September 4, 2008

A Beach Boy’s Lucky Old Album ; Wilson Soars With Nostalgic Song Cycle

By Clay McCuistion

A lushly orchestrated tribute to life and love in Southern California, That Lucky Old Sun is a late-career triumph for Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson. The album, full of catchy tunes and choral vocals, would sound good coming from anyone. But the fact that it comes from a 66-year-old who has endured mental illness, drug abuse and family tragedy makes it a minor miracle.

Wilson's weathered voice can still soar when the mood strikes, and his devoted backing band members and co-writers have united to create an album of profound nostalgia, pain and humor. It isn't Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' 1966 teen-angst classic. But what is?

Planting the seeds

The seeds for this comeback were planted four years ago, with the resurrection of the legendary Smile album. Originally meant for

the Beach Boys, that project was abandoned by Wilson in 1967 amid group infighting. Over the next four decades, it became known as a lost pop-psychedelic masterpiece.

Wilson returned to Smile in 2004. He had been on the comeback trail since the '80s, writing songs and releasing a handful of solo albums that veered from inspired to insipid. But no one expected this. And no one expected the finished Smile to be any good.

It was.

The ensuing tour, album and live DVD were rapturously received. Wilson was hailed once again as a pop music genius. That, so it seemed, was that. Long-delayed project finished, career capped.

But no one told Brian Wilson. Instead, freed from the psychic weight of a lost classic, he began composing new songs. A lot of new songs. With band member Scott Bennett assisting, he wrote about exercising, love and life in Los Angeles.

The songs sounded different. They took risks with content and structure that Wilson hadn't tried for years. They breathed with new life and energy.

In an interview with London's Independent last year, he described it this way: "Something just got into me. I wrote 18 songs last summer. When it rains it pours, and I put my buckets out and caught everything I could"

Elaborate presentation

The results of that deluge of inspiration arrived Tuesday in That Lucky Old Sun. The 10 new songs are linked by verses from Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks and the old standard that gives the album its title.

That's right - it's a concept album. What's more, the concept (following the California sun from morning to night) actually succeeds.

The concept came after the songs. In 2007, Wilson was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall in London to create a song suite. He, Bennett and fellow band member Darian Sahanaja took the new songs and stitched them together, adding more about Southern California and Wilson's past.

This shouldn't have worked - concept albums rarely do. Who listens to Pink Floyd for the storylines? But Wilson has bested that challenge before; Smile, with its evocations of frontier America, worked. And so does That Lucky Old Sun.

Perhaps it's because of the concept's vagueness. Perhaps it's because Brian Wilson's songs have so often turned to California and his own story for inspiration that it doesn't feel like a departure. Whatever the case, the songs, verses and musical fragments weave together beautifully.

Inside the album

Each song works in its context, but standouts include the 1960s- style "Good Kind of Love," the pro-exercise stomper "Oxygen to the Brain" and the bluesy "Going Home." An honorable mention should go to "Mexican Girl," a tune so charmingly dorky it could only be written by a 60-something rock star who's spent too much time ogling LA's Hispanic population.

The album's centerpiece, though, stands as "Midnight's Another Day," a gloriously despairing evocation of the dark night of Brian Wilson's soul. A mournful melody, impassioned lead vocal and subtle string arrangement combine for four minutes of overwhelming emotion.

Does That Lucky Old Sun succeed on all fronts? Of course not. The lyrics don't always gel. Wilson's delivery of Parks's poems can stray off course. And at 40 minutes, the album could easily include a few more new Wilson-Bennett songs.

Yet the sheer vibrancy of creative vision overwhelms any shortcomings. This is not a Beach Boys album. This is not a revival of a Beach Boys project. This is a true Brian Wilson album, produced with the band and co-writers who musically support him today.

Brian Wilson has worked for, and earned, the triumph that is That Lucky Old Sun.

Originally published by Clay McCuistion Monitor staff.

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