- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

Brian Wilson

Gettin’ in Over My Head

BriMel/Rhino

Brian Wilson’s first studio recording in six years, “Gettin’ in Over My Head,” shimmers with the thrill, fear and risk of doing just that.

By turns audacious and exasperating, this overdue outing by the Beach Boys’ creative engine overcomes some awkward moments with innocence of purpose and exhilarating musical invention.

Mr. Wilson, who turned 62 on Father’s Day, scored his first No. 1 record (“I Get Around”) 40 years ago this month. He is a rightful icon of American pop who doesn’t seem to realize he’s long since left his record-producing hero, Phil Spector, eating his dust.

“Over My Head,” just the third “solo” studio work by the painfully shy singer-composer-producer, follows his unlikely revitalization as a touring artist. That return peaked early this year with London performances reconstructing the Beach Boys’ storied “Smile” project.

In huge news for ever-hopeful Wilson fans, Nonesuch Records this fall will release his re-envisioned recording of “Smile.” The ambitious follow-up to “Pet Sounds” was abandoned in 1967 by its 25-year-old composer, beset by personal demons and retreating under the stress of competing with the Beatles and his own group’s lack of faith in him. Just two jewels pried from it, “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” are widely known today.

For the CD at hand, Mr. Wilson reached into his songbook and plucked seven of 13 compositions from a decade or more ago, fleshing them out and adding six new numbers that don’t quite stack up.

The charge of seeing “Smile” lyricist Van Dyke Parks credited as co-writer of “Waltz” dissipates amid a succession of “clever” couplets (sung in waltz time, natch) about a recalled high school fixation on a girl in an angora sweater. This one doesn’t wear well.

David Foster’s trite lyrics for this disc’s Spectorian guilty pleasure, “Fairy Tale,” recall the Righteous Brothers at their most bathetic.

Yet the CD brims with Mr. Wilson’s disarming shifts in melody and heady, layered harmonies. His 10-piece touring band (captured in concert on “Live at the Roxy” and “Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds”) finally gets the chance to back the boss in the studio. Not on vocals, though: As on 1998’s “Imagination,” Mr. Wilson again chooses to do nearly all of that job himself.

Two exceptions are meetings of mutual admirers: The opener, “How Could We Still Be Dancin’,” is an infectious rocker on which Elton John shares the boisterous lead and pounds out some boogie-woogie piano, while the mawkish “A Friend Like You” features Paul McCartney chanting the title lyric in a too-tidy supporting role.

A third guest star, guitarist Eric Clapton, delivers a scorching solo on the astounding rave-up “City Blues,” surely the most ferocious-sounding Brian Wilson track ever to see official release.

The three other solo compositions — all dating to 1990’s never-released “Sweet Insanity” album — are “Make a Wish,” a childlike injunction on changing the world; “Rainbow Eyes,” a trippy love song; and “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel,” a ballad of exquisite insecurity.

Most satisfying are four songs reclaimed from among many Mr. Wilson co-wrote and recorded with the versatile Andy Paley in early ‘90s sessions that never saw official release.

The title tune is the most compelling descendant of “Pet Sounds,” and this band — with Mr. Paley on percussion — is more than up to the standard. Its emotional fragility is at the heart of much of Mr. Wilson’s music, a counterpoint to the braggadocio of the Beach Boys’ classic surf and car songs (think “Please Let Me Wonder” or “Don’t Worry Baby” rather than “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “Little Deuce Coupe”).

The delightful “Desert Drive” roars along like one of those mid-‘60s road runs, including a hilarious shout-out to Wayne Newton, and was intended for a ‘90s reunion. Here the Boys’ sound is celebrated in backing vocals by Mr. Paley, guitarist Jeffrey Foskett and keyboardists Scott Bennett and Darian Sahanaja.

“Soul Searchin’” is an R&B smoker with a gorgeously forlorn lead vocal by late brother and fellow Beach Boy Carl Wilson, originally cut for the unrealized reunion project. The fourth Wilson-Paley collaboration, the goofy “Saturday Morning in the City,” is another whimsical slice from the life of Brian — the sort that elevated such overlooked Beach Boys albums as “Friends” and “Sunflower.”

It’s a blessing to have Brian Wilson back.

Trivia buffs, note: The collage on the CD’s cover is by Peter Blake of “Sgt. Pepper’s” fame.

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