In light of all that, it's hard to think of a project less eagerly anticipated in 1997 than a collaboration between the two Wilson sisters -- what, we have to listen to them and we don't even get to see Chynna in the videos? But this album is being billed as much more: a full-blown family reunion, with dysfunctional dad Brian Wilson lending his long-absent genius to the proceedings. Unfortunately, as with so many Beach Boys albums of the past 25 years (remember the "Brian's Back" campaign for 15 Big Ones?), the publicity effort shows much more creativity than the music. Brian lends his vocals to only four tracks, sounding stronger than he has in ages but not quite fitting inside his daughters' cramped dollhouse. He contributed to the writing of only three songs, and one of them, the eternally gorgeous "'Til I Die," is three decades old.
Nonetheless, the album begins on a promising note. The punchy "Monday Without You" (co-written by Carole King) rides a chiming twelve-string into a catchy chorus that's slick without setting off any Muzak detectors. For a moment you think maybe the Wilsons have elevated their California pop to the formulaic-but-pleasing level of late-period Bangles. No such luck.
Wendy and Carnie are decent singers, and their obvious sibling love is endearing, but whenever their voices blend, you feel like you're trapped in commercial-jingle land and someone's trying to buy the world a Coke. At his mid-Sixties peak, their dad could take similar block-harmony arrangements and make your heart skip a beat. But as any Spin¬al Tap aficionado knows, there's a fine line between cleverness and stupidity.
It's an eerie coincidence that in this, the post-Diana era, a paparazzo plays a pivotal (but nonspeaking) part in Michael Daugherty's hip new opera. (His menace is conveyed not with words but with tap-dancing.) And it's even eerier that this CD's inlay card features a vintage photograph of about a dozen paparazzi armed with huge flashbulbs and anxious expressions.
There's no doubt about it -- this is the right time for Jackie O, the most delicious new stage work I've heard in years. Daugherty's opera (the literate libretto is by Wayne "The Queen's Throat" Koestenbaum) is peopled by the likes of Liz Taylor, Andy Warhol, Maria Callas, and Princess Grace, plus "la belle Jackie." The year is 1968 and the opening scene is a Warhol "happening." Jackie, five years a widow, comes out of seclusion, is painted by Warhol, and is wooed by Onassis, who takes her to see the Swedish soft-porn classic I Am Curious (Yellow). Jackie and Maria are rivals, but, just like in Bellini's opera Norma (an earlier triumph for Callas), they are reconciled, and Maria agrees to smash the paparazzo's intrusive camera. Jackie telephones Jack on "the other side" and finds a kind of closure. The opera ends with a deliberately cheesy folksong as Jackie decides to return to an America also in need of healing. "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." Waiter, another Scotch!
Shallow on the outside (what did you expect?) and deep in the middle, Jackie O could be a hit on Broadway. If so, one hopes it would be a looser rendition than the Houston Grand Opera production recorded here. (Patti Lupone would make a great Callas.) Still, Eric Owens is wonderful as Onassis -- he's smarmy self-love personified. And as the Great Woman herself, Nicole Heaston shows strength as well as tragedy. Jackie O actually gives postmodernism a good name. Vulgarity can still be fun.