We reviewers get some strange albums floating across our desks every now and then. And Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin has to be one of the stranger albums that has crossed my path. While I appreciate Wilson and the classic Beach Boys sound, Gershwin is sacred ground and I went into my first listen with my arms crossed and a great big scowl on my face. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised.
Wilson has said in interviews that the music of George Gershwin was a big influence on his own songwriting. The Gershwin Estate granted him special access to Gershwin’s music and gave their blessing for the recording. Some of the tracks miss the mark, but the vocal and instrumental arrangements are inventive and the album is beautifully produced. While not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, about half of the recording is, if not blessed, at least enjoyable.
“‘S Wonderful” is backed by a gentle bossa nova beat. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is given an upbeat, raucous ’50s arrangement. Doo-wop and piano triplets update (at least to the mid-20th century) “I’ve Got a Crush On You”. Wilson provides relatively straightforward arrangements underneath “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” the loveliest track on the album. The most overt Beach Boys arrangement is a thoroughly delightful “I Got Rhythm”.
When Wilson’s interpretations stumble, they do more than scrape their knees, and his selections from Porgy and Bess are particularly unappealing. With its sinuous blues accompaniment, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is the least offensive of the group. But “I’ve Got Plenty of Nuttin'” is wasted on an instrumental-only arrangement, and Wilson seems totally adrift on “Summertime”. You have to wonder if he even listened to the lyrics of “I Loves You, Porgy”.
The Estate also gave Wilson permission to use snippets from two unpublished Gershwin melodies to create a couple new pop songs. “The Like In I Love You” and “Nothing But Love,” with their classic Beach Boys-style arrangements, are arguably the best tracks on the recording because there are no expectations or preconceived notions of former interpretations going in.
If any album was a candidate for single-track downloading on iTunes, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is it. I’m also not sure who the target market for this release is. Wilson and Beach Boy completists perhaps. Most Gershwin fans will steer clear. Still, Wilson’s love of the material shines through and he seems to be having a lot of fun. If you pick and choose with discretion, you should too.