience recording of the gig I attended since a couple of days afterwards, I thought I'd do my best to cover the album in the only forms in which it currently exists.

There's been some debate as to how much of the album is Brian Wilson's work. as there was with his 2004 completion of Smile. While I don't claim to be a party to the process by which those things were put together, it's common knowledge that Darian Sahanaja (the Billy Strayhorn to Wilson's Duke Ellington) helped stitch together Smile and that woodwind player Paul Mertens wrote the orchestrations for it. In the same way, keyboardist Scott Bennet (whose contributions I ignored in my earlier review, because he wasn't credited in the publicity I'd seen) wrote at least some of the lyrics for That Lucky Old Sun, as did Van Dyke Parks, Mertens provided the orchestrations, and I would be very surprised if Sahanaja didn't also help pull the pieces together. Many people (usually those who want to believe a myth of Wilson as a brain-damaged vegetable controlled by Machiavellians around him, rather than the doubtless more complicated and nuanced reality) have claimed that Wilson had little or nothing to do with this work.

But at the same time, as with Smile, this sounds to me like a Brian Wilson record, and my guess is it's at least as much his work as any of the Beach Boys albums for which he's famous. He had collaborators then, too - his band, the session musicians, the lyricists with whom he worked. But the thing that convinces me more than anything that it's mostly his work is that, both in the live performances and even more so on the demos, he sounds in better voice than he has in decades.

Since at least the mid-70s, Brian Wilson has been a notoriously patchy vocalist, who can sound flat and unenthused, almost robotic, a lot of the time. He only gives a good performance when he's really enthused by the material, and here he's singing strongly and enthusiastically. It sounds like Brian Wilson.

Having said that, as I go through the songs I'm going to attempt to guess who contributed what. Without any information from the participants themselves, I can only go by my knowledge of their styles, so I'll almost certainly get things comically wrong. In particular I'll almost certainly underrate Scott Bennet's contributions - Brian Wilson is probably my favourite living songwriter, Van Dyke Parks is both a personal favourite of mine and one of the most truly decent people I've ever had the pleasure to have (all-too-brief) contact with, while I'm not really familliar with Bennet's work. But I'll try anyway. If anyone has any actual knowledge (rather than unfounded speculation like my own) please let me know.

In a way, this album infuriates me, in that Brian Wilson has made the album my band, The National Pep, were talking about making last year, except he's done it much better than we could. While the phrase 'rock and roll' comes up over and over again in the course of the album, in fact much of this hearkens back to pre-rock popular music. The big influences here aren't Phil Spector or Chuck Berry, though both show up round the edges, but George Gershwin and Stephen Foster. More than anything, it reminds me of Orange Crate Art, the collection of Van Dyke Parks songs that Wilson sang lead on in 1995, and like that album it's a celebration of California, but not just the sun and girls California of the early Beach Boys music, but the real place. It can really be seen as the third part of a trilogy of which Smile and Orange Crate Art are parts one and two.

Going through this, I'll be referring to the demos and the live performances interchangeably, except where I note one or other specifically. Both are needed, really, to have an idea of how the finished album would sound. The live performances contain sections that were obviously written after the demos were recorded, short extra linking passages or instrumental sections, and have much fuller arrangements (much of the demos are keyboard and vocals only, while the live performances were by a ten piece band and eight-piece string & horn section), but are (at least in the versions I have) poor recording quality, and Brian often mumbles the lyrics. The demos, on the other hand, are much simpler but also much clearer.

The album starts with That Lucky Old Sun. Oddly, this had never really been a song I'd paid attention to prior to this album bringing it to my attention, but it's one that I should have noticed, as I'd heard it enough times - I have versions by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong and probably half a dozen others. Wilson takes the song apart, completely rewriting the chord sequence and turning it into a rewrite of Ol' Man River. The version here is very abbreviated, just the first verse, before going into a gospel flavoured chorus of 'ooh mama yama glory hallelujah', a phrase which Brian first mentioned wanting to use in a song in an interview in the mid-1970s. All through the album we find little pieces like this - ideas he'd mentioned, or we'd heard in little snippets on demos, brought back and thrown into the mix.

After this we have Morning Beat. Based around the Shortenin' Bread riff Brian has used so many times, this is reminiscent of City Blues from his last album of new material, Gettin' In Over My Head, except it's actually good, sounding something like a non-ironic I Love LA before swerving into a clip-clop country ballad middle sectiom which references Kurt Weill's September Song. It's indicative of the depth of the material here, incidentally, that even this trivial, fluffy opener has by my count four separate melodic ideas (the bluesy verse, the middle section (which is itself as twisty as something like This Whole World), the ooh mow mamas and the short stop-start 'I listen to the morning beat' section). This album is almost fractally detailed, the melodies seeming comfortingly familliar but always going somewhere slightly unexpected.

After a brief narrative section (one of several spoken sections written by Parks, all describing the city of LA), the album goes into Good Kind Of Love,a bouncy pop song with the slightly-swung beat and staccatto piano chords that people think of as characteristic of middle-period Beach Boys but that are actually more like Paul McCartney. Lyrically, it reminds me of Friends Of Mine by The Zombies, a celebration of two other people's love, and once again it has a section that just goes in a completely different direction (the section beginning "the sun keeps on shining" which ties into the main themes of the album and builds up to a thick gospel sound for a couple of lines), but what really stands out here is Paul Mertens' orchestrations.

Mertens has never really been given the credit he deserves for his string and horn parts on Wilson's recent albums, but he's got a very distinct, unique voice as an arranger that makes his charts sound very different from anything else Wilson has done. I suspect part of the reason he's not more admired is that as a performer he's patchy - he does a great King Curtis honk, and his bass harmonica is wonderful, but when given a solo on a ballad he wanders dangerously into the territory of Kenny G or new age - but his arrangements add a totally new tonal colour to Wilson's palette. They sound a lot like Van Dyke Parks' work (when I first heard the completed Smile I assumed it was Parks who had done the strings) but with a more European flavour - I swear I can hear Kurt Weill and Bartok both in there.

Here he outdoes himself. While the arrangement for the band itself (presumably either Wilson or Sahanaja's work, probably the former) is excellent, playing a lot with the colours of different instruments and the dynamics of the band, Mertens combines George Martin-esque strings on the slow sections with skittering Stephane Grappelli-esque violin, big band horns and a simple but effective woodwind countermelody (unfortunately the quality of the audience recordings doesn't let me hear what woodwind Mertens is playing - I think clarinet, but it could be anything in a low register).

The whole song reminds me of You Touched Me from Gettin' In Over My Head, but much better thought out, with much more different sections and better lyrics. It's like an expansion on and refinement of the earlier song, which I enjoyed for itself anyway.

Forever My Surfer Girl is one of the weaker songs, and one where I could believe that someone other than Wilson wrote the bulk of the music - there are three ballads on here that just don't sound very much like Wilson's work, so I'm happy to give Scott Bennet credit for the bulk of the work on those (which is not to say that Wilson didn't contribute - but in any songwriting partnership the initial idea for a song can be brought in by either party, and I suspect those were Bennet's initial ideas). I could be wrong of course, and I certainly wouldn't put money on it, but on the other hand these are definitely Bennet's lyrics, and musically it does sound like some of his solo material.

It's also the first song to explicitly reference Wilson's earlier work and life, not only in the title but in the opening lines ("summer of 61/a goddess became my song") and I may well be less enthused about this song just because those two lines make explicit something I have always found implicit in Wilson's work, and I don't think it needs to be spelled out. There are Wilsonesque touches here and there (the Be My Baby drumbeat), but they sound more like someone trying to sound like WIlson than they do like Wilson himself (although it could be a case of Picasso being able to forge a Picasso as well as anyone). Still, a decent song, and one that fits in with the album as a whole.

After another narrative section (the Narrative Of Venice Beach) we come to Live Let Live. This is just a lovely song, with the unmistakeable lyrics of Van Dyke Parks (and in fact it sounds musically a lot like Parks' work too). A gorgeous little waltz with lyrics that seem to sum up a lot of Wilson's work ("I've got a notion we've come from the ocean and God almighty has his hands on the water), full of playfully dumb internal rhymes and puns that come out the other side of stupid to sound clever and rather touching. While there are things in here that Wilson's done before (the arrangement sounds slightly like Kiss Me Baby and the chorus hook is lifted wholesale from Sail On Sailor), it's a far more mature, crafted song than we would normally expect from Wilson (whose rough edges have sometimes been part of his appeal). While it lifts from Sail On Sailor it's a far more life-affirming song than that one, being a positive 'yes!' rather than merely choosing to struggle on because that's what you do. It's the work of a man whose storms have finally becalmed themselves, at least for the present. It's a sweet, pleasant song with a stunning melody, by far the highlight of the set, and it must get released at some point even if the rest of the album doesn't, although it'll lose out by being out of context.

After a brief instrumental reprise of the That Lucky Old Sun theme, again beautifully orchestrated by Mertens and throwing in plenty of Ol' Man River we go into the upbeat Mexican Girl. This song is in many ways a complete departure for Wilson, sounding authentically Mexican, at least according to my friend Tilt Araiza, who knows more about these things than I do (although my wife Holly, who also knows more about these things than I do, says the Spanish is horribly mangled). The closest reference in Wilson's earlier work is South American, but where that was a joyless pseudo-Kokomo with as much joie de vivre as an office party, feeling like someone saying "now, we all like a bit of fun - I'm a Jimmy Buffet fan myself - but let's be sensible about it", this is a carnival. And like a lot of the songs here it's flat out funny at points - you can hear the tongues in cheeks as the band sing "hey bonita muchacha/let me know that I gotcha".

One thing, though, the main repeated melodic phrase (in for example "your castanet/on the day we met") is incredibly familliar to me but I can't place it. It's from (or sounds like) something from Sweet Insanity or that general period, but I can't think what.

After the Narrative of De Mayo we go into California Role, the only song (at least live) that Wilson doesn't sing solo lead on himself (he sings the middle eight), being sung by Nick Walusko (I think) through a distortion filter made to sound like a megaphone at the beginning and then in unison by several of the band later on. A vaudeville feeling song, sounding like it could have been sung by Rudy Valee, at least at first, the punning lyrics (the title refers not only to the 'rolling round heaven' elsewhere in the album and the 'finding your place' theme of the lyric, but is apparently a type of sushi, or so I am told) which at first seem life-affirming are, on examination, quite callous - "the Hollywood sign bursts through the smog and reawakens your dreams/living under this sun disappointment's not as bad as it seems", "Sometimes you've got to edit your dreams/and find a spotlight behind the scenes", although it's for the listener's own good - you probably won't become a film star, but you can still find a place for yourself if you try.

What amazes me, in this song and in the album as a whole, is the level of invention and inspiration. A lot of these songs don't follow any conventional verse-chorus-middle-eight structure at all, but instead take the listener on a journey, often covering multiple musical styles in the space of a single song, and defying conventional analysis. Most of them do have something that can be labelled a verse and something that can be labelled a chorus, both of which will be repeated at least once, but then they're full of sections that never get repeated. It's a discursive, rambling style that has a confidence, an arrogance to it that I associate with writers much younger than Wilson - people who think they have their whole lives ahead of them and they can throw as many ideas as they want into a song because there's a dozen more where that came from. Something like Autumn Almanac by the Kinks (written when Ray Davies was 22) has a similar structure. The best songs here have that arrogance of youth but coupled with a sense of life experience that can only come from someone of Wilson's age.

After a gospel-tinged contrapuntal 'roll around heaven' singalong and the Narrative Of Between Pictures we come to Oxygen, possibly my favourite song on the album, although not the best. The 'open up open up' opening of the song is one of Wilson's best nursery-rhyme melodies, similar to the intro to Happy Days/tag of On A Holiday. This intro is one of the two or three points in the album (the first line of Live Let Live being another) which causes an actual physical reaction in me - literally heart-stoppingly gorgeous for a few seconds, for reasons I can't explain. The song then becomes (mostly) an upbeat song about seizing the day, from the perspective of someone who has spent far too long 'wasting a lot of years'. It also illustrates the impossibility of knowing just from listening who did what on these songs. The lyric as a whole is pure Brian - it fits in with dozens of songs he's written in the past from H.E.L.P. Is On The Way to Life Is For The Living to He Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body To Move - but the one line "skip the vices verses get to the refrain" sounds like Parks, and I don't think Wilson could have written that line - his mind just doesn't seem to work that way.

Next we have a short section of Been Way Too Long, an old Beach Boys track from 1967 that was left unreleased until 1990. When seeing this live, this was one of the most emotional moments, thanks mostly to the use of footage of the three Wilson brothers together in the overhead projection. Incidentally, I'm firmly of the opinion that the best release of this would be as a DVD - the animations and other film segments created for the show were the best integration of 'multimedia' into a musical performance I've ever seen, and the narrative sections especially benefitted from them enormously.

After this comes Midnight's Another Day. This is one of the other songs that I suspect owes at least as much to Bennet as to Wilson - it does resemble some of Wilson's other songs to an extent, but they're ones, like Cry, that don't sound very Wilsonesque. And I must here admit to a horrible tin ear. The demo for this song was downloadable from prior to the shows, and while everyone else was raving about how good it was I thought it really wasn't very good at all. In part, this was due to some very real flaws in the song. The scansion is all over the place - the stresses sound like bad comic book speech bubbles with random emphasis, and there's a ridiculous overuse of melisma. But these faults blinded me to the song's real strengths. Some of the clunkier lines actually refer back to phrases that have run through the album as a whole, and the whole album has been building up to this. Adding the fuller arrangements and the context of the rest of the album makes the song's flaws seem utterly trivial. The line 'all those people make me feel so alone' is just heartbreaking. The song works, and that's all there is to it. The song ends with a reprise of the Lucky Old Sun theme.

Going Home, which comes next, is a song that dates from (I think) the mid 90s originally, having been demoed for the Beach Boys and widely bootlegged. Much like Morning Beat, this is based around the Shortenin' Bread riff that's always obsessed Brian, and includes the 'rock, roll, rockin' and a rollin'' vocals he's always tried to get into songs (see his unreleased cover of Proud Mary for example), but even in this simple song he suddenly takes a left turn, dropping down to an a capella unison chant of "at twenty-five I turned out the lights/'cos I couldn't handle the pain in my tired eyes/but now I'm back drawing shades on bright blue skies".

The last song, Southern California is another one which sounds like it's more Scott Bennet's work (notably he sings lead on this on the demo), and it has some of the flaws of Midnight's Another Day without that song's strengths. The song only really takes flight on its very last line, when a falsetto countermelody comes in ("oh it's magical that it happened to me"), before tailing off into mama yama glory hallelujahs.

The album is patchy, and sags toward the end, but it's never less than interesting, frequently attains greatness, and it's obviously the work of someone trying to create something that works as a unified whole.

I have probably sold Scott Bennet short in this review, simply because he doesn't have the track record of Wilson or Parks. For all I know he was responsible for all the best moments, but if you heard a song credited to Lennon/McCartney/Smith, I suspect you wouldn't credit Smith with the good bits either. But everyone involved in this deserves an immense amount of credit, and they deserve to see this album released.

I'll be posting about Superman tonight or tomorrow...