All Hail King Beardman
If you’ve heard any decent Beach Boys albums after Pet Sounds (there are some!), you would probably expect Dennis Wilson to be capable of churning out a halfway-decent solo album. Songwriting-wise, I know him mostly from “Slip On Through” and “Forever” off the Beach Boys’ Sunflower, both great songs. Then again, he also did the dippy cock-rocker “Got To Know The Woman” off the same album, so jeez! Who knows what kind of album this man was capable of producing?
Thankfully, Pacific Ocean Blue filters out most of the shitty Dennis Wilson stigmas that might have plagued him in the past – the dippy rock ‘n rollers, the Charlie Manson covers, et cetera et cetera – and shows off his pretty side. And what a lovely, lovely “pretty” side it is. Blue kicks off with “River Song,” and immediately we know that we are in for something special – that beautiful piano melody, those heavenly backing vocals and strings, all led by Dennis’s uniquely husky yet still melodically pleasing voice. Yes, Dennis did a whole lot of drinkin’ and cocaine-sniffin’ before recording this album in 1977, and you can hear it in his voice. But hey, he’s a Wilson, for God’s sake! You cannot kill a Wilson voice – not even Brian’s!! (Well, maybe his.) And either way, the roughness in Dennis’s voice makes him sound more human, more world-weary, more pained – it works in the context of these songs, is what I’m trying to say.
There’s a whole lot of pretty to be found on this record. Songs like “Moonshine,” “Thoughts of You,” and “Time” show off a piano-driven confessional vibe that Dennis had rarely showcased before, but hey, he’s damn good at it! There are some gloriously pretty songs on here, but they’re leavened by a sort of late-night club vibe that somehow makes the whole affair all the more intimate. The production here is lavish, but not excessively so; while it’s not hard to tell that this album was produced in the 70’s, it doesn’t overdo it. It’s kind of a more reigned-in Beach Boys affair – you’ve got those lovely backing vocals, string arrangements, and Wall-of-Sound-Jr. arrangements, but they only pop in when they need to. Dennis’s writing here seems to be a little more inclusive, a little more personal than Brian’s; the man’s been through some shit, clearly, and he’s putting himself on the line in these songs. (Or at least that’s what it sounds like. I don’t know what the man was thinking at the time.)
Some oddball moments do crop up. Hey, look, it’s “What’s Wrong,” a goofy horn-driven rocker that sound creepily similar to something you might find on the Beach Boys’ reunion debacle 15 Big Ones from a year before!! Okay, that’s not right – I actually do appreciate “What’s Wrong” for what it is. It’s goofy, it’s silly, and it’s kind of fun – and goddamnit it, it is a whole lot better than “Got to Know the Woman.” It comes right after the godfully-majestic “River Song,” though, so it’s kind of a buzzkill. And no other song on the album sounds anything like it. It’s like “Redondo Beach” on Patti Smith’s Horses – an OK song on its own, but after such a great title track, it just doesn’t sound as good. Dennis also indugles in some unusual lite-funk ditties like “Friday Night” (which starts off with a BEAUTIFUL piano intro for like a full minute before turning into this weird party-hearty melody that I’m just not crazy about) and “Dreamer,” neither of which I am in love with. But it’s hard to complain about an album with a song like “Rainbows” on it, a sweet little banjo (??) ditty that I cannot get out of my head, and the lushly wonderful “End of the Show.” God bless these melodies!
As far as I have heard no Beach Boy has put out a solo album nearly as good as what Dennis pulled off here (and don’t say SMiLE – it’s great, sure, but it’s pretty much just the Beach Boys recreated to me). This album, despite a few eh-eh tracks, has a really personal breadth and vision, something that Brian Wilson unfortunately lost shortly after SMiLE deteriorated. Not unlike George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, this record accentuates all the greatest aspects of an oft-underappreciated member of a classic 60’s pop group, tossing away every unseemly aspect of their character. This is Dennis through and through, and it’s all the better for it.
Man, “River Song,” that’s such a pretty song! I can’t get over it. This guy could have been as big as Brian! Hell, he could have been bigger – what did the Beach Boys put out in 1977? Love You? I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Pacific Ocean Blue is the better album. And it’s just Dennis all on his own! What a shame. Don’t do drugs, kids.