Album Review: Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue

As Pacific Ocean Blue has been out of print for many years, and thus commanding high prices on the collector’s market (and more than a few bootlegs), it would have been enough for most fans had the album simply been reissued. But, this Legacy Edition goes one step further, serving up an entire second disc of bonus material, in this case the tracks Wilson was working on for a follow-up album, provisionally titled Bambu.

Though it was brother Brian who received most of the artistic kudos as the Beach Boys’ chief songwriter, it was Dennis who became the first of the group to release a solo record. The opening track, “River Song,” might make you think you’re listening to a Beach Boys number, given the rich vocal harmonies and melodious piano (Wilson handles keyboards throughout). But, there’s an appealing roughness to Wilson’s voice that makes his work quite different from the Beach Boys’ inherent sweetness (though, sadly, that roughness was partially due to Wilson’s lifestyle of indulgence that would eventually claim his life).

There’s a bittersweet quality to the material that makes love songs like “Thoughts of You” tug on the heartstrings; he also mixes it up funky style on “Dreamer,” while “Time” starts as a ballad, then bursts into a jazzy horn-laden sequence, and even at just over two and a half minutes, “Pacific Ocean Blues” (note the additional “s”) is the kind of mini-suite that wouldn’t have been out of place on Pet Sounds.

It’s hard to say how Bambu would have turned out had it been released; what we’re left with are songs and melodies that were being considered for the album. Wilson’s voice is increasingly soulful (as on “It’s Not Too Late”), and compared with Pacific Ocean Blue, the mood is, in general, a lot mellower. It’s intriguing to wonder what might have happened with the instrumental “Common” and the largely instrumental “Are You Real” (and “Piano Variations on ‘Thoughts of You’” is lovely piece that stands on its own). But one can’t help noticing the tiredness in Wilson’s voice on other tracks, like “Wild Situation,” and, despite its musical bounciness, “Constant Companion.” There’s also a version of “Holy Man” with a new vocal by Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who you’d swear was Wilson if the album credits didn’t say otherwise.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating look at the most musically unheralded of the Beach Boys, with both final songs and works in progress on display. A must-have for fans, and an album well worth discovering for others.

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