Listening Booth: Dennis Wilson, “Pacific Ocean Blue”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue (1977/2008)
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The normally overly kind All Music Guide refers to him as “the most obviously untalented Wilson brother at the beginning of the Beach boys,” and while that’s actually a pretty truthful assessment of Dennis Wilson’s early career, it’s also the sort of cheap shot he had to absorb far too often while he was alive, and it seems altogether unnecessary, given the body of solo work he left behind — work that this week, for the first time in far too long, is available for purchase.

Dennis Wilson’s 1977 debut, Pacific Ocean Blue, was the first solo recording by any of the Beach Boys, and even though it came out during a commercial low point for the band, it sold respectably — at least as well as, if not better than, the albums the band released during the mid- to late ’70s. And okay, so that bar wasn’t set particularly high, but still — in a marketplace where anyone can buy M.I.U. Album or L.A. (Light Album) at the touch of a button, it’s always seemed unfair (not to mention ridiculous) that Pacific Ocean Blue has remained out of print for so long.

Sony/BMG’s Legacy imprint — already having a banner year, especially when you stop to consider just how much stuff the label has already reissued — rectifies the situation this week, releasing a deluxe, double-disc, lovingly curated expanded edition of the album that Beach Boys fanatics have been trading underground (or purchasing used at astronomical prices) for decades. If you’re interested in owning it, in other words, you probably already do — so is it worth buying again?

In a word, absolutely. Reissues and repackagings have been pouring out of the record industry’s rectum for years, and most of them are unnecessary, if not undeserved — but when they’re done right, they can be essential for fans, and Pacific Ocean Blue is a textbook case of a label doing it right. It may be stupidly overdue, but at least they didn’t skimp on anything: The reissue was shepherded by original producer James William Guercio, the booklet includes a pair of beautifully written essays (with more content available on the CD), and — best of all — the second disc consists of recordings earmarked for Wilson’s never-released second album, Bambu.

The Bambu sessions are the obvious jewel in this crown. Speaking as an owner of one of the many bootleg editions of the record, I can tell you definitively that the remastering (organized by Rob Santos, performed by Vic Anesini) sounds terrific. (Ditto for Pacific Ocean Blue, but if you’ve already picked up a legit copy of the album, the difference won’t be quite as profound.) The recordings have been cleaned off and given a little bit of a shine, but they don’t reek of modern compression — they retain just enough of the warm, sloppy fuzz that Wilson favored to preserve their original flavor.

Okay, so what about the music? Dennis Wilson has undergone a bit of a critical transformation in the last decade or so; the same rose-colored rear view that had people trying to make masterpieces out of Beach Boys records like Holland also tried to refashion Wilson as some sort of undiscovered genius. That word would probably be guilty of excessively liberal application here, but that’s mostly because anyone who listens to Pacific Ocean Blue after hearing “genius” will almost certainly come away disappointed. It’s a solid album, certainly not as uneven as anything the Beach Boys recorded after Surf’s Up, and also quite beautiful in spots — but you can also hear why Wilson was less than satisfied when it was finished, and moved quickly on to Bambu, the album that he hoped would show people what he could really do.

Unfortunately, the wheels had been coming off Wilson’s personal life for years by the time he started work on Pacific Ocean Blue, and the Bambu sessions, rather than showing an artist in development, were a portrait of a man in quick, horrific decline. There are times he sounds like a ghost — which is appropriate, unfortunately, because that’s what he was on his way to becoming. By the time of his accidental drowning in 1983, Wilson had been fired by the Beach Boys, lost his stake in Brother Studios, and alienated most of his friends and family. Bambu‘s exile to the Caribou vaults was the least of his worries.

Bambu is a messy record, but it’s definitely got its moments, and it’s got a little more rock ‘n’ roll muscle than its ballad-heavy predecessor. Here, as on much of Pacific Ocean Blue, Wilson sounds a lot like Pussy Cats-era Harry Nilsson — cuts like POB‘s “River Song” (download) and Bambu‘s “He’s a Bum” (download) would have fit right in on late-period Nilsson records. On its own, Bambu probably wouldn’t rate a reissue, which is another reason Legacy has done the right thing by including it here — it gets to leave the realm of mythic lost records, the fans get to hear it as it was meant to be heard (with the exception of a tacked-on, unnecessary performance of the previously unreleased “Holy Man,” with vocals by the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins), and a long-overdue reissue gets some real added value. Everybody wins.