THAT LUCKY OLD SUN by BRIAN WILSON
Reviewed by Bradley Mason Hamlin
Brian Wilson back at Capitol Records … that’s something many California music fans have dreamed about, but never thought would happen. Yet, have you checked out how they’re promoting That Lucky Old Sun? Not only is Brian back at “his old stomping grounds” as he recently said, but this time Capitol is giving the album the kind of push no Brian Wilson solo project has ever had.
Well, it’s about time. As Dennis Wilson once said to a Capitol exec, “I helped build your office.”
Indeed, anyone who has lived in or around Los Angeles or has ever visited Hollywood is familiar with the classic landmark, the great (tall & round) Capitol Records building. I imagine many Los Angeles artists have set their sites on that building as the would be summit of success. So, yes, it is exciting to witness Brian Wilson back at a record company created by the great songwriter Johnny Mercer, the company that gave us so many great Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin records, and the company that of course, begrudgingly brought The Beatles to the American listening public. Although, this new pairing of Brian and Capitol comes amidst the rumor that their parent company, EMI (Is anything owned by Americans anymore?) is currently merging with Virgin Records, and in doing so, may close the Los Angeles end of their joint publishing arm. Yeah, that would be Capitol Records in Hollywood.
You see, EMI, a British company, operates out of Kensington in London, England, but their American base of operations is located in New York. Therefore, due to corporate merging and all the lay offs that occur in doing so, it appears that old landmark in California just isn’t important to the almighty fat cats behind the scenes—when it comes down to dollars and cents. New York to London is the money bridge between our countries.
However, the buck doesn’t stop with EMI (BTW: the people who fired The Sex Pistols). EMI is actually owned by yet another fatter control entity. EMI is owned by Terra Firma Capital Partners (TFCP) with offices in New York and Frankfurt, Germany. What? Capitol Records is owned by the Germans?
I gotta say I find some irony in that. Capitol Records, founded in 1942 by Johnny Mercer, built its chops on war-time records …
All right, so you may ask what this diversion is all about, but I felt it necessary to convey the importance, nostalgia, and irony that comes with this new Capitol Records recording, an album that is arguably the most “Southern California” album in spirit and quality in years (maybe ever) … when we might not have a Capitol Records in Hollywood very much longer.
Of course Capitol itself is doing just fine. They have a new hit artist, the wonderful Katy Perry, and backed by their giant “private equity” company, who knows, maybe Capitol Records will exist forever.
I do know one thing, despite the fact that companies come and go, get bought and sold, and who the hells knows what “buy American” means anymore … one thing will last, despite however it comes packaged; in bows, ribbons, boxed, or blasted from space age radio waves … great art will last. Great art will defy the test of time and space—if of course we keep it [art] available in one form or another safe, but that’s a separate issue, and we’ve already time-traveled too far astray already.
That Lucky Old Sun opens with Brian’s arrangement of the Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie's “That Lucky Old Sun,” the song that both Frankie Laine and Louie Armstrong made famous. Brian said it was Armstrong’s version of the song that inspired him, but he restructured the chords to fit his style of music. Therefore, the album begins with the lush harmonies we almost now take for granted. It’s a Brian Wilson album. It’s going to have vocalization that you simply cannot get anywhere else.
I’m a big Louie Armstrong fan, so I really appreciated this chosen theme, but stronger than that is the fact I was born and raised in Los Angeles and this album speaks directly to a very specific feeling pertaining to Southern California, a mood, a vibe, already largely created by the same man making this new album. Only three other people invoke this same (or similar) spirit for me, and unfortunately two already died: Chet Baker for his definitive California cool jazz trumpet combined with his oceanic slow-motion emotional vocals, Charles Bukowski with his perfectly captured working class poems, stories, and subtle insights, and of course the other living legend of the beach, Dick Dale, the man that gave the Pacific Ocean a true identity in modern music.
Brian Wilson is truly a part of not just California culture, but California itself. He helped define how people actually visualize and feel about California, how they dream about California. For that reason, anytime there is a new California offering from Wilson, it is a noteworthy event and one well worth joining in on the experience.
Van Dyke Parks and Scott Bennett are on board with this album to help round out the lyrical identity of the songs and Brian’s band—called “the best touring band in the world” by Paul McCartney—is here to bring each song alive with Beach Boys/Girl [Taylor Mills] harmony and A+ musicianship.
I felt the most trepidation with having spoken word elements tying together some of the songs (written by Van Dyke) because I publish so much poetry and have become very jaded with poets. Nonetheless, Parks, in all—too—familiar territory with Brian not only pulls it off but does in fact add to the landscape and disposition of this project in an interesting and definitely positive way. Scott Bennett obviously gets Brian and is a clever lyricist, so it’s all good. Also, if you view the Lucky Old Sun DVD, you'll see quite clearly that Bennett was very respectful with his edits/additions and with some songs didn't change much at all. In addtion, Bennett penned "Midnight's Another Day," empathizing with Brian's life in a constrasting, more somber vibe. Now, if these guys could just totally cut loose [next time around] and give us the Brian Wilson equivalent of "Helter Skelter," we can all die happy on Mystery Island.
The highpoints on this particular record for me are the nostalgic “Forever My Surfer Girl,” “Mexican Girl,” (my favorite), and the final song, “Southern California.”
“Forever My Surfer Girl” invokes the summer of 1961, immediately hooking in The Beach Boys fans, but also on a separate level connects the love of Brian’s music with the love and happiness he experiences with his wife.
“Mexican Girl” does the most for me on That Lucky Old Sun. The castanets, handclapping, and Spanish guitar take me straight back to Northeast Los Angeles where I grew up, and it’s not easy to get that right. This one goes into the ongoing Brian compilation that gets played in the car …
“Southern California” is clearly the most emotional tune and opens with a reference to the Wilson brothers, surfing on the air, and sums up Southern California as a true focal point of human existence.
If Brian wasn’t around to offer this experience up, we would in effect be waiting for someone else to capture this sound, this feeling, this California role, and we would perhaps be waiting a lifetime.
Thank you, Brian. Thank you for taking the punches, surviving, and still creating from a space of pure love and mercy.
"That Lucky Old Sun Reivew" by Bradley Mason Hamlin. Copyright © 2008 by Mystery Island Publications.
Published: 09.14.08 by Mystery Island. All rights reserved.
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