CD Review of Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition by Dennis Wilson
Recommended if you like
The Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson,
Joe Cocker
Label
Caribou/Epic/Legacy
Dennis Wilson:
Pacific Ocean Blue:
Legacy Edition

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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W
hile not particularly overlooked by the ladies for his good looks and bad boy lifestyle, Dennis Wilson was overshadowed by his older brother Brian’s composing and arranging genius, and younger brother Carl’s angelic tenor voice. Dennis was the drummer, a renowned party animal, and he rarely sang on Beach Boys records (in the early ‘70s, he rarely even drummed onstage). If anything, Dennis was the most unlikely member of the Beach Boys to be the first to release a solo album.

Outside of Brian’s magnum opus, Smile, Dennis’ 1977 album Pacific Ocean Blue also stands as the most artistically successful solo record by any member of the Beach Boys. Of course, this isn’t saying much, as even talentless hacks like Sid Vicious and Milli Vanilli made more serviceable records than Mike Love or Bruce Johnston. But even with the low standards set by the rest of the boys who weren’t named Brian (even Carl failed to deliver solo records with material that matched the quality of his golden-throated vocals), Dennis’ sparse solo output stood tall enough to maintain a solid reputation that carried it through two interminable out-of-print periods – the decade that passed between the original LP’s deletion and its debut on CD in 1991, and the decade and a half between the original CD’s disappearance and the present.

The meat of Dennis’ records was in the moods he created by allowing his mercurial personality to take over the proceedings. Dramatic strings, tension-filled arrangements, Dennis’ gritty, haggard vocals, and only some occasional nods to rock n’ roll in the actual music transformed his tracks into something else entirely with murky production.

The songs themselves tended to either be ballads or blues-based semi-rockers, with minimal lyrics celebrating and glorifying the rock n’ roll lifestyle he lived and loved, often sounding like they had only just begun by the time they were over. And yet, while this might have worked against a weaker personality, for Dennis it was secondary to the presence of his frazzled yet confident vocals. A clichéd declaration like “I believe in rock n’ roll,” or calling rock n’ roll “food for the soul,” as he does in “Friday Night,” isn’t posturing for Dennis – it’s the gospel truth. So is the desire he expresses in “River Song” to escape the city life that feeds the rock n’ roll lifestyle. And so is his confession that he’s “the kind of guy that loves to mess around” in “Time.” He’s passionate and believable all the way through.

Coupled with his repetition of the phrase “I love you” enough times across four songs to over-fill even the most sensitive guy’s mush quota, the then-33-year-old Dennis was laying out all his complexities, while singing as if he was preparing his final remarks in mournful tunes like “Farewell My Friend” and the album’s original closer, “End of the Show.”

Ironically, his unfinished follow-up, Bambu, found Dennis in more lively, optimistic spirits with his music. These final sessions make up the bulk of the expanded set’s second disc. His rockers were taking on a harder edge, which isn’t saying much, as guitars were often buried in the mix throughout POB. But “Under the Moonlight” was a prime example, with plenty of guitar elevating an otherwise pedestrian ‘50s-style blues-based rocker into what could have been a powerful album- or concert-opener. Songs like “Wild Situation” and “School Girl” still played like he hadn’t finished writing them, as did the disturbing “Time for Bed,” a mid-tempo part rocker in which he nonchalantly sings about having a drink, not because he’s thirsty, but because his “needle’s kinda dirty.”

Sonically he was progressing, pushing his orchestral leanings further without ever losing sight of his pop roots. One of the best songs from this period – the reggae-flavored “Love Surrounds Me” – was given to the Beach Boys to help fill out the spaces in their middling L.A. (Light Album) from ’79. Another song from this period, “Baby Blue,” also highlighted L.A., though oddly it is left off of the Bambu disc in this set, so the bootlegs out there still hold some value.

Stranger still was the decision to include a version of the previously unreleased “Holy Man,” heard on the tail end of this set’s first disc in an instrumental version, with vocals by Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins at the close of disc two. On the surface, the very idea may sound blasphemous to purists. However, Hawkins does get Dennis’ rasp and mood right, and in turn offers an approximation of how the song could have taken shape had Dennis bothered to record the vocal himself.

Even with its flaws, Pacific Ocean Blue stands as a moody masterpiece by a dude who can best be described as the James Dean of rock. The extras fill in some of the blanks in Dennis’ ever-fascinating musical story, one that was cut short when he drowned off the docks at Marina Del Rey in December of ’83.

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