How the unsung 1995 collaboration between Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks resonates even more in 2020
There’s a section in the 1995 documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times in which Van Dyke Parks discusses, for what surely must be the hundredth time at least, what transpired during the recording of SMiLE, the Beach Boys album he and Brian Wilson collaborated on in 1966–1967.
Among pop scholars, SMiLE must be the most over-analyzed and speculated-about unreleased album, and Parks, who was its lyricist, calls it an attempt “to explore in greater detail the modular aspects of songwriting.” It wasn’t so much a “teenage symphony to God,” as Wilson described it, as an exercise in collage, a collection of fragments that, ideally, would have come together into a grand statement. But it was fraught with obstacles, delays, confrontations, doubts, drugs, and Mike Love’s whining about Parks’s impenetrable wordplay. So it was shelved, and over the years it took on the status of myth: the pop masterwork that, had it come out in early 1967, as planned, would have beaten Sgt. Pepper to the rock-as-art, album-as-conceptual-epic post.
The shadow of their SMiLE hovered over the rest of Wilson’s and Parks’s careers, In Wilson canon, if Pet Sounds was his Citizen Kane, the work of prodigious (Brian was 23 when it was recorded), ambitious genius, then SMiLE, the difficult follow-up, was Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, or maybe The Other Side of the Wind, begun in 1970, and “completed” decades later. One might wonder why, faced with the other Beach Boys’ (Mike’s, principally) resistance to the abstractions of the work-in-progress, Brian didn’t just decide to call it a solo album and be done with all the bickering, but given the group-family dynamic, and the expectations of Capitol Records after the wildly successful “Good Vibrations,” that would have been tough to pull off. In any case, everyone knows what happened: Brian abdicated his role as the Beach Boys’ guiding creative light. He was in a bad emotional state, and mostly stayed in his room.
And he didn’t work with Van Dyke Parks any longer. Who needed the aggravation? Parks did some tinkering on the Beach Boys’ sort-of-hit “Sail On, Sailor,” but otherwise was out of the group’s orbit. Years, decades went by, and then there was news, in 1995, that there was a new album by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, Orange Crate Art. (You can see the two of them singing the title song, with just piano accompaniment, near the end of I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, and if it wasn’t exactly the equivalent of Brian doing “Surf’s Up” solo on Leonard Bernstein’s 1967 TV special Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, it was sweetly uplifting.) Orange Crate Art—a great title—came with a lot of cultural baggage. There was, most of all, the still-unresolved question of Brian’s well-being. It was not long after his break with his “handler” Dr. Eugene Landy, and he hadn’t released any new music in a long while. In 1991, his album Sweet Insanity was rejected by Sire, his record label at the time, and that same year, his “autobiography,” Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own [sic] Story, written by Todd Gold, came out, a shambles of a book that Wilson later repudiated.
AUDIO: Brian Wilson Sweet Insanity (full album)
There was a lot of rehabilitation to be done, and the Don Was–directed I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times was the first step. The serious (it was filmed in black and white, so right off the bat you knew there wouldn’t be a lot of California sunshine pouring in) appreciation of Brian’s life and influence premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1995. In between tributes by admirers such as Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, and Lindsey Buckingham, family members including Brian’s mom, ex-wife and daughters, and collaborators like Tony Asher, Hal Blaine and Parks, there are scenes of Wilson singing his own songs: “Caroline, No,” “This Whole World,” “Love and Mercy,” backed by an impressive band (Benmont Tench, Waddy Wachtel, Jim Keltner). Brian even surfaced to promote the film and its soundtrack album, doing a private show I caught at S.O.B.’s in Tribeca. He was shaky, his voice frayed, but it’s fair to say that no musical figure had generated more pent-up goodwill, and sighs of relief could be felt throughout the club.
That was in August ’95, and Orange Crate Art was set for a couple of weeks later. Could any album, nearly three decades after the fact, live up to the unfulfilled legacy of SMiLE? A concept album about California (songs include “San Francisco,” “Summer in Monterey,” “Palm Tree and Moon”), no less? Plus, and here it gets tricky, Brian gets top billing (of course), but it’s a Van Dyke Parks album with Brian Wilson vocals. Parks’s gifts as an arranger are considerable (check out the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s Popeye, with songs by Harry Nilsson, or Parks’s own Song Cycle, Discover America, and Jump!), but he can drift off into aimlessness and whimsy. His choice to call on Brian to sing the Orange Crate Art songs made sense: Wilson’s fragility and earnestness grounds the album, and he brings with him all that we think about from when he was defining his part of the California territory. But it’s hard to hang on to; there are no songs as touching as “Wonderful,” as formally dazzling as “Heroes and Villains,” as beautifully executed as “Cabinessence.” (Still, compared to the most recent Beach Boys album, the disastrous Summer in Paradise, Orange Crate Art was SMiLE reincarnated.) The album drifts along on its own pleasant wavelength.
It didn’t do very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its backstory. What we have now, 25 years after its release, is a chance to take another listen to it. Omnivore Recordings has put out a deluxe version, with a few extra tracks (a couple of Gershwin tunes, and a take on “What a Wonderful World”), and a bonus stack-o-tracks disc of the album without vocals. In his liner notes, Parks implies that changes on the corporate side of Warner Brothers Records were the cause of Orange Crate Art’s commercial fate, but that’s too simple. There are lovely moments on the album, and it is reaching for something, for a reconciliation with the past, for a sense of place, and a kind of closure, but in the end, it’s elusive. Stripped of the vocals, the second disc feels more focused, like Parks’s idea of cinematic bachelor pad music, the type of “exotica” album that artists like Martin Denny and Les Baxter made decades earlier.
Accordions blend with steel drums, strings glide on the breeze, and the instrumental version of the album ends, as the original should have, with “This Town Goes Down at Sunset.” Fade out.