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August 16, 2010

New Brian Wilson album puts a Beach Boys stamp on music of George Gershwin

It doesn't carry quite as much of a surprise factor as it might have some years back, before so many pop/rock stars felt the urge to sing standards from the great American Songbook, but the album by the near-legendary Brian Wilson due out on Tuesday certainly commands attention.

A Disney Pearl release, "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin" -- it could have been called "Gershwin Goes Surfin' " -- puts the iconic leader of the Beach Boys and a great deal of that group's vintage sound into a blender with some of the 20th century's best loved songs. It's very much a time-travel kind of recording; it would have had no trouble soaring to the top of the charts in, say, 1966. "I Got Rhythm," for example, sounds so idiomatically and infectiously Beach Boys that it's hard to believe it's not some long-lost flip side of a single from the old days.

The newsiest aspect of the release has to do with

two songs freshly written by Wilson, based on fragments Gershwin never got around to finishing -- the Gershwin estate approved this unusual project. "The Like in I Love You" (with an arrangement that sounds a bit like the Carpenters trying to imitate the Beach Boys) and "Nothing But Love" both rock along amiably, but don't quite rise to a particularly high level, melodically or poetically.

Wilson, in sturdy voice, is backed by a tight group of instrumentalists and backup vocalists on the album. He also did the dynamic arrangements. The rich a cappella treatment of the lyrical theme from "Rhapsody in Blue," used as bookends for the recording, sounds even more fun in our "Glee"-ful day. A touch of Sergio Mendes-worthy styling gives "S' Wonderful" an effective lilt. The string intro to "Someone to Watch Over Me" suggests a wry reference to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby."

One of the coolest achievements here is Wilson's approach to "I've Got a Crush on You," which moves the clock back even further to poodle-skirt time -- this is a great spin on stereotypical '50s devices. There's also an effective sampling from "Porgy and Bess," including a bouncy "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' " and a smoky "I Loves You, Porgy" (it's neat to hear Wilson singing that song without concern for the gender references in the lyrics -- that, too, is a kind of throwback to earlier days of popular music).

Wilson doesn't seem interested in making strong interpretive statements; his phrasing tends to stay within the lines. He's not trying to channel his inner Sinatra here. If the tracks vary in their persuasiveness, there's something fun about the whole recording. It's a testament to Wilson's considerable talent -- and, of course, the timeless, generation- and genre-spanning allure of George Gershwin.

Here's a taste of the new disc, the Gershwin/Wilson song, "The Like in I Love You":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:47 AM | | Comments (4)


Exhibit A for copyright reform...

The record is streaming all week on AOL's Spinner:

Tim: Yes, I couldn't agree with you more that Wilson isn't trying to make strong interpretive statements in this collection. I'm not sure I agree with the Carpenter's comparison but that's ok. And I too thought of the Beatles "Eleanor Rigby" Fair Review!

Thanks for the comments. TIM

Wilson's rendering of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is entirely infectious -- a perfect marriage of the Gershwins' tune and words with the "surfer" sound. It sounded like the song had been written for this arrangement.

And yes, it was good to hear Wilson deliver Bess's love song to Porgy without apology.

Thanks for the comments. It really is cool how easily Gershwin fits the surfer style. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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