When the Beach Boys performed in the studio, there was an ineffable quality to the blend of voices that made their sound unique. Far more than the sum of its parts, the band left a trail of hit records and an indelible mark in pop music history.
The artist behind such early Beach Boys classics as, “I’ll Get Around” and “Surfin’ Safari”, to the far more mature and complex, “God Only Knows” is Brian Wilson. In today’s music culture, the word, “genius” is overused and has become somewhat diluted. Unfortunate when you consider only the full power of that label aptly describes Brian Wilson’s vocal arrangements.
At 69 years old, Wilson is still at work and with a newly released sophomore effort on the Disney Pearl label, the second of a two record deal he struck in 2009. His first album was a unique experiment, “Brian Wilson Re-imagines Gershwin”. This outing he takes on material perhaps more familiar to today’s audiences, eleven songs from the Disney catalog on the album, “Brian Wilson: In the Key of Disney”.
At first glance this may seem an odd pairing, but after reading the press release last year and giving it some thought, I realized there was great opportunity for these tunes to be re-imagined as well into something uniquely Brian Wilson. This he has certainly accomplished, but the work is uneven and many of the tracks lack the vitality of the original recordings.
In 2005 Wilson worked integrally with his band, a session group called “The Wonderments” and again collaborated with Van Dyke Parks, lyricist for the long since thought lost, “Smile” album. The completion of that CD and its accompanying DVD, “Beautiful Dreamer” were an enormous success, partly because the public could hear the completion of a record that had nearly passed into myth, but even more so that crack musicians and vocalists were used as Brian’s canvass on which the artist could paint his intricate soundscape. The finished product harkened back to the days of an experimental sound that was years ahead of its time and deservedly won Wilson’s only Grammy Award.
Drawing from the Disney well, however, appears to have limited Wilson’s ability to move beyond his early bubblegum surf pop sensibilities, which while in their time were enormously popular, now seem tired and a bit hackneyed. The arrangements are rife with lots of signature “Oooos” and “Aaaaahs” that support the lead vocal. But when compared to the complex open vowel harmonies on songs like, “The Warmth of the Sun”, “A Children’s Song” or “In My Room” that stretched the boundaries of what could be accomplished vocally in pop music and paved the way for bands that followed like Steely Dan and Queen, the harmonies on several tracks of this record are bland and uninspired.
Instrumentally the disk is slick and well produced with solid arrangements supporting the vocals, but layering the beach vibe on top of songs like “The Bare Necessities” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” smothers the energy inherent in the songs themselves. Part of that comes from Wilson’s own lackluster, over processed performance. In his live appearances, he sits behind a keyboard with his arms at his sides in front of a bank of monitors feeding him the lyrics of his own material. In that setting the live band invigorates the music regardless of Wilson’s invariably heavy, pitchy delivery. Here, auto-tuning only exemplifies the chasm of time that separates the man’s former soaring, effortless falsetto, to today’s limited vocal range… and the Disney lyrics feel phoned in.
Gratefully a few of the ballads and a jaunty medley do lend themselves far better to Wilson’s touch. “Baby Mine” from Dumbo has exquisite background vocals that echo the best of Brian’s work of the late 60s and early 70s. “Stay Awake” from Mary Poppins, widely accepted as Walt Disney’s favorite song, is positively haunting, with intricate subtle use of harpsichord and vibraphone and a beautiful alto flute solo. The whimsical medley of “Heigh-Ho / Whistle While You Work / Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” is joyful fun. The album finishes with the indestructible, “When You Wish Upon a Star” with tight, interesting vocal harmonies, and drawing upon instruments that evoke the Pinocchio story’s Italian origin.
Few could fault the selection of songs which make up “In the Key of Disney”, nearly all classics, but downloading the individual standout tracks is the best way to add to your Disney music library.