You can’t get much more American than Disney and you can’t get much more American than the Beach Boys, so it’s hardly a surprise that Brian Wilson’s new album will feature his intepretations of classic Disney songs. It may get overshadowed by the upcoming Smile Sessions release, but I’m still very much looking forward to it.
It’s Wilson’s second release for the Disney label, after last year’s Gershwin album and it’s easy to criticise and say that he’s getting around his admitted writer’s block by churning out fresh and easy produce, but there is more going on than that. Wilson’s songs are as iconically American as the animated movies from The House Of Mouse or the tunes of George Gershwin and both of those had a big influence on his own writing, so these albums have seen him paying special tribute to them.
If you’ve never noticed the similarities between Surfer Girl and When You Wish Upon A Star, then you’re in the minority, and that was such an important song in Wilson’s development from surf anthems to teenage symphonies to God, so it’s no surprise that he’s covered the influential Disney classic. Looking at the tracklisting, some of the choices seem odd (I Just Can’t Wait To Be King should be… interesting) and oddly heavy on films from the modern era, but it should be an interesting listen nonetheless.
Of course, he’s not the first American artist to do an album made up of Disney tunes. Two of my favourite albums fall into this category and they fit in remarkably well as a trio with Wilson’s new release, each approaching these anthems from a different genre and racial background to present an intriguing snapshot of American popular culture. We start with one of the most influential figures in 20th Century music (even more so than Wilson), Louis Armstrong.
His 1968 album Disney Songs The Satchmo Way is hardly an essential purchase for fans of his Hot Fives recordings; done late in his life, it’s unashamedly schmaltzy, but all the better for it. The joy that oozes out of his versions of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo and Chim Chim Cher-ee (the titles of which could have been taken from his scat singing three decades earlier) is infectious and the whole album puts a smile on your face. The finale of When You Wish Upon A Star is just beautiful and would warm the coldest of cold, cold hearts.
In 2009, Chicano rock band Los Lobos recorded their own Disney album (Los Lobos Goes Disney) and it’s also a heck of a lot of fun, with opening track Heigh-Ho demonstrating their ability to mix things up a bit by singing it in Spanish. They also add interest by including songs from the theme parks as well as films, even if The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room sounds to British ears a little bit too much like The Cheeky Cheeky Cheeky Room. I Will Go Sailing No More sounds a bit like Tom Waits, while When You Wish Upon A Star is a guitar-led instrumental.
Both Satchmo and Los Lobos might have had cynical motives for recording their albums, as might Wilson, but there’s something really interesting in hearing such quintessentially American songs recorded by a black jazz musician, a Latin rock band and a white surf/symphonic pop genius. And, best of all, the songs are such good fun, no matter who they are recorded by…