Wilson v. McCartney - Who Made The Better Throwback Album?
Just had a few thoughts kicking around, what with Paul McCartney releasing his latest disc, Kisses On The Bottom, this week - topping off a flurry of recent activity that will culminate with his appearance on the Grammy Awards this Sunday. It’s the same program that his old friend & competitor, Brian Wilson, will be appearing on with his old band, the Beach Boys.
Back in their 1960s heyday, when both men were at the top of their creative powers, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney egged each other on as friendly rivals atop the charts, continually upping the ante and expanding the possibilities of what we could expect in popular music. In the mid-60s alone, they produced classic discs like Pet Sounds, Revolver, Sunflower, and the White Album. Heady stuff.
Each man has seen artistic peaks and valleys since their glory years, and each has proven, in their way, to be a durable survivor. As of 2012, both Wilson and McCartney are considered elder statesmen in the rock world, and while each has amazingly entered into an unexpected creative resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting that each man has dipped back to the Great American Songbook on recent albums. The question is, who does the better job of it?
Surprisingly, I’ve gotta give the nod to Brian Wilson. While McCartney has admirably stated that he hasn’t wanted to retread the same popular songs that Rod Stewart (among so many others) has been covering, and while McCartney has never had to overcome the drug and mental health issues that have haunted Wilson over the decades - his new disc is kind of dull. Backed by Diana Krall’s ace band, McCartney does a classy job of crooning these lesser-known songs, but he doesn’t do anything to place his own stamp on the material, or to elevate it beyond what we’ve come to expect. Beyond offering his voice, there’s nothing on the set that suggests McCartney’s musical signatures or personality, and it ultimately ends up sounding like a perfectly pleasant, perfectly blah affair. Nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t add much to McCartney’s cannon. (Contrast this with his old bandmate Ringo’s similar disc from 1970, Sentimental Journey. It’s an endearing listen, and it definitely screams out, for better or worse, Ringo!)
Wilson, on the other hand, put out an unexpectedly strong album in 2010, which focused on one of the biggest names in that Great American Songbook, George Gershwin. Rather than hewing as close to the original tunes as possible, Wilson and his band worked to infuse Wilson’s signature sounds into the material, updating, revamping, and re-energizing songs that have been done thousands of times over, breathing new life into such chestnuts like “Someone To Watch Over Me.” The end result has echos of Wilson’s best work in the 60s, while his singing - something that has sadly decayed over the years - is strong and engaging. The production is tight and crisp, and the album is one of the strongest and most fun discs Brian Wilson has been involved in in decades. I can’t overstate how fantastic it is.
So Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney: two towering figures in the pop music world, two men who have reshaped the boundaries of rock, and two men who have reached far into the past for inspiration on their present. Despite the solid efforts of both, this round definitely goes to the once and future Beach Boy. Can’t wait to see what comes next….