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Music Review: Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue

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For years, Dennis Wilson’s 1977 solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, remained nearly as elusive as the Beach Boys’ unfinished SMiLE album, so ardent fans were understandably shocked at news of plans to re-release the album. Those who’d paid hundred of dollars for copies of the long out-of-print l.p. or CD were experiencing profound buyer’s remorse—everyone else who cared was ecstatic.

POB, as the elusive release has come to be called, has the distinction of not only being Dennis Wilson’s only album, it was the first solo LP by any of the Beach Boys (the “Caroline, No” single issued in 1966 was credited to Brian Wilson, alone). Other than the initial LP, POB was issued on CD in 1991, but went out of print shortly thereafter.

As Ben Edmonds writes in one of several included essays, “no one expected much” from Dennis. Although he’d contributed to some of the best tracks on two of the better, late-period Beach Boys albums, Friends and Sunflower, the value of his many contributions to the band during the seventies has only been recognized in recent years. Dennis was famously the brother who Audrey Wilson forced Brian and Carl to allow in the Beach Boys, and who was put in the back to bang on a drum kit. But it was also his lifestyle that inspired the Beach Boys image and Brian Wilson’s songwriting. Brian may have been the architect of the Beach Boys’ sound, but Dennis, a genuine surfer boy and gearhead, was the band’s essence.

The sensitivity and depth of emotion within Wilson’s music was unexpected, coming as it did from a charter member of the Golden Penetrators. Pacific Ocean Blue encompasses many of the conflicting elements that Wilson himself did, at once sounding celebratory and mournful. To an even greater degree than his earlier songwriting, the music on POB courses with a current of raw, unfiltered emotion that Brian Wilson was unable to articulate and Carl Wilson seemingly never experienced. Like another classic album of the same era, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, much of POB sounds like a breakdown set to often stunningly beautiful music. The atmosphere of despair is as inescapable as it is compelling.

Even up-tempo tracks such as “What’s Wrong” sound bleary and lethargic. The gruff texture of his voice and his occasionally offhand approach to his lead vocals convey the state of being elegantly wasted even where the lyrics may not. Along with the enormity and gravity of the arrangements, much of POB sounds like a doomed relationship feels.

For someone of his freewheeling reputation, Wilson’s songwriting indicates a nearly-magical belief in salvation through romantic fulfillment. “You and I,” finds him celebrating the faith he has in his lover, the way she makes him laugh when he’s down, and how he’ll have “no more lonely nights.” When his idealized notion of love fails, in “Thoughts of You,” like everything that lives, it “one day must die.” In many respects, Pacific Ocean Blue is as nearly a concept album about love — its potential and its disappointments — as Pet Sounds. Where Pet Sounds is melancholy, though, POB sounds bitter; where Pet Sounds offers glimmers of hopefulness, POB feels resigned to the inevitable failure of love.

As negligent as he was in life, Wilson was equally meticulous toward his music. Producer Gregg Jakobson tells of having 70 guitar tracks to sort through for one of the songs recorded for Bambu. POB was an ideal subject for a Legacy deluxe release, with the painstaking detail of the instrumental arrangements and the depth of the vocal harmonies shimmering on this remastered version. (A CD release like is equivalent to the deluxe DVD film reissues by Criterion; POB sets a high standard for the Legacy series.) This is a gorgeous-sounding CD, and this release will offer listeners new insight into Wilson’s abilities in the studio.

In addition to the sonic upgrade over the last CD release, and beautiful packaging, this deluxe edition also adds plentiful bonus tracks, including the unreleased second album, Bambu. The Bambu songs have more obvious stylistic variety — most obviously on the tropical-flavored “Constant Companion” — and their state of completion seem to vary considerably. It’s impossible to know whether Wilson would have leaned more toward rockers like “Under the Moonlight” and “School Girl” (and the simmering “Wild Situation”) or achingly romantic songs (“Love Remember Me,” “Love Surrounds Me,” “I Love You”) had he completed the album. As it is, they are a welcome additions to his body of work, and add credence to the contention that Dennis was the most productive and creative Wilson brother, for a time.

This release of Pacific Ocean Blue finally puts a long-missing, essential chapter of the Beach Boys’ musical history within reach of those fans who have been yearning to hear this legendary album. Like the long-lost SMiLE, POB now faces the challenge of living up to its reputation. It should meet, and perhaps exceed those high expectations.

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About James A. Gardner