In 2010, Brian Wilson — founder and guiding light behind The Beach Boys — issued an album which seemed to come completely out of the blue. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin came out on a label run by the Walt Disney Company — not any of the big name record labels Wilson had been affiliated with across his career (ie. Capitol Records, Warner/Reprise Records, Nonsuch, etc.). As it turns out, the album was something Brian had wanted to do for some time so when the Walt Disney folks approached him with the idea of a Brian Wilson In The Key Of Disney project, he struck a deal to make sure that they would issue his Gershwin concept. The Disney album was good fun. The Gershwin project, however, was brilliant. So much so that I consider it, arguably, the logical follow on to Brian’s masterwork SMiLE album which he began working on in 1966 and finished in 2004 to great acclaim.
Brian’s Gershwin album is a song cycle form that takes you on a journey, much like SMiLE did. Brian also got to complete two unfinished Gershwin tunes for this album so it holds an especially unique spot in music history…
Still, I have often wondered what may have inspired Brian in the first place to want to record a whole album of Gershwin music (apart from simply liking the man’s compositions, which in of itself would in some ways be understandable).
For some possible insight, lets jump back 15 years earlier to 1995 when Brian worked on an album with his SMiLE co-writing partner Van Dyke Parks creating the album Orange Crate Art.
This was also a song cycle which at the time also seemed to come out of nowhere and sounding pretty much like nothing before or since. A Van Dyke Parks album at its core, Orange Crate Art was no doubt a nod to the westward ho type journey that was SMiLE, this time exploring California in all its sunshine coastal splendor. Brian’s multi layered Four-Freshman-on-a-runners-high vocals — all written and arranged by Parks — are like so much fine sweet mocha whipped cream frosting on a very tasty chocolate layer cake, indeed.
And as quickly as it came out, that album mysteriously almost disappeared. Hold on to that notion, as we’ll come back to it soon…
But first lets jump back to the future of 2020 where we find that Omnivore Recordings is issuing a wonderful 25th Anniversary edition of Orange Crate Art, giving this fine album a much deserved second chance at the centerstage spot light it never quite received. From the liner notes by Mr. Parks himself we learn that just as this album came out there was a top management shakeup at the label. The album got out to market, but I suspect it didn’t receive quite the big push it might have to get it into the public eye beyond hardcore fans like myself.
So while the reissue of Orange Crate Art is long overdue and wonderful in of itself, the bonus tracks are fascinating and they also helped me connect some musical dots. Remember earlier I was wondering where Brian might have gotten the idea for doing an album of Gershwin music? Well, it wasn’t enough for me knowing that the last track on Orange Crate Art is a gorgeous lush orchestral version of a George Gershwin composition called “Lullaby” from 1919.
However, on the 25th Anniversary reissue of Orange Crate Art we hear a previously unreleased vocal take of Brian performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue — a similar (but different) version of that kind of performance bookends the 2010 release! It is a much rougher take, almost demo-like in nature so I can understand why it was left off the album. But I can also imagine how it might have planted a seed in the back of Brian’s head. Once he finished up SMiLE in 2004, it made a lot of sense that he tackled another big idea project he’d been brewing.
The basic album of Orange Crate Art has been remastered by Michael Graves and it sounds very nice, warmer even than the original CD. I am looking forward to getting the vinyl version; when I do I will update this.
The second disc of in this 25th Anniversary reissue package is no less fascinating and impressive: an entirely instrumental version of the album before Brian added his vocals! Now you can hear all those brilliant Van Dyke Parks compositions and arrangements which provide the foundation for Orange Crate Art.
It is gorgeous.
I only wish there was a third disc of Mr. Parks singing all these songs! Why would I want to hear his somewhat nasal voice when I can hear Brian’s lush layered voicing? Well, simply because I would like to hear the composers’ original intention for the songs.
For example, in 2013 Parks issued a terrific album called Songs Cycled (which I reviewed, click here). On it, in addition to a batch of great new songs was his version of “Hold Back Time” from Orange Crate Art! And you know what? I like his version better than Brian’s which all but buries the poignant sweet, tear-inducing storyline in those rich harmonies. Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Perhaps! On Van Dyke Parks’ version, you can hear the love and bittersweet sadness in his voice as he sings about wanting to stop time to remember a perfect love memory. It is super touching and lovely. And you get none of that on the Orange Crate Art version.
Apart from that Orange Crate Art is a wonderful, artful pop joy that defies easy description. It is at once earworm-melodic and yet densely complex with rich innovative changes and unconventional harmonic structures. Beneath all those pretty harmonies, this music is pretty out there (and I mean that in the best way!). And that is part of what makes Orange Crate Art t such a distinctive, fascinating and important listen.
If you haven’t heard this album, you owe it to yourself to kick back and hop in the back of their car for a road trip around California with your tour-guides Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks.