Thursday, August 27, 2009

Listening Mode : Dennis Wilson, "Pacific Ocean Blue"

This is one occasion where the cover pic grabbed my attention on the shelf and got me to listen to the record. I never was too much into the Beach Boys, so I didn’t realize at first that Dennis Wilson was part of that Wilson family. It was the vintage-looking photograph of that sullen bearded man that caught my attention. Since then, I managed to listen to the whole Beach Boys canon, and found out that Dennis Wilson’s career had a George Harrison curve to it, from being a simple performer to providing the band with isolated gems that would prove to match the main composers’ efforts. Like Harrison, Dennis Wilson went on to release a superb first solo album, and here we are in 1977, with the musically rich and profoundly humane “Pacific Ocean Blue”.

The opening track, “River Song”, is a good example of Wilson’s very personal style, starting out with a most classic piano riff in major mode, the sort of riff you might expect from any other 1977 middle-of-the-road hit single, followed by a gospel choir. But then, as Dennis’s raspy, powerful voice begins to wail about cities and pollution, the music slowly evolves into a raging, dark, almost apocalyptic clash of ultra-low voices and massive rhythmic strokes. It all moves down to a simple, quiet piano part, then back to a coda of pure electric joy.

The rest of the album is equally great, and shows what a sophisticated writer and arranger Wilson had become by then. After “River Song” come a batch of intense and brooding celebrations of rock and roll and Jesus (I don’t know the connection, but Wilson seems to do), evoking boiling hot LA friday nights and fruitless dreams of fame. The music slows down and envelops itself in cascades of synth strings and warm guitars, for a series of bittersweet, summer-tinged ballads, which shows Wilson at its rawest and most sincere, whether meditating about the dissolution of love (“Thoughts of You”) or its timeless flow (“Time”, “You and I”). One more catching ode to Mother Nature (“Pacific Ocean Blues”), a humble, moving funeral tune (“Farewell my Friend”), a sweet and refreshing love song (“Rainbows”) and there we are, at the “End of the Show”.Well, it’s been a wonderful one indeed, and just like Elliott Smith and so many others, too bad it ended so quickly. Dennis Wilson lived a life as intense as its songs, drank too much and fought too hard, and drowned in the ocean he loved so much one December day of 1983, leaving an unfinished album (“Bambu”, featured on the last reissue) and this enduring masterpiece.

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