Brian Wilson has more than a few things in common with George Gershwin. Both led wildly successful musical partnerships with their brothers. Both combined pop-song punch with harmonic sophistication worthy of the European classical tradition. Both blazed early then flamed out: Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38; drugs and mental illness sent Wilson into seclusion in the late 1960s. And, oh, yeah, both are certifiable geniuses, two of the greatest masters of melody that popular music has known.
In recent years, rockers of a certain age have struck commercial pay dirt by serving up embarrassingly stiff big-band versions of popular standards. (We’re looking at you, Rod Stewart.) Wilson’s project is more cavalier — and far more successful. He turns “Summertime” into a doo-wop ballad, tricks out “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” with brass and lush harmonies, and teleports “Someone to Watch Over Me” from Broadway to sun-splashed California. The result is Porgy and Bess-meets-Pet Sounds: lovely, weird, subtly psychedelic symphonic lounge music. By the time the album ends with a gorgeous, string-laden rendition of the main theme from “Rhapsody in Blue,” you can’t help but ask: Is Brian Wilson the baby-boomer George Gershwin? Or was Gershwin the first Beach Boy?