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Listening Report: Brian Wilson’s At My Piano On CD, Vinyl & Streaming

Mark Smotroff tunes into the magic of one of his musical heroes…

One of the surprise releases at the end of last year came from none other than Beach Boys founder and musical innovator Brian Wilson. On  At My Piano he reconsiders and reinvents many of his classic melodies for the ivories.

Cover art for the CD / digital editions of Brian Wilson’s At My Piano

Recorded and mixed in the UK as well as the USA, At My Piano is produced by Wilson with Grammy nominated producer Nick Patrick. Wilson’s longtime collaborator — since the time he completed his SMiLE album — Darian Sahanaja, wears multiple hats in this project including music direction, co-production, recording and digital editing. 

The resulting album, At My Piano, has a very intimate, warm and meditative sound somehow invoking the innocence and complexity of Wilson’s compositions.

On the surface it appears that At My Piano is purely a “solo” release but it feels a bit more involved than that. I find it at times (loosely) akin to Bill Evans’ classic mid 1960s jazz release Conversations With Myself where the artist overdubs his playing over himself on a multitrack recorder. 

The result is compelling because you don’t always notice that there’s actually a duet happening. But when you listen to a song like “God Only Knows” you can hear the complexity within the composition which I suspect requires more than just two hands and ten fingers to accomplish. 

From a technical standpoint, the sound of this recording is quite fascinating as Wilson’s piano is presented in a very ambient manner. In many ways this goes against much of the modern feel of how the instrument is often presented in a mix (ie. often close mic’d and bright sounding).

Cover art for the vinyl edition of Brian Wilson’s At My Piano

There’s a lot of low-end and mid-range on At My Piano as well as some muted highs yet I don’t consider that a bad thing. To the contrary, I think it creates a distinct sound which commands close listening. That production aesthetic may have been necessary to allow for the overdubbed melody lines so those notes would stand out against the background chording.

For those of you who like to listen with headphones and earbuds, I suspect that you will probably enjoy this recording a lot as the impact of the piano hammers hitting the strings won’t smack your ears too hard (consider this compared to a mid-1980s digital recording I have of Vladimir Horowitz which once blew out a tweeter on my old “Ohm E” speaker — for reals!). 

The basic CD version of this album sounds very good, excellent even. The 96 kHz, 24-bit streams sound rich and full on Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here). The vinyl pressing I received for review started hopefully but my copy had some technical problems so I’m hoping to get a new version in the weeks ahead to make sure that it’s just a one-off anomaly (I experienced some “non-fill” moments, for those of you who may be wondering). So far, I have not heard of anybody else having similar pressing problems. (note: I will update this review when I get a new copy).

Some of the more wonderful pieces on Brian Wilson’s At My Piano album date back to his first creative peak in 1966 and 1967. The album-opening version of “God Only Knows” is gorgeous but my favorite is “Sketches Of Smile.” a haunting distillation of many of the key melodies from one of Brian’s masterworks. “Surf’s Up” is also a stand out. 

Almost equally mesmerizing but frustratingly short is “Mount Vernon Farewell,” a snapshot from the wonderful whimsical bonus fairly tale EP (Mount Vernon and Fairway, involving a magic transistor radio and the Pied Piper within…) that was included in the Beach Boys’ 1972 album Holland

That melody is one of those classic Brian Wilson moments which I have always wanted to hear developed into something bigger and grander. I can easily imagine a jazz artist such as Brad Mehldau or Pat Metheny (or both!) turn this into a haunting Bill Evans-meets-Miles Davis inspired journey. 

Brian’s late period masterpiece “Love And Mercy” is spellbinding — listen closely and you can hear what sounds like Brian working the foot pedals on his Piano quite aggressively.

I could keep describing At My Piano in words but, really, at this point you should just tune in and listen for yourself to Brian Wilson’s beautiful tribute to his favorite instrument that has inspired him and millions of others around the world.

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