So, Brian Wilson. The person with whom I was obsessed, on and off, for about six years. He just turned 73. He also released an album, his eleventh as a solo artist, back in April.
Given my personal investment in Brian Wilson, I want to love No Pier Pressure (2015, Capitol). I thought That Lucky Old Sun was near perfect, and The Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio was surprisingly good. But, try as I might, I just don’t have a lot of praise for Brian’s newest release. The two biggest things that bothered me were the album’s overuse of guest performers and its unimaginative orchestrations.
I know that I might be in the minority on this one, but, I really don’t like it when singers/bands fill their albums with various guest appearances. I don’t mind it when so-and-so shows up on one song, but I certainly do mind when nearly every song features someone else (e.g. nearly every hip-hop album that gets released anymore). Mostly, I think it is annoying that these cameos are there for no reason at all, save the cross-promotional value. If the cameo is for a specific reason—say, Eric Clapton in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”—I find it less annoying. But, when John Mayer had Taylor Swift sing backing vocals on “Half of My Heart,” it was so ridiculously obvious what he (or his label) was after. (Ditto for Vanessa Carlton’s after-the-fact appearance on Counting Crows’ cover of “Big Yellow Taxi.”) So, I was disappointed when I saw that Brian Wilson’s new album had a bunch of cameos. Ten of No Pier Pressure’s tracks include guest performers. To be fair, people like David Marks, Blondie Chaplin, and (especially) Al Jardine, should maybe be given a pass as “guests;” former bandmates are maybe not really “guests” in the purest sense of the word. But, No Pier Pressure includes vocals by Sebu, Zooey Deschanel (and guitar from M. Ward, I assume), Pete Hollens, Kacey Musgraves, and Nate Reuss (of fun.), and trumpet by Mark Isham. In fact, the album’s producer (Joe Thomas) even said that he and Wilson “wanted (their) kids to think (they) were cool.” Call me crazy, but I don’t think that someone like Brian Wilson should feel (or be made to feel) like he has anything to prove in terms of "coolness."
Of all of the laud Brian Wilson has received throughout his career, perhaps none is more deserved than the many testimonies of his orchestrational gifts. Despite all of the talk about Pet Sounds’ supposed narrative concept and all that, it is Brian’s orchestrations that make Pet Sounds the masterpiece that it is. So, why, why, why does No Pier Pressure rely so much on synths? “Runaway Dancer” is probably the tackiest example, though “Half Moon Bay” and “Don’t Worry” aren’t much better. Brian’s timbral vocabulary is where his genius truly lies, but No Pier Pressure doesn’t deliver. Among other things, the orchestrations are what made That Lucky Old Sun so great. And, while they came across as a bit too “modern,” the orchestrations on That’s Why God Made the Radio helped tie that album to Brian (and the Beach Boys’) previous (and best) material. Too put it a little too harshly, the orchestrations on No Pier Pressure do a better job of connecting Brian Wilson to “Kokomo” than they do to “Sloop John B.” (and Brian had nothing to do with “Kokomo”).
As I said earlier, I really want to love this album. I want No Pier Pressure to be something like a victory lap for one of America’s great musical legends, but it isn’t. If anything, no Pier Pressure comes across as a has-been trying desperately (or at least his label trying desperately) to be an “is-now” instead. But, the fact of the matter is that in trying to not sound like a has-been is usually the final stage of entering that status.
My wife and I saw Brian Wilson play at Humphrey’s back in June. The tickets were steep but, hey, it’s not everyday that the topic of your doctoral dissertation plays a concert in the city where you live. Anyway, this concert was part of Brian’s No Pier Pressure tour, but he only played two songs from the album. I think that is indicative of what the album actually is; it is not really a Brian Wilson album, but something compiled and watered down by well-meaning record execs and producers.
If I had to pick one song from the album that I thought came closest to what I wish this album sounded like, it would be “The Right Time.” This song features Al Jardine and David Marks (two former Beach Boys), and has just the right amount of nostalgia without getting sappy. But, the fact that this one song is the album’s strong point means that the rest of the album is simply not very good.