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Beach Boy Wilson Takes Gershwin Surfin’, Sheryl Crow Gets Soul

Brian Wilson works at his piano on his album of Gershwin music. Source: Clay Patrick McBride/ Disney Pearl via Bloomberg
Brian Wilson works at his piano on his album of Gershwin music. Source: Clay Patrick McBride/ Disney Pearl via Bloomberg

Take a popular composer such as George Gershwin, the man behind “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” Then put his works through the psychedelic blender of Beach Boys surf music, courtesy of Brian Wilson, the creator of “Pet Sounds” and “Smile.”

The result, released yesterday in the U.S. and titled “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” works well. The 68-year-old Wilson long has said that “Rhapsody” is one of his favorite tunes. The album opens and closes with snippets of the jazz-based concerto inspired by a train journey. Wilson coats it with harmonies, making it sound like a song blasting from a 1960s Chevy parked near Pacific Ocean waves.

Wilson made a comeback after decades of mental health and drug problems with albums such as “Smile” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” That led to Warner/Chappell Music and the Gershwin estates passing him more than 100 piano demos of unfinished or obscure tracks untouched since the composer’s death in 1937.

The Beach Boy narrowed these down to two fragments that make up the first single: “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love.” These songs are pleasant pop, not in the “God Only Knows” league -- little is as good -- though both are worth a download at least.

Wilson’s weathered voice comes with multitrack backings that lift his beautifully clean covers of “Porgy and Bess” songs such as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Rating: ***.

Sheryl Crow also skips back in time for her new album. The title of the singer-songwriter’s seventh studio collection, “100 Miles From Memphis,” refers to the distance between her hometown of Kennett, Missouri, and the center of Elvis Presley worship.

Crow proves that the likes of Amy Winehouse don’t have a monopoly on retro-soul. She adds hints of another Memphis favorite son, Al Green, to a reading of Terence Trent D’Arby’s slinky 1987 groove, “Sign Your Name,” with Justin Timberlake on backing vocals. Elsewhere, there are traces of Stax, Motown, bar-room Rolling Stones and, of course, gospel country on “Long Road Home.”

It’s all too laid-back to be a compelling listen, though Crow sounds at her most relaxed in years after many albums that have expired from excessive ambition.

Rating: ** ½.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Download fees vary across services. The CDs are priced from $12.98, or 8.99 pounds in the U.K. Wilson is on Disney Pearl and Crow is on A&M.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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