Getting In Over My Head

I seem to come from a different musical background from many of the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans I have met (both in person and on-line) over the last few years inasmuch as I liked just about everything on ‘Imagination’, Brian’s last solo album.  The production did it no harm to my ears and, for that matter, neither do the jingly synthesizers on Brian’s eponymous first solo effort.  Lyrics also come second to the music for me…always.  Most seem to disagree.  I don’t mind.  For what it’s worth I always preferred ‘Sweet Insanity’ to the ‘Paley Sessions’ as well – even the honesty of ‘Brian’ (a.k.a. ‘Thank You’) 

And therein lies the reason for my initial slight disappointment in ‘Getting In Over My Head’.  Six of the songs on this ‘new’ album are to be found in other guises on the first rejected version of ‘Sweet Insanity’.  Several of the first few ‘fan’ reviews I read stated that Brian had simply taken the backing tracks and inserted new vocals – I had been hoping for complete new recordings.  By and large these reviewers were wrong; the only wholesale transmigration of a backing seems to be on ‘Soul Searchin’, fortunately, and even that is debatable.

My initial listenings seemed to trigger all sorts of unexpected responses – no ‘beep beep’ in ‘Saturday Morning’, missing ‘bow bow’ backing vocals in ‘Soul Searchin’ and “what the heck have they done to ‘Angel’?”  Now, with the disc having been in the car a fortnight and the wife, kids and I walking round all day singing bits I feel I ‘know’ ‘Getting In Over My Head’ well enough to attempt a review and I am reminded of those days of youth when I trawled the record shops to find Nilsson albums I didn’t own, finding them, taking them home and playing them – only to find they couldn’t possibly live up to everything I had built them up to be…at first. 

Like those Nilssonian gems ‘GIOMH’ is a GROWER!  I wouldn’t part with ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ for the world…and now I’m sure Brian’s new album will also be at my side for what left I have of life.  Not that I’m saying it’s perfect…OH NO!  But it has already become a friend…and that’s all I ever want to ask of any Brian Wilson album these days. 

So…the songs:


How Can We Still Be Dancing. 

30 seconds of ‘Our Prayer’ type ‘a capella’ vocals introduce a tub-thumping rocker featuring Sir Elton John.  I have heard it said that this has radio hit written on it – I find it hard to disagree (with three notable exceptions) – with Elton’s name sure to attract attention there has to be hit potential here.  The song is catchy and has much to commend it, not least Elton’s piano solo and the wonderful backing vocals throughout (the bit just before the instrumental is sublime).  I have also heard the criticism that Elton and Brian’s voices to not sit well together…well that didn’t stop ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’ getting to number one, did it?  Elton, by the way, sounds better than I’ve heard him for years. 

those exceptions:   

Firstly, a single would need a new intro - maybe an edit from an instrumental section leading to the main song?

Second, Brian’s entry in each verse is probably his worst vocals on the whole disc.  His ‘Hey, Everybody!’ sounds at best like an over-excited Mickey Mouse on speed, at worst just plain bad.  Thirdly, would MTV give it air time with that line present?  (How can we still make music - after MTV?) 

Honourable mention goes to that wonderful little guitar lick after the 2nd ‘One Thirty’ section – simply divine! 

Soul Searchin’

It is just great to hear Carl’s voice again.  This track gives his efforts a far better stage than on the 1994 recording and has a much more ‘finished’ feel.  Although much of the original recording is used as a basis for this song the complete re-recording of the backing vocals (incidentally, removing all traces of the other Beach Boys) works nicely and this version wraps the song up in a finished production, tying up loose ends like out-of-synch vocals. This is also a far more balanced mix.  Listen to how much more pronounced the vibes are, for instance in the first verse.  Which brings me to a general point about this album’s instrumentation:  Simply, that it is very ‘Brian Wilson’ – his use of instruments (particularly percussion) takes us back to the halcyon days of Pet Sounds so many times. 

The sax solo here is a lot better than the ‘tinny’ old organ one.  Several commentators have bemoaned the lack of Brian’s touring band on the new album…they pop up here and there, believe me...just keep listening! 

You Touched Me 

Another ‘a capella’ intro…but this time not as good. Brian slurs a few notes badly and the entries are uneven.  This part sounds to me like an outtake from ‘Orange Crate Art’ (1995) which was recorded before Brian regained some of his self-confidence in his singing voice.  If it is an ‘old’ recording and Brian could have redone it then that just strikes me as a bit lazy, to be honest.  If recent, a kind bandmember should have pointed out that he could do better. Shame.

Once the main song starts we recognise the old tune ‘Turning Point’, sped up and with new lyrics by Steve Kalinich.  This one has been re-recorded, though, and with a much better arrangement featuring bass harmonica and more vibes (more Pet Sounds).  There is also a small orchestra which adds a touch of extra class.

Brian’s vocals on the main song are, in contrast to the intro, very good – he sounds very much as though he enjoyed singing this.  There are moments in this song where one is reminded very much of ‘Christmas Day’ on ‘The Beach Boys Christmas Album’ from 40 years ago.  With the ever-present layered backing vocals once more present but unobtrusive this is another good track. 

Getting In Over My Head

The title track - and another one taken from the mid-90s Paley sessions.  Here we have, again, a complete remake, this time slower - which you notice at first but then realise Brian has given you time to listen to everything that is going on.  This arrangement provides further proof that Brian can, indeed, hear in his head what he wants to achieve on tape again.  All sorts of instruments feature - including those harmonicas again.

In my opinion this is Brian’s best arranging/production work since the SMiLE sessions and a most worthy song for the title track.  As this song, ‘Soul Searchin’ and the ‘as yet unreleased’ ‘You’re still A Mystery’ were available for a new Beach Boys album back then I predict that, when (or if) he hears it, Mike Love will tear out what little hair he has left…it would, after all have been nice to have a better BB swansong than the execrable ‘Summer in Paradise’. 

Brian seems not to be in ‘over his head’ at all but back where he belongs.  The voice might be tired and sound at times like a man in his sixties but, surely, that is only to be expected…that’s what he is – and we’re more than blessed to have him at all!

City Blues    (picture shows Scott Bennett playing the 'Clapton' role in London, Feb 27th, 2004)

Forget Jake and Ellwood!  When I hear this I can see Brian and Eric Clapton in black suits with bowlers and shades!  This is a real stomper and Clapton’s guitar is excellent.  The raunchy, brassy riff underpins a song which I feel works so much better here than when I heard it live earlier in the year, although Scott Bennett’s solo was also very memorable.  

I think it’s the ‘space’ Brian’s production gives the song that brings it to life.  From the opening Hammond and sweeping guitar it generates a power and excitement that drives the song along to a fabulous tongue-in-cheek finale with wailing brass and a single, late piano ‘dong!’ barely audible after the rest have finished. 

It’s grown to become one of my favourites – and my kids love it!  I think this song will get ‘covered’ a few times, not least by club bands.

Desert Drive

Another of my kids’ favourites.  This is Brian proving to certain individuals he can still do ‘the formula’ when he wants to.  The best ‘formula’ Beach Boys song since ‘who knows when’ and performed here entirely by Brian and the touring band.

The original 1995 demo was a sax driven, rocking instrumental (and it was pretty anonymous too…) but we have heard this song evolve since the Pet Sounds tour when Andy Paley briefly worked with Brian again and it was included as a finished song in the 1st half of the concerts.  Now, the saxes are gone and the song is driven by a clean, ‘bassy’ piano and Peter Gunn-style bass…and Beach Boys harmonies.  (If relations were in any way ‘OK’ between Brian, Mike and Al it just ‘might’ have been appropriate and, dare I say, nice to have them feature on this track, but that will never now be…)

The solo is on harmonica – but I swear I can also hear Carl’s guitar behind it…

What a great driving song!  Brian says it is about driving from LA to Las Vegas but I can feel that burning sun on an English city road! 

A Friend Like You 

When I first heard the 30 second clip on a website then heard the full song I must admit I was so disappointed with this one.  I had wanted a Brian/Paul collaboration for years and this seemed a big let-down.  Then I read a post somewhere on a Beach Boy site demanding a few listens. 

Suffice it for me to say that, of the whole album, this is the one which has grown on me the most.  I love it!  I’m not entirely sure he meant to do this (although I’d find it hard to believe he didn’t) but this song has many ‘Beatles’ touches to it. 

Brian, in his best baritone voice sings a pleasant intro over an undulating piano track (hints of ‘Walrus’, ‘Imagine’ and others) before launching into the verse.  He sings a song about being grateful for his true friends and sounds most believable.  The backing features a harp (‘She’s Leaving Home’) before one of those friends (or at least an inspirational half of a mutual admiration society) sings on the chorus. 

Some have said that McCartney’s contribution to the song is too small but, upon closer listening, his contribution is larger than on first hearing and his voice and Brian’s blend extremely well in the chorus harmonies.  Paul even ‘doo-de-doos’ in the 2nd verse backing harmonies.  The middle 8 is another highlight before the chorus is recapped and the 3rd verse (with added strings and flute) but no chorus and another recap of the opening ‘quiet’ passage.  (Another Beatles song brought to mind in the 3rd verse is ‘For No-One’.)

All that gives this song a form which is most unusual – ABCBDCBA …well, I’ve not come across that before.  Almost palindromic.

‘A Friend Like You’ is a surprisingly complex song yet it is constructed, arranged and performed so as to convey an air of utter simplicity.  In fact, it is a song-writing masterclass.  Don’t write it off before giving it chance to impress you.

Make A Wish

Another of the Sweet Insanity remakes but also another completely new recording.  Gone are the electric drums and wailing synths, replaced by piano, organ, bass and kit.  While this is not the most inspired song and lyric on the album it does its best, while not reaching the heights found elsewhere.

Brian’s vocals occasionally sound less comfortable than elsewhere (he is inclined to ‘shout’ at times).  I have also read (and agree) that, as this song’s first version actually had an official release, its inclusion here (in any form) was a tad unnecessary.  I might have preferred a new song (are there any more?) or even the afore-mentioned ‘You’re Still A Mystery’ in its stead. 

OK, but a comparative low-point of the album. 

Rainbow Eyes 

This beautiful song was always one of my favourites from ‘Sweet Insanity’ (and the source of that album’s title, of course).  This remake works well, once you have put the original version(s) out of your head.  In fact I now prefer this version – apart from the fact that the word ‘insanity’ is replaced by ‘conspiracy’.  (‘Psychedelic’ disappears too.) 

This is, in every other way, a far superior recording – the arrangement and production are spot on and Paul Merten’s flute work on this track is extraordinary!

Another famous Brian Wilson musical trait which has been ‘conspicuously absent’ for many years prior to this album is his innovative use of ‘unusual’ bass notes.  This arrangement and several others on the album show us that, once again, Brian’s creative genius is, at least returning to, full functionality the ‘root’ being far from the only acceptable choice for basslines.  

There is so much to listen to here – just take the time to listen to this one song twice concentrating on the flute and bass lines in each case.  ‘Rainbow Eyes’ reflects the full spectrum of Wilson’s palette.

Saturday Morning In The City

This is one of those songs which polarises Wilson’s fans.  Like it (love it?) or loathe it, here it is; completed (from the Paley Sessions once again) and the Pet Sounds DVD bonus features it is expressing a child-like innocence bordering on self-indulgence, but this is the ‘bit of fun’ on the album.  I don’t believe Brian ever means us to take songs like this, ‘Marching Along’, ‘Solar System’ and the similar but, as yet still unreleased ‘Marketplace’ at all seriously.  It’s just a case of take it or leave it.

I can do either, as the mood takes me.  There will be days I’ll skip this in the car (unless my wife is there…she LOVES it and would never let me skip it!) and there may be days I’ll press repeat.

The lyrics are particularly child-like and don’t even scan at times but, again, I really don’t think Brian cares a jot about that!  They are illuminated by Mrs O’Leary’s whistles and party-poppers while Brian sings falsetto (which he doesn’t do that well these days) and everyone has a party.  Why not, it’s Saturday morning!?! 

Fairy Tale 

This one was originally called ‘Save The Day (The Power of Love)’ – the latter title was probably rejected as 3 songs with that title had already been hits in the 1980s (answers on a postcard).  Both start with ‘Once Upon a Time’ and the melodies are the same but that’s it so far as similarities go.  Maybe, in this case that’s not the best idea. 

This is a rather banal song, partly because of the lyrics (by David Foster) which are about a fairy tale – dragons and knights in shining armour etc.  Somewhere between the two versions are a good set of lyrics trying to be written…the fairy tale innocence of childhood and its fantasies coupled with the advice from an elder – ‘Don’t let your youthful hopes and dreams just fade away’ – there lies the answer I think.  Instead, the lyrics here go nowhere and, while that doesn’t make (for me), automatically, a bad song this effort could have been bettered with more lyrical direction. 

Brian sings this as well as we could ever expect him these days (better than he could have at any time between now and about 1974).  More ‘on-line’ discussion has suggested that Brian’s major talents these days lie in backing vocals and production.  Certainly, if the listener is unable to appreciate Brian’s lead vocals on tracks like this then that may be the case.  Personally, I like Brian’s voice on almost all his recordings with the exception of the demo ‘Still I Dream of It’ from ‘I Just wasn’t Made for These Times’ and, so, it is not a problem for me.  I’d go as far as to say that if ‘sweetening’ and digital effects (as on ‘Imagination’) can improve his vocal takes ‘for the masses’ then why should there be a  problem with using it?  (I’d guess up to 90% of current chart acts do just that!) 

Don’t Let her Know She’s An Angel

This song (in its ‘Sweet Insanity’ 2nd version) is amongst my favourite top 5 Brian Wilson tracks – solo or otherwise (placing it in the exalted company of ‘Surf’s Up’, ‘Don’t Talk (PYHOMS)’ and ‘Melt Away’) so this, new, version had something of a job to make itself liked by me.  It’s taken the full 2 weeks but it’s just about there…almost…well maybe...

I know that Brian (despite his public loathing of bootlegs) realised that many of his fans love this song and I think he has tried extremely hard to get this one recording right.  There are 2 different takes on the ‘Sweet Insanity’ albums and the third (and, presumably, final) one here is ‘so near’…but not quite there.  He has toyed with electronic backings, multi-layered lead vocals, alternate lyrics and flute obbligati but he has still not managed to nail this one. 

Perhaps the ‘SI vn2’ song with the current band and real instruments might just have proved the best version.  I like the sleazy trumpet solo of the 2nd and I seriously dislike the constant flute octave jumps on the new (3rd) take.  That's what spoils it for me, without a doubt. Maybe all the tinkering will eventually lead to live takes from future concerts proving, eventually, to be the ‘definitive’ recording.  But this version, for me, is slightly inferior to its predecessor, even after repeated listening.  (An A/B comparison tonight confirms this…for now (although the new one has improved its standing over the past fortnight)).

This gives me the  perfect case for re-iterating my earlier opinion that this ‘new’ Brian Wilson album is actually somewhat ‘spoiled’ for the ‘must have it all’ fan by his owning of bootlegs of the unreleased sessions…if all these songs were brand new to our ears I am sure our reviews would be different.  ‘DLHKSAA’ is, in truth, still a wonderful song and I am not surprised in the least that several newspaper reviewers have singled it out as one of the best songs on the current CD.  It’s just that ‘we’ know it could, perhaps, have been even better…

The Waltz

Fact:  There have been very few pop songs in ¾ time.   Brian Wilson has composed at least 4 (probably several more if I bothered to check…).  Even fewer have been hits – one notable exception being ‘I Got You, Babe’ by Sonny & Cher.  It is little surprise, then, to discover that ‘Friends, one of the other BW waltzes has been studied at the Harvard Music Faculty as an example of how to write a ‘pop waltz’.  ‘Time to Get Alone’ one of the others which comes to mind (along with its immediate predecessor on the ‘20/20’ album, ‘I Went to Sleep’) was blessed with a gentle and unmistakeable lilt and that same feel is unmistakeably reproduced for this, the last song on the album. 

It had, of course, been on the first version of ‘Sweet Insanity’ (the sixth song from ‘GIOMH’ which was) but then under the title of ‘Let’s Get Tonight’. ‘The Waltz’ has a very similar backing arrangement but it is new (or at least a very different take – the first being in F and the 2nd in Db.)  It seems that Brian, currently working with Van Dyke Parks on the new version of SMiLE, asked him to put new lyrics to the older song.  What he came up with is typical VDP, rhyming ‘dancer’ with ‘cancer’ and including, ‘She had a body you’d kill for, I hope that she’d take the pill for.’

What remains between the versions is another abundance of bass harmonica and a bluegrass fiddle solo which continues throughout the duration of the song.  It’s different – it’s interesting and it makes you smile…

…It’s Brian Wilson!

 A final word – it would have been nice to have studio recordings of the 2 new songs debuted on ‘Live at the Roxy’ – namely ‘The First Time’ and ‘This Isn’t Love’ – perhaps they have been recorded and will appear as bonus tracks on the Japanese edition or a future re-release…who knows?

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