Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson began the 1990s in much the way he’d begun the previous two decades—musically adrift, emotionally lost, and uncertain about the future. Once again, he’d poured his energy into an unfinished album—the dreadful Sweet Insanity. Once again, Wilson found himself alienated from the band he formed as a teenager. Though in the process of freeing himself from the Svengali hold of Eugene Landy, the man who saved Wilson’s life not once but twice, one can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the poor guy. Sensing this, his old friend and collaborator Van Dyke Parks proposed that they record together again, in the hopes of helping Brian find his bearings. From this came Orange Crate Art, a curious record released to little fanfare twenty-five years ago and recently expanded by Omnivore Recordings.
Despite these negatives, Wilson’s star was on the rise. Thanks to a reissue series of his old band’s back catalog, interest in Wilson was running high. Furthermore, a new generation of bands had found inspiration in Smile, Brian’s unreleased magnum opus from 1967. As Van Dyke Parks had been Brian’s main collaborator on the album, his offer to work with Brian again seemed fortuitous.. But his addictions meant Brian had thoroughly alienated his friends, so Parks had no guarantee that Wilson would accept his offer. Yet Brian did, with one stipulation: he would take no creative role in the project. Brian would come along for the ride without the pressure of being the creator.
Such a decision proved wise. As evidenced by the lyrics on his unreleased Sweet Insanity, Wilson no longer possessed the lyrical Midas touch; his songwriting delving into clichés and bizarre allusions to his past glories. Parks thoroughly understood Wilson’s now-lost lyrical prowess; thus, Orange Crate Art actually sounds like the wistful songwriter of yore. The surf-rock Bacharach’s decision to play he Dionne Warwick role in this collaboration greatly enhanced the finished product. Orange Crate Art serves as a nostalgic paean to the Southern California of their collective childhoods, a look back to innocent, peaceful, and less insane times.
For the most part, the songs featured offer largely mellow SoCal country-rock fare, mid-tempo affairs with a touch of warm and sunny atmosphere, with Beach Boys nods largely kept to a minimum. In “My Janine” and “Summer In Monterrey,” Parks revels in Brian’s famous harmonies, and the results sound fantastic. Yet it’s to Parks’ credit that he left the obvious influence alone. “San Francisco” is the most obvious of the lot; beginning with a Smile-style vocal tag reminiscent of “Vegetables,” which gives way to a walking piano rhythm reminiscent of…the Genesis song “That’s All”. Yet the incongruities work, resulting in a delightful little number. More straightforward fare, like the lovely “Movies Is Magic.” “My Hobo Heart,” and “This Town Goes Down At Sunset” might not be groundbreaking, but Brian is in fine form, especially considering his vocal limits.
The bonus material offered here provide true pleasurable listening. Three cover songs recorded here hint at Wilson’s soon-to-come infatuation with covering classic popular songs. The album itself closes with a cover of George Gershwin’s “Lullaby,” but the duo recorded two other Gershwin tunes. “Rhapsody In Blue” is a drop-dead gorgeous harmonic treat; Wilson has always proclaimed his love for it, and the reverence shown here only highlights that love. The second Gershwin tune, “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” had been presented as an anniversary gift for Warner Brothers president Mo Ostin and his wife. Side one concludes with a simple recitiation of “What A Wonderful World,” which honestly sounds like an impulsive recording. So fresh and so heartfelt Brian’s take is, one wonders if he doesn’t sit down and play this song every night for his own amusement. His love for the song is palpable.
The second disc presents the album in instrumental form, and stripped of Brian’s vocals, Orange Crate Art sounds positively dreamy. It’s not as superfulous as it might seem; in fact, it helps to highlight just how brilliant Van Dyke Parks’ compositional and arrangement skills are.
Unfortunately, Orange Crate Art saw release at an inopportune time. Wilson’s creative focus had moved on, and so too did label interest. Released shortly after Warner Brothers went through a major corporate shakeup. the album came and went with little fanfare. In spite of these setbacks, Orange Crate Art and Van Dyke Parks ignited Brian’s creative spark; less than a decade later, he would finally finish and release his masterpiece, SMiLE.
Orange Crate Art is a delightful album. It’s one of Van Dyke Parks’ masterpieces. For Wilson, it’s good practice, but it feels more like an exercise than a proper album. No matter, as one can’t find anything embarrassing about this album. Even a brilliant, troubled talent like Brian Wilson sometimes needs a breather with someone else behind the wheel. Though Orange Crate Art just wasn’t made for its times, it aged nicely, a late-period artifact worth the revisit.
Purchase Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks Orange Crate Art: Omnivore Recordings