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October 6th, 2004 JEFF ROSENBERG | Album Reviews
 

Brian Wilson / The Blue Nile

     
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Brian Wilson, Smile

Brian Wilson

Smile

Nonesuch

The shelf life on this long-unreleased Beach Boys album proves lengthy as Wilson re-records the songs of a younger man. Sure, it's kind of creepy. But go with it.

As my editor knows well, we've all missed deadlines. But being released 38 years after its planned date, Smile is in a class of its own. It's not the same album Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys planned on releasing way back then. The group that originally recorded it is gone, replaced by Wilson on this solo album--and the difference is noticeable. As Wilson's 10-piece band, seven of them singers, kicks in on "Heroes and Villains," the absence of the Beach Boys is unexpectedly striking--who are these faceless voices taking these familiar parts? I never thought I'd miss Mike Love. Ultimately, though, it's Brian Wilson's show, and his voice, although aged, is up to the challenge. Skeptics might wish for a younger man singing these songs; I'd say it's a blessing that he's improbably outlived his brothers and survived to record this music now. True, it's certainly odder to hear a middle-ager praising nascent female sexuality in "Wonderful," and the more cornball fixations of his musical mind are harder to forgive. Eventually, though, the momentum of his and lyricist Van Dyke Parks' composition itself takes over, and the purity of its intent shines through. Like the perpetually precarious state of Wilson's mental health, the album has a logic all its own. As the music's pseudo-symphonic movements progress toward resolution, the album does a lot of "convincing" for anyone skeptical of the project. The wonder of the album, though, is how effortlessly it achieves that musical marker; this music isn't out to make any sort of case for Wilson or the Beach Boys. It's out to charm you if you're open to being charmed. At last, here's an album that backs up its title by delivering smiles to anyone willing to hear it. (Jeff Rosenberg)

The Blue Nile

High

Epstein/Sanctuary

The synth-lovin' Scottish trio takes eight years to release its latest. Word is, they've been busy building a robot with a human heart.

At first, it seemed the artistic project of the Blue Nile, imbuing synthesized music with an aching human heart, was well intentioned but well nigh impossible. The Scottish trio's first album, 1983's A Walk Across the Rooftops, moved listeners with Paul Buchanan's keening vocals, reminiscent of classy British crooners like Peter Gabriel or Bryan Ferry. But despite engaging melodies and dynamic arrangements, the debut's attempt at warmth was ultimately impaired by the limitations of period technology, especially that horrid early-'80s Fairlight drum program--the sound of a digital wet fish repeatedly smacking into a plastic bucket. By decade's end, though, the group found its groove, and its second disc, 1989's Hats, has since been regarded as an underground chill-out classic. Another seven years passed before 1996's Peace at Last tried to flesh out the formula with acoustic ornamentation and a feint toward funkier rhythms. It's been eight years, and the Blue Nile's latest, High, finds members of the Blue Nile returning to what they do best: seamlessly mixing four-letter-word-starting-with-H titles, downtempo beats, layered synths, empathic singing, reflexive melodies and simple, humanist lyrics. There's something profound yet indefinable about the purity of emotional intention these players convey through electronic instruments, which makes listening to High a deeply healing experience. Press play, sit back, and the rhythms actually slow your breath and heartbeat, while Buchanan's voice bleeds with compassion, stirring and soothing feelings tamped down by the weight of modern life. There's ample sustenance here for the anticipated nine-year wait until the next installment. (JR)

 
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