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Brian Wilson: Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello


Music | Two new songbooks offer different takes on their source material

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Once again, album sales have made headlines by reaching all-time lows, and once again illicit internet downloading has been getting the blame.

But what deserves as much if not more blame is the instant disposability of the current "hot" product. Now more than ever, pop songs seem written less to set universal sentiments to timeless melodies, than to express the relatively uninteresting self-expressions of the singer. It's an approach doomed to result in ever-diminishing returns for reasons best summed up in Dennis Hopper's line from the film Search and Destroy: "Just because it happened to you doesn't make it important!"

So it's not surprising that songbooks from the days when songwriters "got it" keep resurfacing no matter how old they are. The most talked-about of the recent crop is George Gershwin's as interpreted by Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (Disney Pearl Series) (although it probably should have been called Reimagines the Gershwins, as the final versions of many of George's pieces were the fruit of his collaboration with his lyric-writing brother Ira).

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On paper Wilson's project makes sense. Just as Gershwin was the early-20th-century composer most adept at twisting the innovations of serious-music pioneers into shapes that even the untutored listener could respond to, Wilson built the Beach Boys into America's most enduring rock 'n' roll group by wedding the jazz-based harmonies of the Four Freshmen to Phil Spector's echo-laden Wall of Sound and making the marriage sound if not like one made in heaven, exactly, then certainly one made in quintessentially American adolescent reveries.

As it turns out, there was always at least a little Gershwin in the Beach Boys' music, too. In interviews promoting his new album, Wilson has cited Rhapsody in Blue as the first piece of music he remembers hearing, and certainly the ease and enthusiasm with which he throws himself and his patented layered vocal stylings into showing blinkered baby boomers what they may have been missing testifies to his Gershwin affection.

What it doesn't do, however, is show boomers already hip to Gershwin what they've been missing. Except for two unfinished Gershwin songs that Wilson completed, the track listing-from "I Got Rhythm" and "Summertime" to "Someone to Watch over Me" and "I've Got a Crush on You"-merely summarizes Gershwin's most over-performed songs. And hearing Wilson sing "I Loves You, Porgy" is even weirder than hearing Al Green sing "To Sir, with Love."

Coming from the opposite end of the spectrum is the new album by the venerable Los Angeles garage-rockers the Morlocks, The Morlocks Play Chess (popantipop). The Chess that the Morlocks play is the greatest hits of the Chicago blues label of the same name, hits written or made famous by Bo Diddley ("Who Do You Love"), Howlin' Wolf ("Killing Floor," "Smokestack Lightning"), Chuck Berry ("Back in the U.S.A."), John Lee Hooker ("Boom Boom"), and Sonny Boy Williamson ("Help Me"). Like the Gershwin songs covered by Wilson, these Chess pieces have been covered hundreds of times; unlike Wilson, whose admiration for Gershwin keeps him stuck in "tribute" gear, the Morlocks really do "reimagine" their source material, stripping it to its roots and putting it back together without following the directions.

The result sounds like a battle of the bands between the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls in which both sides fight to a draw and then decide to join forces-because such music was never about us-vs.-them in the first place.


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