At My Piano  Reinforces Brian Wilson’s Compositional Brilliance

The ‘60s fostered a music-driven cultural revolution nobody anticipated. From John Coltrane’s Giant Steps to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, history’s most iconic albums saw artists leaving timeless and influential musical blueprints. However, calling the ‘60s “influential” shows only a limited understanding; rivalries were fierce, and competition defined the decade. Neither The Beach Boys nor Brian Wilson could escape the competitive climate.

In came The Beatles. “Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds, which inspired Sgt. Pepper’s and that inspired me to make SMiLE” says Wilson.

Unfortunately, such wondrous artistic competition also attracted serious consequences. Should one group progress beyond expectations, it may discourage their competition. When Wilson first heard The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” he pulled his car over and wept, telling himself “they got there first.”

Though never explicitly confirmed, The Beatles and The Beach Boys’ one-upmanship must have affected Wilson and, alongside increasing drug usage and various social pressures, the man sank. As a music force, The Beach Boys soon hibernated too. North American audiences disliked Pet Sounds, and the mythical and hyped follow up SMiLE then having collapsed, left the band helpless. Smiley Smile, a cut-down and significantly less ambitious SMiLE nailed shut the ‘60s Beach Boys coffin. Wild Honey, which followed Smiley Smile, never lived at all. The world then forgot The Beach Boys. It forgot Brian Wilson, not because his music wasn’t special but rather because finding something musically worth remembering required effort other music reserved. Other artists—pre-existing or new—found the limelight and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da life went on.

Fast forward and now most see why Wilson’s music is unique. He looks within himself, finding only the most universal and sensitive emotions. Then, the harmonies, seemingly simple yet truly complicated song structures and soaring melodies manifest. Wilson’s music identifies emotions we’ve occasionally never realized ourselves; making it accessible and cohesive is a bonus the artist adds himself. However, his music’s refined nature sometimes passes us by. A different perspective may prove beneficial, in fact, it does. Brian Wilson’s 2021 At My Piano, compiling his most iconic work as solo piano arrangements, offers a new musical perspective and constantly demonstrates simplicity’s beauty.

Containing fifteen Wilson originals (fourteen Beach Boys tunes plus one solo release), the album ensures “the hits” are here. Most tracks play safe, retaining the spirit that made them hits way back; others intentionally feature slight alterations that justify the song’s legendary status. “In My Room,” “California Girls,” “The Warmth of The Sun,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “You Still Believe in Me,” “Surf’s Up,” “Till I Die,” “Love and Mercy,” and the more obscure “Mt Vernon Farewell” follow the rules, venturing not beyond their original counterpart’s success. The rest, however, tell a different story.

Removing vocals and various instruments presents a worry: the music could fall completely flat. The album’s opener, “God Only Knows,” eases the worries and impressively stands strong against the original version. Vocal and lyric-less, the melody and chord progression’s elegance radiates, blessing the listener’s heart and mind. The original version, heavily imitating ex-producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” seems overly cluttered when the reimagining so clearly lays out the tune. Put simply, the reimagining offers clearer insight into Wilson’s emotions as it avoids providing potentially distracting components. The song’s fadeout, which Wilson now extends, emphasizes harmonic components the original doesn’t very well clarify. In her own video review, jazz musician Aimee Nolte uses audible, musical demonstrations and breaks down her observations. It’s worth a peek.

Much like the previous track, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” highlights components the original almost buries. At the original recording’s two-and-a-half minute mark we hear various reed instruments and a theremin venture through a twisted chord chain until it enters a brief, albeit neat theremin solo. The reed and theremin chord chain is the original’s vehicle; it bridges the gap between the chorus and the theremin solo. However, the reimagining scraps the theremin solo, making the chord chain the feature rather than a mere tool. Harmony may best define The Beach Boys, but this suddenly more apparent chord progression reveals the jazz and classical influences that dictated Wilson’s songwriting.

“Don’t Worry Baby” too makes notable revisions. While the original approaches the listener with strength and power, the reimagining resembles a lullaby. No longer needing the original’s radio appeal, this very appropriate alteration conveys the song’s ambidexterity. Wilson also exercises control over the pressure and speed at which he plays the piano’s keys, providing to the tune another new layer. The end result compared to the original is more soothing, more lighthearted, and more intentional.

On the contrary, “Good Vibrations” and “Friends” illustrate the risks musical re-imaginings bring. They just don’t work; without the original singers “Friends” ends up feeling remarkably lonely while “Good Vibrations” dooms itself. The original recording, produced across seven months and costing (when inflated) four hundred to six hundred thousand dollars is unbeatable. Whether previously provided by now-absent instrumentation or sheer magic, these two re-imaginings seriously lack drive and energy. Obviously a Brian Wilson compilation must feature his magnum opus “Good Vibrations,” but that doesn’t mean it ever stood a real chance here.

For moments when At My Piano tumbles, “Sketches of Smile” returns the album’s life. Though today’s listeners can hear SMiLE as 2011’s SMiLE Sessions or 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, neither version feels technically complete, though the latter is much more so. Wilson’s original SMiLE forever remains a fragmented tragic tale the past won’t let pass; “Sketches of Smile,” from Wilson’s own retrospective vision, is the truest portrayal yet. This real treat contains “Our Prayer,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Wonderful,” “Look (Song For Children),” and “Surf’s Up.” The manner in which each song so perfectly connects reminds us that SMiLE’s legend and the larger meaning it presents is immortal.

To keep the record a relatively easy-listen, the recording lacks high frequency extension, producing a warmer, more cozy sound. The stereotypical audiophile may object, but also must understand that this approach well matches the product. Stripping the music’s higher frequencies parallels Wilson’s simplifications, which carefully remove any possible pretentiousness presented by their original counterparts. The result is an album putting forth music that’s easily understandable. That’s the goal here, let’s not forget. The vinyl release sports an alternate cover showing Wilson’s younger, more wacky look. The printed inner sleeve also gives fans another admirable new photo, not to mention the thoughtfully written message that should precede one’s listening session.

When an artist’s talent is his ability to refine complexities into simpler forms, those suffering a perceptive skill deficit may at first find themselves confused. Let At My Piano be a breath of fresh air. Never before has Brian Wilson shared his music so humbly and clearly, and never before has it been so easy to experience the man’s genius. At My Piano removes the barricades that might deter Brian Wilson’s new listeners. Now follow the harmony.

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(Nathan Zeller is a Beatles fanatic and passionate audiophile found in Western Canada. Currently, he’s nitpicking over loudspeaker placement. One more millimeter away from the front wall ought to do it, right?)

ivansbacon's picture

"When an artist’s talent is his ability to refine complexities into simpler forms, those suffering a perceptive skill deficit may at first find themselves confused"

That is not only beautifully said but profound.