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Brian Wilson
Imagination
(Giant)

After the 1966 release of the Beach Boys' seminal Pet Sounds, anxiety and substance abuse contributed to a growing sense of inertia in Brian Wilson's life. His struggle was further complicated by his relationship with a host of toxic personalities, from his dominant, perfectionist stage father to a psychiatrist with an unnerving amount of influence over his work. By the mid-Eighties, Wilson knew he had become the stereotypical "where are they now" story, an addicted recluse, estranged from his family and lacking inspiration. On a seeming rebound, Wilson signed a record deal with Warner Bros., which issued the critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing Brian Wilson in 1988, a chronicle of his chaotic, painful life and an attempt at creative solvency.

He recorded a second album but Warner Bros. deemed it unfit for release. A few years later, the 1995 documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times helped to recharge public interest in Wilson and his music, although the accompanying soundtrack -- a batch of dramatically reworked Beach Boys classics -- was a chart dud. Nonetheless, Wilson started recording again, setting up a studio at his home in a rural community outside Chicago. The result is Imagination, his first set of new songs in ten years.

On the title track, Wilson sings "I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here," but it's clear he hasn't yet regained enough faith in himself to do that. While all eleven cuts deliver the celestial glow and creamy harmonies Wilson conjured at the height of his powers (he uses as many as 96 vocal tracks in a single tune here), he remains an insecure star all too willing to hitch his wagon to a less talented collaborator or adviser. Wilson wanted to work with people such as Paul McCartney but admitted being too shy to ask, despite having had the ex-Beatle's very public and ardent admiration for more than 30 years. Instead, Wilson's wavering confidence and his questionable trust in co-producer Joe Thomas allowed the slick, professional-songwriter element in, and the famous guest lyricists generally muck things up.

Ready-made pop anthemist Carole Bayer Sager phoned in her contribution to "She Says That She Needs Me," both literally and inspirationally. Her long-distance, speaker-phone collaboration with Wilson yielded less than her best -- a few dull break-up verses of the variety penned by novice folksingers and lite-rock hacks such as Air Supply. And though Wilson's "Dream Angel" is a sweet-spirited ode to his baby daughters, hit tunesmith Jim Peterik's poetry is mostly pablum. (What else would you expect from the guy who wrote Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger"?) Wilson shoots himself in the foot, though, as the satisfying musical luster of "Cry" and "Lay Down Burden" is dimmed by his own cliches and limp phrasing.

The one song where everything works just right is "South American," Wilson's Key West excursion with Jimmy Buffett. There's something weirdly right about putting these two barefoot philosophers together, and Buffett's light satirical touch goes great with Wilson's relaxed, exuberant vocal. In the lyrics "You only get to Heaven if you chase your dreams/Let the paparazzi flash, let the tabloids scream/I've been around too long to care what anyone says/I'm hungry and I'm doin' lunch with Cameron Diaz," Buffett captures Wilson's survivor's spirit with the humor and ease that's lacking in the rest of the tracks.

But after the turmoil of the last three decades, Wilson is keeping things emotionally simple for now. "Here's my story, sad but true/Things are better when skies are blue," he nursery-rhymes in "Sunshine," with a renewed innocence that defines his current bottom line. There's a genuine thankfulness in his voice to be back among the living, and even in this compromised comeback, it's great to hear that spark again.

-- Robin Myrick

Creeper Lagoon
I Become Small and Go
(Nickelbag)

Currently riding the crest of a publicity wave that threatens to land the band on the business end of the most successful indie-cred hoax since crassly commercial Pearl Jam managed to turn an accident of geography into an alleged musical association with Nirvana (and by extension, punk rock), the presence of Creeper Lagoon is a symptom of something very wrong in the Dust Brothers' camp. Either the master producers of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay were making a cynical grab for a clueless major label's cash when they brought Creeper Lagoon to their label, Nickelbag (they promptly parlayed the deal into a profitable arrangement with DreamWorks), or they're suddenly crippled by bad taste. The output of previous Nickelbag signees Sukia suggests the latter, but either way they've done their fans wrong.

But an even bigger disservice to music lovers is being done by the duped journalists who parroted Creeper Lagoon's press release -- which drops names like the Dead C, My Bloody Valentine, and Butthole Surfers, even though the band sounds at best like Guided by Voices, Sponge, and Weezer -- and who were subsequently quoted in the band's later press releases to justify its absurd claims. More telling is the fact that the Dust Brothers did less production work on I Become Small and Go than Mark Endert, best known for work with Madonna and Shawn Colvin.

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