Gettin' In Over My Head
is Brian Wilson
's third solo album of original material, released in June 2004. Encased in a horrible Peter Blake
cover, the music inside, while patchy, is some of Wilson's best in decades.
First, a bit of history - between his two 'proper' solo albums, 1988's Brian Wilson and 1998's Imagination, Brian Wilson recorded material for two unreleased albums. The first was a finished album, called Sweet Insanity, which had moments of utter splendor (Rainbow Eyes and Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel among others) but was slathered with synthesisers,had terrible lyrics courtesy of 'psychiatrist' Eugene Landy, and contained such atrocities as Smart Girls, Brian's attempt at rap ("My name is Brian and I'm the man/I write hit songs with a wave of my hand" , "Wouldn't it be nice if PhDs/Were stroking me with hypotheses" , "God only knows where I'd be/Without smart girls, hip hop and harmony") which bore more than a passing resemblance to the theme tune from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.
The second effort was a series of collaborations with Andy Paley towards a projected new Beach Boys album. These songs were some of Wilson's best in decades, but it was very debatable how much involvement he had in them - many sounded very much like Paley's own earlier attempts at Brian Wilson pastiche.
While the songs from these sessions were more or less ignored during the making of Imagination, this new album consists almost entirely of thes songs, reworked and in many cases with new lyrics.
A quick summary - this is Brian's best solo album by far, and the first one to sound like a Brian Wilson album, but it is definitely flawed. The vocals are uniformly awful, and the lyrics are dreck. But the arrangements...
How Can We Still Be Dancing, the opening song, is a duet with Elton John. Many fanboys love the a capella, multi-tracked Brian opening (except where I specifically mention otherwise, Brian does all the lead and backing vocals), but the fact is that this, and Brian's screeching, slurred, vocals, stop this from being an obvious radio hit. The lyrics are stupid, but it's a nice mid-tempo rocker with good vocals from John (who I normally loathe), although his pronunciation of 'how can we' as 'hah!' is... idiosyncratic, a nice horn riff, and good boogie piano, also from John.
Soul Searchin' is even better, a really excellent track dating from the Paley sessions. This is the much-bootlegged demo recording with some overdubs (primarily vibraphone and saxophone). Mostly written by Paley, this is a soul/doo-wop flavoured song, with a lead vocal from Carl Wilson (taken from an abortive Beach Boys session). There's not much to say about it except that it's really, REALLY good, and makes one wish the Beach Boys album it was demoed for had been finished.
You Touched Me opens with more off-key a capella harmonising, before turning into a track reminiscent of The Beach Boys' Christmas Album - the vocal melody in the verses is very similar to Merry Christmas Baby, although the chord sequence and chorus/middle eight melody come from a mid-80s demo called Turning Point. The lyrics to this, by Steve Kalinich, are horrible, awful, excrescent, tenth-rate, puerile, prosaic, dreck - and this is coming from someone trying to be nice to him because he's a friend of my good friend Susan. It's not so much that the sentiments could come from a Hallmark card, although they could, but more that the expression of them is so clunky and clodhopping. Someone please, PLEASE tell this man that there's a difference between scansion and merely counting syllables. Or better, break all his fingers and sew his mouth up so he can never commit lyric again....
Melodically it's nice though, and the arrangement is *gorgeous*. It's mostly based around Paul Mertens' bass harmonica and baritone sax, with some nice touches from Darian Sahanaja on vibraphone, but what really makes this track is Mertens' string arrangements. He arranged most of the strings on this album, and on the live Smile tour, and he did a magnificent job - there's a pre-rock, European style to the violin parts that makes me think of Stephane Grappelli, a style I would never have associated with Brian Wilson's music (although strangely it sounds VERY like Van Dyke Parks) but which works perfectly. Mertens' taste is sometimes questionable as a sax/flute player - he veers too much towards lounge music for my tastes, although he does a great honk - but as a string arranger he adds an element to Wilson's music that has been sorely missing.
Wilson's vocals on this are also his best in many years. He's singing at the top of his current range, but without screeching or straining - it's just confident, strong singing, other than the rather poor intro.
Gettin' In Over My Head, the title track, is another song from the Paley sessions, and is the most obviously Pet Sounds-esque song on the album. The lyrics ("I try to be strong but that isn't so easy for me/I wish I could figure what this thing will turn out to be") deliberately echo the themes of that album, and the music, apart from a rather incongruous AOR lead guitar line, goes in the same direction. A vibraphone line reminiscent of that from Til I Die, bass harmonica, bubbling top end bass, lead harmonica, clip-clop percussion (thankfully this album sees a return to Wilson's use of percussion as an interesting instrument in itself, rather than the AOR drum kits of the previous albums), this is simply gorgeous. The vocals are slightly weak, but not poor, just a little slurred, and the lyrics are the best on the album - actually MAKING SENSE!
City Blues, on the other hand, is a godawful train wreck of a song. Dating from the 1981 'Cocaine Sessions', it's amazing Brian managed to remember what little bit of a song there is here that long, given that it's mostly just an excuse for a clumping riff, but this manages to take a non-song and make it worse with the addition of 80s synthesiser, a squealing guitar by Eric Clapton and alternately screeched and slurred vocals. Probyn Gregory and Paul Mertens do their best on the horns to redeem it, but this sounds like a less-good version of Hot Shot City by David Hasselhoff, something I'd never have believed possible...
Desert Drive is a MUCH better variation on the same theme. A fun 12-bar car song based very loosely on the riff from Salt Lake City, and mostly by Paley, this features Brian's band on backing vocals, including some very silly falsetto (in a good way) from Jeff Foskett. It's slightly overlong (the middle eight is repeated to give the excuse for extra solos which aren't really necessary), and the vocals again aren't especially good, but this is FUN, and any rock song that references Wayne Newton is A Good Thing.
A Friend Like You is another horror though. Supposedly a 'duet' with Paul McCartney, it sounds like the song wasn't finished when McCartney came in, as he only takes the title line as a solo line, sings low harmony to Wilson on the choruses, and scats some ooh-ooh backing vocals in the second verse, even though it was obviously *written* as a duet - there are parts clearly in different ranges. McCartney also apparently played the horrible Adult Contemporary acoustic guitar part on this. But musically the song is actually OK, although hardly great and with some really horrible vocals from Wilson, if it weren't for the appaling, dreadful, horrible, disgusting, very bad Kalinich lyrics. Kalinich should be shot for his crimes against the English language. "A friend like you, a friend like you/You're so patient and so thoughtful/A friend like you, a friend like you/You're so tender and so precious" would be banal enough were it not for the fact that the lyrics simply
DO NOT SCAN. COUNTING SYLLABLES IS NOT THE SAME AS GETTING THE FUCKING STRESSES RIGHT! THIS MAN HAS BEEN WRITING LYRICS AND POETRY FOR FORTY FUCKING YEARS, SOMEONE PLEASE PLEASE TELL HIM THIS NOW!!!!
Thank you - I feel much better now.
But the lyrics aren't just technically bad, they're simply banal, stupid and pointless, which also goes for Make A Wish, a song originally recorded for Sweet Insanity and rejected for a benefit album for the Make A Wish foundation. Quite a nice track is scuppered irredeemably by Brian's own lyrics this time, which not only have the same problem of having the stresses in the wrong place, but are also of the generic-protest-about-not-very-much style one associates with Phil Collins at his most annoying. REALLY, Brian? You honestly think that 'finding cures for all disease' and 'love replacing hate and fear' are good ideas? I never would have thought of that without you telling me. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
Rainbow Eyes, the second Sweet Insanity outtake, is much, much, much, much better. A lovely, simple song, like a nursery rhyme in the best way, the production on the bridge and chorus is perhaps a tad bombastic, but what one takes away from this is simply the gorgeous melody and the childlike, but not childish, lyrics. This also has some of the best vocals on the album, at least on the single tracked stuff (the multi-tracked harmonies on this album are generally the worst parts, amplifying mistakes that in a single-tracked vocal go unnoticed. This album really suffers from the lack of other vocalists), and some nice Mertens string parts (criminally low in the mix). One tiny niggle is the change of the word 'insanity' to 'conspiracy' and 'psychedelic' to 'everlasting', both changes presumably at the request of Wilson's wife, but anyone coming to these songs fresh rather than after a decade of listening to the bootlegs wouldn't notice that.
Saturday Morning In The City is a song dating from 1988 but recorded in 1996, apart from a couple of recent overdubs. A very silly, fun little song in the tradition of The Beach Boys Love You (or even more so, Adult Child), the very childish lyrics ("Saturday morning in the city, oh yes it's saturday morning in the city/Next door they're having a garage sale/Rover is barking now OK here's the mail") covers up an astonishing amount of musical invention for a song that only lasts 2 minutes 59 seconds. This is a mini-suite with at least three totally different melodies, and all sorts of instrumental touches that would take weeks to list, little honking and squeaking things all over. I love it.
Fairy Tale on the other hand is horrible. Co-credited to David Foster , because Chicago released a different version with different lyrics, but totally written by Wilson, this started as a Sweet Insanity outtake called Save The Day, and was bad enough on that album, with lyrics similar to those of Make A Wish, all about how the power of love can save the day. But this is worse, with DREADFUL lyrics about knights and dragons (dragons which can apparently cast spells). It sounds like the theme to an 80s children's film like The Dark Crystal or something. And it's FAR too long at 5:34. It's a shame, because there's the germ of a good melody in here somewhere, under the poor production and dreadful lyrics.
Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel is another song from Sweet Insanity, and one of the best songs he's ever written. Unfortunately Brian has NEVER managed to get this right - this is the fourth attempt to record it, each time with different verse lyrics and a different arrangement - which is a shame, because the Platonic Ideal version of this I have in my head, a composite of the best moments from all four versions, is simply gorgeous. Even as it is though, this is a lovely song, albeit badly produced, and the chorus ("Don't let her know she's an angel/Don't let her know that you see/Don't let her know that she's touching me/I'm scared that she'll want to go free") sums up the theme of all his best songs. I still think the best single version is the demo recording from 1988, with just Brian at the piano, but finally having this gorgeous, beautiful song out even in a flawed version still makes the album essential for this alone.
The Waltz is a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, based on an old Sweet Insanity song called Let's Stick Together (which featured "Weird Al" Yankovic on accordion), the lyrics to this read horribly ("She had a body you'd kill for/You hoped that she'd take the pill for") but when sung they work wonderfully. It's amazing how VDP lyrics make a song SOUND like a Van Dyke Parks song, no matter who wrote the music. But actually this is as much Paul Mertens' track as Wilson's - his Parksian string arrangements and bass harmonica parts drive this track. This is a love it or hate it track - I love it and I think anyone who likes Van Dyke Parks will love it as well. It's a wonderful, witty, melodic track redolent of a bygone age, and a fitting close to a horribly flawed album with moments of sublime beauty
For the most part the band on this album was Wilson's touring band, except on the Imagination outtake How Can We Still Be Dancing?. That band consists of:
Jim Hines - Percussion
Bob Lizik - Bass
Andy Paley - Percussion, Vocals (that is the official credit, but he undoubtedly played more)
Todd Sucherman (of Styx - Percussion, Drums
Darian Sahanaja (of the Wondermints) - Percussion, Piano, Keyboards, Vocals , Vibraphone
Nick 'Nicky Wonder' Walusko (of the Wondermints) - Guitar
Probyn Gregory (of the Wondermints, The Negro Problem et al) - Guitar, Trombone, Trumpet, French Horn, Keyboards
Jeffrey Foskett - Guitar, Vocals
Paul Mertens (of Poi Dog Pondering - Woodwinds, Harmonica, string arrangements
Plus various string players.