Underappreciated Music File: Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue

Yep. It's that time again. After a seven month hiatus, I'm delving deep into the volcanic depths of music to laud an album that most of us haven't heard, nor even heard of. Of course, I could be projecting my own lack of knowledge onto others, but for the sake of this post, let's say not. This time in the Underappreciated Music File it's Dennis Wilson (former Beach Boy, Wilson brother and tragic music figure, who drowned in 1983) with his only solo release Pacific Ocean Blue. The album came out in 1977 and is a compelling mix of rock, soul, jazz, blues and the undeniable vocal harmonies he brought from/contributed to the Beach Boys. Like most albums of the era, it is a cavalcade of quick, radio-friendly tracks, but this is hardly delicate surf-pop. This is a text of anthems, many brought to life through the lens of Wilson's fast-living, drunken lifestyle. And the vocals, with Wilson's voice battered and rough from years of abuse and cigarettes, provide the kind of urgency and realism that reminds me (if only vaguely) of the work on Johnny Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Pacific Ocean Blue opens with the charming ballad-to-nature "River Song" where Wilson laments the city and seems to be finding essential peace along the water. The song comes with jaunty piano riff and feels the most like a Beach Boys track. But soon thereafter, the album starts to show its deeper soul, the inner motivation. The bluesy and downbeat "What's Wrong" and the haunting, nearly timeless "Moonshine" both pull you down to a place where you see that this isn't about getting kids to dance. Wilson has strongly separated himself from the clean-cut, fun-life-California image he earned over the preceding years. And then the album hits the listener over the head with the ghostly, slow-burning, building "Friday Night." The song is a testament to rock, love and frustration. The powerful keys maintain a clamor with only a soft guitar riff filling the back end. The best part, it doesn't GO anywhere specifically. It's a lament. It's a moment. The Friday night in question fizzles out, with nothing solved.

"Dreamer" pulls things back up to more conventional writing by thrusting a bluesy, thick track loaded with horns and soul harmonies into the mix. And for all it's groaning, simmering anger... it finishes on a sentiment of letting all the shit, all the fucked up blues, go out into the wind. "Thoughts Of You" is a heart breaking piece of slow poetry that begins with Wilson's whispered vocals and leads into an explosion of sound, a wall with Wilson screaming out through echoes of regret. The brilliant contrast of his raspy, pained vocals to the big-production moments is staggering and inspiring. The next track, "Time" operates in a similar manner, running on Wilson's hopeful older-man persona, but it features some lines in the first verse, painfully sung, that makes the song into something special "I'm the kind of guy/ who likes to mess around/ know a lot of women/ but they don't fill my heart/ with love completely free." And this is the fall-out of free love. It's everywhere, so for this song at least, it has lost meaning.

"You And I" has more of a Beach Boys feel, more serene, more open and less pained. It's a song of acceptance and happiness in love. "Pacific Ocean Blues" feels like a bit of the Derek and the Dominoes, Beatles' Let It Be kind of vibe. It is ornate and loaded with bouncing keyboards and funky guitar and really, Wilson could be a dead ringer for Joe Cocker. "Farewell My Friend" is a straight up goodbye/love letter to a friend. The final two tracks on the original release (I won't discuss the Bonus tracks on the 30th Anniversary edition here, but suffice to say they are fine, though not as exceptional as the whole of the original album.) are "Rainbows" and "End Of The Show." The former is a love song that reaches around the edges of rock, blues and country in a fairly conventional way. The latter is a beautiful metaphor asking "where do we go from here?" A sentiment that really sums up the entire album.

Dennis Wilson was always an overshadowed member of the Beach Boys, but he proved in one disc that he was as talented as his brothers, if in a slightly different capacity. As a standalone piece of history, both musical and American, Pacific Ocean Blue is precious. The album has probably gone unheard by too many fans of the Beach Boys and all great music, and that's why in belongs in the Underappreciated Music File. But, more so, Dennis Wilson created this and only this as his swan song, prior to alcohol and drowning, and that makes some of the strained vocals and sad poetic lyrics even more poignant, even 33 years later.

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