Brian Wilson

Sharps & Flats is a weekly music review roundup in Salon Magazine

Published June 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

For his first solo album in a decade, Brian Wilson looks back in anger to 35 years ago: "I miss the way I used to call the shots around here," he sings, achingly and soaringly, on "Your Imagination." And who can blame the guy? The Beach Boys -- his Beach Boys -- single-handedly galvanized the ideals of pop composition, of California mythology, of what a pop genius is in the first place. But Wilson's place in pop isn't as crucial anymore, and his creative appetite isn't as voracious, which leaves "Imagination" as an admirable but flawed attempt to call up the ghosts of "Pet Sounds."

The requisite sonic pieces are there: lush production, multitracked vocal harmonies, echoing percussion and the bittersweet, sun-drenched lyrics that Wilson did best. Where it once flowed freely in the '60s, the sound is now labored and deliberate, and many of the song-doctored tunes simply stick to formula: the lightweight pop of "Where Has Love Been?" and "Dream Angel," the unnecessary rewrites of the Beach Boys' "Keep an Eye on Summer" and "Let Him Run Wild." When it dares to branch out, though, it can be engaging and honest pure pop, particularly the beautifully crafted, suitelike "Happy Days," which closes the album. It's refreshing that Wilson persists in his optimism, but it's not convincing enough to make a dent in the cynical '90s.

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Rod Stewart
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BY JOHN MILWARD | Rob Dickens, chairman of Warner Music U.K., had a brainstorm. "The idea," he writes in the liner notes to "When We Were the New Boys," "was for Rod to make a new record in the spirit of his classic album, 'Every Picture Tells a Story,' with the nucleus of a great rock and roll band instead of an overblown production." Dickens had even more ideas -- cover good songs by young songwriters, have Stewart produce himself -- and admits to being nervous about how the artist formerly known as Rod the Mod would take these daring suggestions. It takes guts to parrot what cranky rock critics have said for decades, but apparently this is what earns a record executive big bucks.

Stewart took the bait and probably even surprised himself by making one of his very best albums. The fact is that Stewart remains a superb singer in a field filled with mediocre vocalists, and if you doubt me, compare Stewart's brilliantly brash reading of "Cigarettes and Alcohol" to the muddled version on the first Oasis album. Stewart does similar justice to a Rolling Stones-like song by Primal Scream, "Rocks," and pays tribute to the late Ronnie Lane with a winsome reprise of the Faces' "Ooh La La." Not everything's as good as these three -- Stewart chooses a lousy Graham Parker song ("Hotel Chambermaid") and nearly capsizes a Nick Lowe ballad ("Shelly My Love") with sugary background vocals -- but there are more hits than misses, including a sweetly rendered tune by Ron Sexsmith ("Secret Heart"). Stewart writes of the old days on the title song, but also does full justice to the songs of today. Note to the Rolling Stones: Remember "Beggar's Banquet"? Hey, ma, I'm an executive!

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Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke

BY FIONA MORGAN | Those who love the sonic cultural panorama and otherworldliness of Dead Can Dance are familiar with Lisa Gerrard's voice. They know her attachment to Middle Eastern vocal styles, her range, her seeming ability to conjure up spirits. Like that other 4ADiva, Cocteau Twins founder and soprano angelico Elizabeth Frasier, Gerrard is now working on projects outside of her well-known band. On "Duality," Gerrard works with techno/trip-hop musician Pieter Bourke, creating a series of tracks that sound familiar.

Without Brendan Perry's rich, romantic bass and English-language lyrics, Gerrard's eerie contralto often is given to long dirgelike numbers such as "The Comforter" and "The Circulation of Shadows," bringing down even the upbeat "Human Game" with a long, spooky intro. Both Frasier and Gerrard are known for their melismatic singing style -- sounds rather than words. Yet while Frasier has worked toward painfully sincere lyrics and recently collaborated with Massive Attack, Gerrard's work here harkens back to the early high goth of Dead Can Dance albums such as "Spleen and Ideal." "Duality" does present two exciting tracks -- "Human Game" and "Nadir" -- but the rest are a little too low, too full of chants and moans, lacking the balance of a good DCD album. Gone is the accessibility that made even a medieval Italian ballad sound like rock music.

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Various Artists

BY MARK ATHITAKIS | Purist fans of "electronica" -- the people who hate the word "electronica," for example -- will cry compromise here, and they'll have a point. The revelatory, mind-mending stuff comes out on bigger compilations released on smaller labels -- Mo' Wax's "Headz" series, most notably. But like its MTV-endorsed predecessor, "Amp 2" makes no claims to revolution, just to pop music, which it proudly asserts in new contexts: the DATs and samplers and turntables that are slowly streaming into suburban garages the way guitars used to. The uncut stuff has more ideas, true, but "Amp 2" has hooks, and that's all pop asks for.

Pretty great hooks, actually. Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" is a stunning mixture of surf rock and electrofunk, and much of the rest revels in similar collisions, though the collisions flow seamlessly. Roni Size's "Brown Paper Bag" and Goldie/KRS-One's collaboration "Digital" are drum 'n' bass aspiring to more than the dance floor. The star turns by rappers (Wu-Tang's Method Man, Public Enemy's Chuck D, Kool Keith) find them surprisingly comfy in the midst of ambient swirls and synth grooves without the sharp edges they're used to. You can still hear the purists' cries, though: Can't the mainstream accommodate something deeper than Air's lightweight "Sexy Boy" or the Propellerheads' brutally unsubtle "Bang On!"? Relax, some MTV-subscribing kid in a Kansas garage is working on it.

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Grant Lee Buffalo

BY JACK SKELLEY | It may be unfair to label Grant Lee Buffalo's melodic yet heavyweight approach to music as bubblegrunge. Still, this Los Angeles band does have a knack for combining earnest, '90s-style power-throating with a mild case of "White Album" damage in an appealing pop package. "Jubilee," their latest, marks the departure of bass player-producer Paul Kimble, allowing the band to put ex-XTC and Sugarcubes producer Paul Fox at the controls. It's a nice fit. Singer-guitarist Grant Lee Phillips' literate songs previously seemed clouded by a gauzy sound, but under Fox the sophisticated arrangements sparkle. Back-up vocals by pals Michael Stipe and Robyn Hitchcock add to the album's rich sonic texture, as do the arsenal of guest instrumentalists. "The Shallow End," for instance, is a particularly inspiring album-closer thanks to Greg Leisz's pedal steel.

But this is Phillips' show. He's built a career on expansive ballads that whoop with unaffected emotion. "Truly, Truly" is the best example here -- a slow, shuffling confession with the simple chorus "Truly, truly, truly, I want you." On other tunes, there are telling road signs -- Bob Dylan, John Lennon, T-Rex's Mark Bolan, even the late Jeff Buckley -- but the final destination is distinctly Grant Lee Buffalo.

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John Fogerty

BY ANDREW HAMLIN | John Fogerty long ago perfected music that sounds like it's tossed off in exactly the time it takes to play, but actually takes hours of painful, painstaking work to properly place each barbecued lick and casual howl. It's hard on the musicians -- Fogerty and the two living members of Creedence Clearwater Revival talk mostly through lawsuits these days -- and hard on the man himself, who once spent a year or so learning Dobro for a special feel on one song, only to discover that the sound he really needed came from a lap steel instead (whereupon he spent a year or so learning that). But the secretly wrought tunes manifest Fogerty's walking metaphor as rock's greatest living disguise act: Emblazoning himself from the start with New Orleans hoodoo, fond swamp memories, gutbucket guitar and an urgent if sometimes unintelligible backwoods screech, Fogerty was in fact born and raised in a San Francisco suburb; he most likely never saw New Orleans until CCR hit that town on tour.

So "Premonition," the new live album with a new song unveiled especially for it, is fun for Fogerty's 'twixt song patter ("This song is called 'Premonition,' but then you knew that didn't you?") and for subtle variations on the tight structures. Fogerty cuts CCR's eight-minute workout on "Suzie Q" to five and a half, which also fits: He took out the phoned-in vocal part, the one part he wished he'd excised after the record was finished. Skeptical returnees to the Fogerty phenomenon may wish to start with last year's "Blue Moon Swamp," which oddly enough has a greater sense of spontaneity and play than the live versions of some of the same tunes here. But that fits, too. After three decades of great pretending, Fogerty works best at willing the sham into the sacred; expecting the same wizardry with his curtain pulled away is to wish yourself back on the bayou.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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