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REVIEW: Brian Wilson, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (MCA)

The notes and ideas of Brian Wilson have ended up everywhere, appreciated more and perceived as cooler once disguised in non-Beach Boys settings: Paul !McCartney’s bass lines, punk-pop, John Cale, the Pixies and Frank Black, REM, even Def Leppard harmonies. And there’s no question that occasionally the ideas are done better (see the Descendents’ “Wendy”), but the point remains. It’s amazing how much music improves for a lot of people with the subtraction of candy-striped outfits and the addition of dark shades, distortion and/or a hard drug addiction. And that’s because it’s impossible to hear music as pure sound since the history and social context of the music alters the listener’s brain, which is where music happens anyway.

So when I say that Brian Wilson’s voice is a little broken and out-of-tune in this disc and that the Don Was production is slick, session-musicianly and sometimes fantastically inappropriate, that isn’t meant as a knock on the listening experience. Because context is everything and the Brian Wilson myth is one of fallen child genius overindulged and constantly manipulated for commercial gain. And frankly, most people had written Brian off as a raving lunatic incapable of getting out of bed, much less making music.

Even though I’ve hyped the “come peep at the tormented and manipulated boy genius” angle, it’s good that the song selection here is generally outstanding. The songs are pulled from all across the years of Brian’s output, from the early JFK-inspired “Warmth of the Sun” to the two best songs from the Wilson solo album from this decade. He sings in his “mature” voice (“mature” = lower register, ragged, old, weird and slurry, covered in flange), but his voice fits the mellowness of the songs chosen. And he’s never sounded so child-like and frightened as when he ends the line “there’re a lot of people out there hurting and it really scares me”. He also sounds genuinely playful on “Wonderful”, which is not a bad idea, but I’ll stick to the box set version since the real kick of the song is in the godlike precision of the harmonies which really enhances the fairytale-ness of the surprisingly good Van Dyke Park lyrics.

The point is Brian still has a lot of personality, which can’t be said about the arrangements and playing. The good sounds come from a refinement of the original ideas in the songs (altered “Caroline No” milkbottle beat, big warm piano sound on “This Whole World”), and the atrocious come from straying too far (the nightmarish flute solo on “Caroline No”). This is true even when the performance is good, for instance the backup singers sing soulfully, but that doesn’t really fit with the BW program. The arrangements are slick, but in Pet Sounds orchestras have a real distinctive voice, and these sounds are anonymous. I really doubt Brian had much input on this album. Just the fact that he sings out of tune is a dead giveaway, since he used to be a maniac for in-tuneness (thus Mike Love’s complaint “Who’s going to hear these mistakes, the ears of a dog?” that named Pet Sounds).

If you’re only a fan of peppy Endless Summer Beach Boys, skip this. If you’re a fan of Pet Sounds and on, this is worth a listen. If you are a Smile fanatic, you have already purchased this disc. If you are a reflexive BB hater, this disc may not convert you unless you are only familiar with candy-striped bozos carrying surfboards. That might have been the best result of the documentary this disc is attached to: introducing people to the more thoughtful and mellow side of Brian Wilson. In the end the documentary was a bit of a letdown for me, except for the music, which, as I said above, is really enjoyable for socio-econo-political-voyeristic reasons. “This Whole World” is a real polished gem, “Do it Again” was charmingly retro even in 1968 and is in retro-overdrive in 1995, and “Melt Away” and “‘Til I Die” are stunning, beautiful songs by any standard. If you’re running Audiodeck 2.5 or a comparable Audio CD player, program it to cut off the flute solo in “Caroline No” and skip the curiosity-demo “Still I Dream of It”, then sit back and relax and feel the dissonance in your head as the frustrated, drug-and-age-ravaged, developmentally-arrested child-man genius sings, “and when I go everywhere, I see love, love, love” and means it.