Friday, May 1, 2015

Review - Brian Wilson "No Pier Pressure"

"No Pier Pressure", Brian Wilson's first solo album of new material in seven years, and his first project released in the aftermath of the Beach Boys' 50th Anniversary tour and album, offers fans a textured mixture of new and old. The album features heavy involvement from a number of guests, pulling in very old friends and some new. Those still waiting for a Johnny Cash style career renaissance either artistically or commercially may not find it here. The album doesn't break any new ground, but it doesn't have to. The point, in my opinion, is to keep creating. To this end, this new album is a gift to fans. 

Using a number of associates found on the 2012 Beach Boys album, "No Pier Pressure" in some ways continues in both theme and production style what we last heard from Brian with the Beach Boys. 

Much of the publicity behind the album has invoked the Beach Boys, and for good reason. As the Beach Boys's anniversary tour wound down in 2012, it appears clear that Brian (as well as Al Jardine) pretty strongly desired to keep going with the full, reunited Beach Boys lineup both in the studio and on tour. To this end, Brian envisioned his next album to be another Beach Boys album made in a similar format to 2012's "That's Why God Made the Radio." With a cache of unfinished songs from that 2012 album, in addition to a large cache of songs from Brian's late 90's collaborations with Joe Thomas (which also formed the basis for the 2012 set), Brian seemed primed to do what he does best with the band: use them as his instruments, and in the best way possible. Brian seemed more at ease in the studio and on tour with the Beach Boys than he had in years. Clearly, he enjoyed being in a band. He didn't have to do all of the heavy lifting, and it allowed him to finely arrange those voices that he knows better than anyone. 

But this was "not to be" as the press release for "No Pier Pressure" delicately and diplomatically puts it. Mike Love chose to go back to his own band, which licenses use of the Beach Boys name for touring purposes. As the months and years passed, Love aired some of the issues he had with the format of the band's anniversary projects. At the end of the day, whatever the reasoning, it was back to being a solo artist for Brian. 

Perhaps keeping in mind how much he thrived in a group format, Brian utilized this format in alternative ways. 2013 saw him touring with fellow Beach Boys David Marks and Al Jardine. He also reconnected with 1970's Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin, enlisting Chaplin in the studio as well as select live dates. In 2014, he continued to record and did sporadic dates, keeping Al Jardine with his band for most dates. 2015 will see him touring again with Chaplin and Jardine.

Some wondered if the 2013 departure of Brian's long-time right-hand man on the stage and in the studio, Jeffrey Foskett, might negatively impact Brian's momentum. It did anything but. Brian quickly enlisted long-time studio and Beach Boys live band member Matt Jardine, son of Al, to accompany him.

Brian would later admit that both he and collaborator Joe Thomas had been exposed to their kids' music. With this exposure also came a stated desire to be "cool" with their kids. Thus, Brian and Joe called up a number of younger, up-and-coming artists to collaborate to varying degrees. But make no mistake. This is not a "Duets" album. Not only does a good hunk of the album feature Brian alone on lead vocals, but one will find that Brian continues to use these "guests" as if he's still dishing out parts to a band. How much "No Pier Pressure" resembles a "what could have been" Beach Boys album will never be known, but one wouldn't be out of line for suggesting that at least some of the guests are functioning as adjunct, honorary Beach Boys. 

"No Pier Pressure" continues Brian's deep working relationship with Joe Thomas. Nearly all of the tracks on the album are Brian/Joe co-writes, and Thomas also garners a co-producer credit alongside Brian. Simply put, Thomas' work with Brian continues to be a mixed, but productive blessing. Continuing the trend from "That's Why God Made the Radio", Thomas has taken a step back from the more overt role he took with Brian in 1998. Unlike 1998, Joe is not in the touring band. He doesn't appear alongside Brian in interviews. He is much less visible. Also, whether due to the passage of time and change of musical and production tastes, or due to factoring in past criticism, Thomas has toned down his abrasive production and arrangement style. Brian's 1998 "Imagination" album was criticized by many fans as sounding too slick. Thomas was enamored with that "Adult Contemporary" sound. Some feared Thomas was trying to turn Brian's rich music and productions into Kenny G. But in this new 2010's iteration, Thomas has scaled it back. 

That doesn't mean Thomas isn't still a key, audible player. Some of Thomas' production techniques are still there on "No Pier Pressure" in all their glory. Heavy use of oboes and other woodwinds, incessant use of claves and other tinkly instrumentation and percussion, those hallmarks and more are still there. As we will see, this continues to be a mixed blessing. What can't be denied, though, is that Thomas is one of a very select group of collaborators over the years that have been able to facilitate Brian not only creating, but being productive and getting material released.

Given the current climate both in the music industry as well as the fan community, one would be remiss for not tackling the loaded topic of "Autotune", a prevalent audio production tool that has been in increasingly widespread use for the last 15 years or so. While spectators and audiophiles have occasionally tackled this subject as it pertains to Brian's music for many years (questions about the use of vocal sampling/synthesizers have been around since the Beach Boys' 1985 album and Brian's 1988 solo album), the heavy discussion of the topic came to the fore in 2012 with the overt apparent use of autotune on the "That's Why God Made the Radio" album.

Let's get something out of the way: Unless we have an engineer admit to using autotune, we will simply never know what was done to any piece of music. There's no other way to know. Even people who have been in the studio while the stuff is being recorded can't tell you whether autotune was used. Period. All we have is our ears, and for some, a familiarity with the audio anomalies that autotune (and other pitch correction software and effects) introduces. We also have our deductive reasoning.

Unfortunately, some Brian Wilson (and Beach Boys) fans can sometimes be an overly-forgiving, ultra-defensive lot. Yes, there are some cynics with an agenda who will use the autotune accusation as a way to get extra digs in on Brian. But there are plenty of levelheaded, informed fans and commentators who might observe the potential use of autotune. This reviewer is one of them. I think it, or similar effects, are present on this album to varying degrees. The effect is rather muted and subtle compared to the previous two Beach Boys albums (the studio and live anniversary sets). That those albums received a good amount of criticism for excessive use of autotune could well be one of the reasons a more gentle hand is used on “No Pier Pressure.”

The album has been issued in two formats: a "standard" 13-track album and a "deluxe" 16-track album with three additional tracks added into the middle of the album. One or the other of these versions appears to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick. I will be reviewing the 16-track album, and for all intents and purposes I consider this version to "The Album." 

Additionally, some international markets as well as exclusive Target stores in the United States have added two additonal, unrelated bonus tracks. I will address these two tracks at the end. 

The album kicks off with "This Beautiful Day", a short piece that offers an earnest and unvarnished lead vocal from Brian. That's right, that's 72-year-old Brian working up to a falsetto. It sounds just like it should. His voice cracks and strains, but he pulls it off. Rich harmonies, some lovely strings, and some trumpet noodling from guest Mark Isham help round out the track. Some fans have also cleverly noted that, perhaps intentionally, the melody from "Summer's Gone", the last track on Brian's previous album with the Beach Boys, is woven back into this piece. It seems too much of a coincidence. "This Beautiful Day" continues Brian's trend of having the balls to kick an album off with a quiet, somber, meditative piece instead of a barn-burning, uptempo number. 

Likely due to Capitol trying to push the track as a defacto single, we get a rather jarring segue into the next track, "Runaway Dancer." Starting life as "Talk of the Town", the song was reworked when Brian invited Sebu Simonian (of the group Capital Cities) to tweak both the song and the production. The result is the most jarring, divisive (for fans) track on the album. Simonian glitzes the track up with lots of electronica. Synths and electronic beats abound. The track is surprisingly and refreshing still mostly written by Brian (and Thomas), but the production is all Simonian. You can tell how old a fan is, perhaps, by whether they invoke the phrase "disco" when hearing this track. It ain't 70's disco, but it resembles modern "techno dance pop" to the degree any older fan can discern. Is it a good song? It's a catchy, but unmemorable composition.

“Whatever Happened” pops up next, and features cameos from Al Jardine and David Marks. This track is somewhat emblematic of a good hunk of the album. It’s a pleasant, relatively simple mid-tempo track, vaguely in the style of Brian’s mid-60’s productions. It doesn’t offer any super interesting hooks or unexpected chord changes, and as with a number of the tracks, is a bit hampered by the overbearing mixture of the mid-60’s production sound and Thomas’ slick latter-day production ethos. As one review put it, sometimes this arrangement and production style sounds a bit like the music you’d hear at a wedding for Peter Cetera and Kenny G. As with much of his work on the previous Beach Boys album, David Marks’ guitar work here is layered in, and comes in the forms of riffs more than any solos. Thus, to be frank, he’s imperceptible to all but the most ardent Marks fans who are intimately familiar with his playing style. Al’s vocals are woven in to good effect. As with the previous Beach Boys album, a number of tracks on “No Pier Pressure” tend to offer vocals that are somewhere in between a “lead” vocal and a “background” vocal. Several voices, sometimes from two different singers (e.g. Brian and Al) are layered together and mixed in a kind of mush that I’m not a particularly big fan of. This isn’t like the clever way John and Paul sometimes sang leads in unison on early Beatles records. When we can hear a clear and concise single lead vocalist, and certainly when harmonies come in at full force, this song and the album really shine. Overall, a rather middling track that counters its bland aspects with some good vocal work from Al.

Offered up next is a Bossa Nova-ish track from Brian, “On the Island.” The track features the duo of “She & Him” (Zooey Deschanel on vocals and M. Ward on guitar). Nearly a solo Zooey track, Brian teeters on the edge of kitsch in penning this track with Joe Thomas. Deschanel offers a voice tailor-made for such tracks. That is to say, her voice is far more about tone than vocal prowess. She is technically a fine singer, make no mistake. But as with some material of this genre, the tone sticks out more than the virtuosity of the vocal. More impressive and appealing are Zooey’s vocal stacks, with Brian popping into the stacks for the quick choruses. If you’re inclined to like the female chanteuse sound of this genre, you’ll love the song. I’m not that into Bossa Nova myself; it may be blasphemous to point out I’ve never been that enamored with “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” for instance. But one track like this is an enjoyable diversion, even if it’s a bit of a novelty piece.

For the first time in ages, Brian gives us an instrumental in the form of “Half Moon Bay.” Centered around the recognizable, simple repetitive two-chord motif we’ve heard in some other Brian-Joe tracks (think the last part of “From There to Back Again” before Brian comes in), the underlying sparseness of the chord changes are countered with some wonderful wordless harmonies and nice string work. Guest Mark Isham offers trumpet work that quickly wavers back and forth between subtle and understated and elevator cheese. While the mixture of trumpet and some of Thomas’ production touches are excessive, this is still an enjoyable piece.

After some time digesting this album, I have to say “Our Special Love” is the verifiable low point of the album. Written by Brian and Joe and featuring guest vocalist Peter Hollens, the track is overly-synthetic and garish in its use of autotune. Hollens rose to relative fame thanks to a series of YouTube videos where he offered layered, complex vocal harmony performances. I can’t say how much those performances used autotune, but it’s in overdrive on this track. It doesn’t help that Brian has given Hollens one of the more contrived, insipid compositions to work with (the title itself is as bland as can be for crying out loud). It comes across as a Brian reject that was fished out of the garbage can and given to Hollens to have his way with. Hollens offers all harmonies here, including percussion in the form of some lame beatbox-ish work. But it all fails rather miserably, as the whole thing gives synthetic boy band cheese a new meaning. Mediocre song. Embarrassing title. Cloying lyrics. Questionable guest star. Synthetic performance. It’s all uphill from here though, folks. That’s a good thing. Apparently, this mix differs noticeably from the version issued some time back on Hollens’ own album.

A slightly un-Brian-like sound kicks off the next track, “The Right Time.” The organ and jazzy chords in the intro almost give off a quick “Santana” vibe, if only for a few brief moments. Featuring an Al Jardine lead vocal, this track is another one that is emblematic of several on the album. Al offers a sterling lead vocal (with son Matt doing some nice falsetto), and the song is pleasant and catchy and relaxed. The verses have a few jazzy chord changes under Al’s lead, while the chord sequence on the chorus, as many fans quickly noted, is indeed lifted straight from “Lay Down Burden” off Brian’s “Imagination” album. That both Brian and Joe co-wrote both songs in question is not without some justification to note. While the song is pleasant and the chorus slightly catchy (if quite formulaic), I find myself noting the track more for Al’s lead than the song itself. Sorry to say, if anyone else had sung the song, it would be even less memorable. The editing on the song/track doesn’t help either; it seems to move too quickly into the chorus (another verse first might have helped a bit), and the mellow repetitive “right time” chant leading into the middle solo also goes on too long. Interestingly, this was the first track sold as a pseudo-single off the album, and it’s interesting that they chose what is essentially a Brian-penned Al Jardine solo track (Brian does pop in occasionally bridging the verses and choruses). David Marks is billed on guitar on this track as well though, as previously noted, his contributions are difficult to distinguish.

It’s back to the guest spots for “Guess You Had to Be There”, sung (and co-written) with country singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves. Interestingly again, Brian hands over most of the vocals to Musgraves here. The song itself is simple and catchy, in that order. There’s only so much one can do with a simple three or four-chord progression. Brian arranges and he and Kacey sing some nice melodic vocal stacks here. But again, the harmonies are more interesting than the song itself. The song is spiced up with some modern-day typical “country” arrangement bits. Musgraves’ lead vocal has also been extensively processed using either autotune or something else that seems to be going out of its way to sound just like autotune. It gives the lead vocal a rather phasey, synthetic quality. Yes, she has double or triple-tracked the vocal. But it sounds nothing like “old school” double or triple-tracking.

We next dip into the three “deluxe edition” bonus tracks which, as previously mentioned, I will treat as album tracks rather than tacked-on bonus material. “Don’t Worry” sounds like a 90’s attempt at a 70’s slightly blinged-out dance number, complete with pulsating horns (whether fake or real or both) and chugging guitars. It kind of sounds like the stuff the Spice Girls used to fill their albums out with in the 90’s. Indeed, given the late 90’s vintage of some of the Brian/Joe numbers, this song (and maybe even some of the recording) may date from the late 90’s. It’s fun to hear something sort of out of the ordinary for Brian. But this isn’t quirky genius so much as off-model noodling.

“Somewhere Quiet” is the long-discussed attempt at tacking on lyrics to the old 1965 instrumental “Summer Means New Love.” A collaboration with Scott Bennett (one of only two tracks on the album not sporting a Joe Thomas co-writing credit), it’s certainly as good as someone possibly could do to shoehorn lyrics into an old melody that was not written for them. It’s easy to assume any awkward phrasing or meter in the lyrics are due to simply being programmed to hear this song as an instrumental for 50 years. But objectively speaking (especially for me, as someone who has never been a huge fan of the original track), the lyrics do seem a bit clumsily phrased. An interesting curio for long-time fans, but a rather bland “throwback” sounding track isn’t going to win any new fans (or reviewers) over. An un-billed Al Jardine weaves through the backing vocals along with Brian.

“I’m Feeling Sad” is perhaps most noteworthy for Brian’s penchant for writing very simple, direct song titles sometimes. Despite the title, the track is a bit more bouncy and musically upbeat. Brian takes another stab here at "everyday" lyrics, to mixed effect. Wistful is perhaps another possible descriptor. While the overall impression and production still has a Thomas-esque sheen, the track still has enough Brian-isms to keep things interesting. Plus, great layered backing vocals. I could do without quite as many "bops" and "doos" as far as wordless Brian vocal parts, but that's a minor complaint.

As for “Tell Me Why”, see the previous comments about “Whatever Happened.” Most of the same deal applies here. Al offers some great punchy lead vocals, and the entire thing sounds like a modern-day Thomas-tinged attempt to do a mid-60’s “production number” like those heard on “Today.” Excellent as always backing vocals. But the song is again too bogged down in gobs of mid-60’s and Thomas-inspired schlock on the arrangement side.

Easily the stand-out track on the album, “Sail Away” is a collaboration with the “That’s Why God Made the Radio” team of Brian and Joe along with Larry Milias and Jim Peterik. This song ain’t “Pet Sounds II”, but it’s the most enjoyable track on the album. With a lead vocal trading off between Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine, and Brian, the song starts off with its weakest element, a slightly cheesy rip-off of the “Sloop John B” flute riff. After that, we get a slightly sea chanty-ish melodic tune offering simple but effective lyrics and excellent vocals all around. Most importantly, the chords here are great. Again, it’s not “This Whole World” or anything, but it’s a bit more varied but still immensely catchy. The production, flutes notwithstanding, is also less cluttered. This track is about as punchy as the drums are going to get on this album, for instance. Hard-edged it’s not, but even a “yacht rock” sound is welcomed at this stage. The unquestionable album highlight.

The other Brian-Scott Bennett co-write on the album, “One Kind of Love” was apparently written and recorded for the “Love and Mercy” biopic. Sounding compositionally markedly different from the Brian/Joe stuff, the song itself is pretty solid I’d say. Some interesting chords, an earnest lead vocal from Brian. The production is still too saccharine. While the drums are punchy (if sounding a bit like 80’s drums), I could do without the trumpet/flugelhorn sound that makes it sound like a “Full House” transitional music cue. I also like some of the Brian-heavy punchy, layered backing vocals. For better or worse, this is one of the more solid all-Brian tracks on the album.

“Saturday Night” is a tough one to review. Written by Brian and Joe and once again a near solo lead vocal from younger singer Nate Ruess, it sounds nothing like a Brian track. But it’s catchy and simple, in that order. It’s modern day pop/rock. It has the most simple of immensely catchy chord changes. For some reason layered with a bunch of country-ish adornments (banjo, mandolin) despite Ruess not appearing to be a country singer, the track offers a solid lead. I’m not that into his voice. It’s a bit bland and unremarkable, but its higher register allows him to own the song quite well. Some nice (again, as always) backing vocals flesh the track out.

The highly-anticipated “The Last Song” closes out the album. Originally pegged as a potential duet with singer Lana Del Rey (how much recording actually took place with Del Rey has been debated), the somber, emo, slow-paced track that eventually builds up into a larger production indeed sounds similar to some of Del Rey’s work. In terms of quality (not actual composition), this track actually reminds me quite a bit of “Summer’s Gone” off the last Beach Boys album. It’s an effectively emotional track, tinged with unavoidable sadness and direct links to Brian and the Beach Boys’ story which fans can’t help but be emotional about. It features pleasant, simple chords, and relatively simple lyrics. It just doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot like classic Brian works do for me. It’s just not musically memorable enough. I don’t even mind the (hopefully) meaningfully simple wordless “la la la” vocals.

In writing about each track on this album, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there’s less on the positive than on the neutral or negative side. I feel like the album as a whole holds together better and is more enjoyable than my individual track commentaries would suggest. All I can really add is that I’m glad Brian continues to make music. Integrating Al into the fold is the best decision Brian has made in years, and his prowess for arranging and recording group vocals is second to none. I don’t feel like “No Pier Pressure” is Brian’s best solo work, but it’s a welcome addition to the catalog.

The Target-exclusive edition offers two extra, unrelated bonus tracks.

The first, and far more interesting, is a 1975 Brian studio demo (simple vocals and piano) for “In the Back of My Mind.” Not surprisingly similar in ambiance to his 1974 “California Feelin’” demo released on the “Made in California” set, the recording features Brian’s voice in what can only be described as somewhere in between his early 70’s still-youthful whine and his later 70’s raspy, lower register voice. Brian re-writes portions of the song here, and it sounds like a rather impromptu (or at least unpolished) take on the song. This would have been perfect for the “Made in California” set. I can’t imagine how they arrived at the decision to pick this as an extra bonus track here, but I can’t complain given that there is still a relative paucity of “Brother-era” outtakes out there officially released. The context of this recording (why was he re-writing/re-recording the song?) may be more interesting than the actual performance is entertaining, but either way, this is a boon to scholars of the band.

A take on “Love and Mercy” is also included, and we quickly find upon listening that this is the same recording released as part of a medley with “Walking Down the Path of Life” as a single a decade ago. The “..Path of Life” song has simply been clipped off the front, leaving a nice sparse take of “Love and Mercy” that mirrors the live arrangement Brian used in concert at the time (which excises the wordless bridge part of the song). Less of a boon to collectors given it was released years ago, but still enjoyable.

1 comment:

  1. It damn well IS blasphemous not to like Busy Doin' Nothin'. I'm ashamed at you, good sir!