Brian Wilson's Love Letter To Southern California
Californians like to sing songs about California. Actually, so do non-Californians, just ask the Ramones. Even they know Rockaway Beach is a dump. Call it civic pride or just common sense, a song about the sun shining and the top rolled down is never a bad thing in this town: you can look out the window and sing along about three hundred and fifty days out of the year.
The great songs about So Cal surf and turf are many, and a lot of the best ones were written by Brian Wilson and his various pals years ago. It’s not all he wrote about, of course. The Beach Boys sang about proper foot care, their favorite health food store and the merits of Johnny Carson during the seventies. And he wrote some unbelievably poignant songs about loneliness, betrayal and resignation that will force pain out of your speakers and into your life if you let them.
Since returning to the stage in 1998, he’s released two solo albums that contained their share of pleasant moments, but not much of substance. It was still quite gratifying to see Brian and original collaborator Van Dyke Parks finally complete their surrealist symphony from 1966, SMiLE, in 2004. But he hadn't left much cause for optimism in terms of new work.
So it’s nice to report that on That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol), he’s started staring at the sun again, and delivered a heartfelt love letter to his homeland. It’s not hard to imagine that digging LA would continue to inspire the elder Wilson, and with co-writer Scott Bennett and his highly qualified backing band, including several members of local retro-pop heroes the Wondermints, he’s finally made the album we've long known he was capable of.
It's not exactly the Beach Boys you remember, although those signature choirboy/doo-wop harmonies are always there. In tone and spirit, this album most closely resembles the band's late 1960s/ early 1970s era that included the albums Sunflower and 20/20, although there are flashes of SMiLE's cockamamie instrumentation and use of connective tissue to bond the pieces together. But what this album has that his last few have missed is a continuous stream of ideas, solid melodies under those flowery arrangements.
Stylistically, there's everything you expect from a Brian Wilson album at this point, a couple of gentle, lilting ballads (Midnight's Another Day, Southern California), a couple of Do It Again-styled boogie stompers (Morning Beat, Going Home), a rockabilly waltz (Live Let Live) and even a cornball groaner that still feels like a goofy good time in Mexican Girl. "Hey bonita muchacha/ don't you know that I want ya", as the mariachi horns kick in... it's pretty funny, though it turns oddly sweet a moment later as he wonders "Could you picture me/ In your family tree?"
While Wilson's voice isn't ever again going to be the remarkable, soaring instrument it was in the 60s again, he's singing with a confidence and commitment that we haven't heard in a while. He and his sympathetic backing musicians, most of whom have been with him for almost a decade, had the benefit of touring this material through Europe prior to entering the studio, and they're playing extremely well together. For once, a Brian Wilson solo album feels like a fully-realized piece of work.
This weekend, Brian and his band will close out the Hollywood Bowl's summer season. All those great Beach Boys songs about our town, the ones you already know the words to, will be heard, along with a handful of new ones (these shows won't feature the entire Lucky Old Sun, as his recent Oakland show did, though they will do a few selections.) It's quite a rare occasion when a 60's rocker is playing live and I wish he'd play more songs from his new album. But an evening of Brian Wilson's Greatest Hits, on a late-summer night at the Bowl complete with fireworks show, is still one of the most essentially LA experiences you can possibly have.
Brian Wilson performs at the Hollywood Bowl Friday, September 12, Saturday, September 13, and Sunday September 14. Tickets, $10 - $114, available at Ticketmaster.
Go to http://www.brianwilson.com/media/index.html to see Capitol's promo video for That Lucky Old Sun and watch Brian's appearance on Nissan Live Sets.
Photo by James Minchin III, used by permission.