Sound: It apparently took some urging of Brian Wilson to first include his brother Dennis in The Beach Boys. Dennis, thought to be more of a free spirit and not necessarily strong in the musical arena, was apparently given the role of the drummer only after his mother got involved. It's true that the trademark sound of The Beach Boys was strongly influenced by Brian, but Dennis would eventually prove that he was an impressive songwriter and performer in his own right. This month marks the rerelease of Pacific Ocean Blue, a solo album that Dennis originally completed back in 1977. The 30th Anniversary Addition now features 2 disks, with disk 1 dedicated to the original recording and the 2nd disk including tracks from his rare Bambu project. While it bears little resemblance to anything The Beach Boys created, Pacific Ocean Blue does relay the unique, creative, and often sad vision that Dennis Wilson had all on his own.
If you aren't familiar with Wilson's solo work, be prepared for a roller coaster ride. You might be expecting the same sorts of harmonies and general sense of fun found in Good Vibrations, but the music takes a very different path on Pacific Ocean Blue. The opening track River Song features a piano-rich intro that eventually transforms into a bluesier number. There is the same sort of big-production feel to Wilson's River Song that you might expect in a Beach Boys' song, but the fun element is definitely scaled back. On other tracks you feel like Wilson is pouring his soul out. The emotions are rich on tracks like Moonshine and Thoughts Of You, slower songs that are less than perfect in the vocal area, but also feel more brutally honest than any of his work in The Beach Boys.
There is a strong blues vibe on Friday Night, which is laid-back and features eerie sounds that likely could have been made by lap steel (the liner notes didn't specify). Dreamer is impressive in the fact that it feels like several different songs in one. At first it's gritty and bluesy, but about halfway through it becomes a heartfelt piano-led track. By the end, a monstrous horn arrangement takes the song out. It's obvious that Wilson's creativity was just flowing free on this album, and at times it might not seem completely cohesive. But honestly, it's the kind of album that feels fresh and oddly intriguing.
The 2nd disk is devoted to Wilson's Bambu project, which was never officially released. There are some incredible harmonies on it, but they feel more akin to The Eagles than The Beach Boys. Wilson claimed he was prouder of his work on Bambu, but there are strengths in each of the disks. The piano is consistently strong, whether in Common (which sounds like something you might hear at a recital) or Are You Real (a Jimmy Buffett-like track with a piano twist). Even in the biggest productions, there is a raw quality to it all, mostly because of Wilson's weathered, imperfect vocal style. While the album doesn't pop like Pet Sounds might, Pacific Ocean Blue successfully separates Dennis Wilson from being simply one of The Beach Boys. // 8
Lyrics: The lyrical aspect doesn't get quite as creative as the music on Pacific Ocean Blue. What may seem like the usual themes take on a different meanings when Wilson actually starts singing. There is an abundance of emotional content on songs like Thoughts Of You, Time, and You And I, and it's more about the delivery than anything else. The lyrics don't look like much on paper, but Wilson can still sell them. // 7
Overall Impression: There's no telling how many other fascinating albums that Dennis Wilson could have created if not for his untimely death in 1983 of an alcohol-related drowning. Pacific Ocean Blue definitely deserves a second listen by anyone who might have put it on the shelf back in the '1970s. There's a moodiness that flows through all of Pacific Ocean Blue, and even the bluesy rock numbers seem to have an underlying feeling of melancholy. It's not the emotions that make the largest impression in the end, however. It's the fact that Wilson proved himself as an accomplished pianist and songwriter independently of The Beach Boys. // 8