Brian Wilson/At My Piano/Verve
2.5 out of Five Stars
There’s no denying that the Beach Boys are timeless in every sense of the word, but lately, they appear as omnipresent as ever. The recent Feels Flows box set—a treasure trove of rarities, demos, and outtakes from the magnificent Sunflower and Surf’s Up albums—as well as a new revelatory Brian Wilson documentary, Long Promised Road, and the ongoing placement of classic Beach Boys songs for commercial purposes, has ensured their ongoing presence in the limelight, not to mention the lingering presence that underscores their stature as America’s most iconic band.
Still, one might wonder if there’s a need for this particular entry, one that consists of a series of solo piano performances by the ever enigmatic Brian Wilson as he retraces key components of his signature songbook.
Given the fact that the Beach Boys songs were built on brotherly harmonies and intricate arrangements, it’s worth questioning the need for an album of stripped-down instrumentals absent any vocals. Granted, with Mike Love’s success in overriding the ownership of the Beach Boys brand while effectively booting Brian to the sidelines, it’s only natural that Wilson would want to reclaim his birthright and promote the proposition that he was ultimately the one responsible for initiating that legacy in the first place. So what better way to do that than to simulate these tunes that might have originally been birthed, courtesy of their composer sitting alone at the piano and playing them in a lounge-like setting.
The press release that preceded the album describes At My Piano as “a deeply relaxing collection of memorable songs…performed with the lucid clarity that a solo piano composition creates. A perfect album for sunsets and golden days.”
And yet, what are songs such as “God Only Knows,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” without the buoyancy and brilliance that the group embeds in each and every measure. Yes, certain tracks—“The Warmth of the Sun,” “Surf’s Up,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” and “Til I Do”—do tend to favor a mellow treatment, but again, it’s worth asking why we need to opt for piano versions that come across as scarcely more than background filler, muzak if you will, given that they’re stripped of the rich tones and textures that defined practically every note and nuance in the Beach Boys’ back catalog.
Of course, completists will likely swoop it up and might even indulge in more than a momentary listen. However, even diehards would be justified in viewing it as little more than a novelty, an album that’s destined to be heard only once before being relegated to a record shelf where it’s destined to take a backseat to the songs’ original renditions.
Whether one considers it an intimate experience, an organic encounter, an essential additive, or simply a cash-grab, it’s ultimately up to the listener to decide its worth. For now, we’ll rate the need simply based on the songs themselves.
Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images