Having released two Christmas albums, it is only fitting that She & Him move on to tackle summer. And what says summer more brightly than the Beach Boys? Even thinking about the band makes me (smiley) smile and look for garish Hawaiian shirts in my wardrobe. And of course, the Beach Boys wouldn’t have been the Beach Boys, whatever Mike Love might think, if it wasn’t for the genius of Brian Wilson, the last Wilson brother standing. Hence, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson. All the songs here have at least some input from Brian Wilson, largely the melodies, with lyrics also on occasion. (Mr. Love would want me to say he co-wrote many of them, I am sure, so I will.)
She & Him, then, a curious mélange. M. Ward, the somewhat-cerebral-seeming singer-songwriter from the Pacific Northwest, and Zooey Deschanel, the manic pixie dream girl in many a Hollywood comedy. The combination smacks of vanity project. Actually far from, with Ms. Deschanel responsible for the bulk of their own material, at least as far as the songwriting credits go. Taking most of the lead vocals, Deschanel plays guitar and ukulele (don’t panic), whilst Ward is content to supply a subsidiary presence, responsible for additional vocals, guitar and keyboards, as well as production duties. Which, in anything involving the songs of Brian Wilson, is going to be no small feat.
Melt Away kicks off with “Darlin’,” and it immediately becomes apparent these are safe hands Wilson’s songs are in. Over a skittery guitar, it is Ward’s voice that is first heard, he taking the first verse, the arrangement a pleasant low-key and lo-fi contrast to the richness of the original. Deschanel has purer tones that offer a contrast to the rustier tone of her cohort; she tackles the second verse and the aah aahs that sound very Chiffon-esque. A retro guitar solo seems a little out of place, but not uncomfortably. A good start, and the current single.
Some cheesy sax disguises the beginning of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and, as she belts in, Deschanel’s voice has already lost that tang of being a little too pristine. A terrific version, the chorale of voices suitably orchestral for what could be, in a less capable format, a syrupy mess. The lyrics sound convincing and believable, both despite and because of their mawkishness, mawkishness being all part the Wilson charm. Again, Ward’s production eschews any wall of sound, and is a lighter and more ramshackle construction. In a good way: more beach house than sonic cathedral.
Proving they aren’t just here to parade the greatest hits, those two bangers out the way, it is to “‘Til I Die” we next trace. A showstopper of a tune, and one of the few where Wilson wrote the lyrics as well as the melody. The duo tackle this deeply poignant ballad, Deschanel’s tones now suitably dreamy, double-tracked over some glorious pedal steel. An absolutely stunning version, worth the price of entry alone. An almost mariachi trumpet adds further luster and I am hooked.
“Deidre” is more often thought a Bruce Johnston song, though the credits do reveal Wilson had some part. It’s a tad insubstantial, both originally and here, needing “Melt Away” to regain the polish. One of the standout tracks from Wilson’s eponymous 1988 solo record, where his multi-tracked vocals out-Beach Boy those of his old band, the rendition here maintains that glory. A word also for Ward’s sympathetic guitar, which cradles the song from the start.
“Good To My Baby” is a song a little too formulaic and of its day, 1965, I fear, so the extra kitsch apportioned here fails much to redeem it. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” a Pet Sounds deep cut, jars slightly, sounding more cabaret-Mama Cass Elliot than personal preference might dictate.
Time for another smasher, with “Don’t Worry Baby” getting an asymmetric make0ver that shakes off some of the ubiquity and overfamiliarity some may have for this song. Ward takes the microphone for a balmy slow cha-cha-cha, a little different and a grower. “This Whole World” was always a bit throwaway, and this is too, the flimsy construction then of “Kiss Me Baby” being redeemable only by the vocal calisthenics. I totally get that this album was chosen to exhibit She & Him’s personal favorites, but lesser known does not always equate to better, but I may be being overly churlish. They’ve become close friends of Brian Wilson’s, adding backing vocals to his 2015 album No Pier Pressure, so the duo have maybe a different slant on the songwriter.
Wilson himself actually pops up for “Do It Again,” taking the lead vocal. Sure, he sounds nothing like he used to, but he gives a sterling performance, not remotely as poor as some reviewers would have it. It sounds as if he was having more fun than recent live performances suggest he is currently capable of. It’s a yes from me.
Who remembers “Heads You Win, Tails I Lose”? Thought not. It’s an arguably filler track from the Beach Boys debut album, Surfing’ Safari. Here it is deconstructed into a near-instrumental roustabout, with Dick Dale-like colors, over which heavily treated voices intone the words, with unearthly interjections aplenty. It is certainly different, perhaps the palate cleanser needed. Which allows for the plaintive “Please Let Me Wonder” to shine all the brighter. In classic Beach Boy style, it is the harmonies that linger longer than the actual tune, but Deschanel has the voice to make both more memorable than maybe the original. This was the first song Brian Wilson wrote under the influence of marijuana, so they say, which may explain the slightly woozy atmosphere it gets here.
The closing track is “Meant For You,” an exquisitely sad song, really more snippet than song, from 1968’s Friends. Wilson later reprised it on 1995’s solo outing (and documentary soundtrack) I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, movingly if in equally short measure. Ward and Deschanel extend it over a minute and a half. Deschanel sounds for all the world like a frailer Carl Wilson; Ward adds some equally fragile Brian counterpoint. An appealingly appropriate full stop.
All in all, Melt Away is an admirable venture, the sum greater than the constituent parts. Some of it, it’s true, is a little insubstantial, but where it is good, it is very, very good, and the love and respect is palpable. Whilst a greatest-hits approach may have shifted more copies, the fact that they tackled some of the unusual culprits is probably more to be applauded more than admonished. Brian Wilson himself, sounding both so sincere and so Brian, has said: “Zooey and Matt did such mind-blowing versions of our songs. The harmonies are beautiful and right on. I love this record!” And, frankly, isn’t that enough?
Melt Away Tracklisting:
2.Wouldn’t It Be Nice
3.Til I Die
6.Good To My Baby
7.Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
8.Don’t Worry Baby
9.This Whole World
10.Kiss Me, Baby
11.Do It Again ft. Brian Wilson
12.Heads You Win, Tails I Lose
13.Please Let Me Wonder
14.Meant For You