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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.

The album contains many songs that are supposed to sound off-the-cuff yet heavy -- that is, like Pavement. But because the band is incapable of even a single interesting chord change, tracks such as "Tracy," "Dreaming Again," "Dear Deadly," and "Black Hole" plod along without meaning or merit -- all affectation and no style to call their own. Creeper Lagoon seems especially phony when dressed up as a rock-to-electronica crossover act. Because its songs are very basic, cliched, guitar-poppers, the additions of sampled Bulgarian folk chants and racks of sustaining and cresting keyboards (on "Prison Mix" and "Second Chance") come off as pretentious. That I Become sounds brightly glossed and shorn of rough edges, as if tailor-made for "modern rock" pop radio, is all the more shameful.

Creeper Lagoon honed its slick but innocuous skills in San Francisco, a city strongly associated with rock music even though its most recent alleged contributions to the genre were 4 Non Blondes and Third Eye Blind. Those are two good reasons to disbelieve the hype about Creeper Lagoon. Bands like this don't fail in terms of aesthetics only: By intentionally misusing their language -- both musically and critically -- they affront the very culture of rock. (Nickelbag, 4470 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90027)

-- Adam Heimlich

Vonda Shepard
Songs from Ally McBeal
(550/Sony)

No, movie soundtracks aren't enough. Apparently some genius at Sony headquarters decided it was time for all you suckers to carve just a little deeper into your paychecks and pony up for a television soundtrack. And he (or she or they) are probably figuring that you consumers are such drooling idiots that all you need is a picture of Ally McBeal's cute little kisser on the cover and you'll shell out the sixteen bucks. Sort of like a Pavlovian thing: See the sprite, pay the cash.

Please don't do this.
See, the album inside really, really sucks. This chick, Vonda Shepard, I'm sure she means well and all, but she can't sing. And she can't write songs for crap, either. The titles just about say it all: "Searchin' My Soul," "Will You Marry Me," "The Wildest Times of the World." This is the sort of synthesized dreck that belongs on a karaoke machine, not on a major-label release. (The quiet, nearly dignified ballad "Maryland" is the sole exception.)

Expectedly, Shepard's covers are equally vomitous. She somehow manages to turn Rudy Clark's "It's in His Kiss" into a deeply depressing exercise in forced frivolity. The same tinkle of artificiality marks her rendition of B.J. Thomas's already insipid "Hooked on a Feeling." Shepard's voice is a cheap knockoff of Joan Osborne (who is, in turn, a cheap knockoff of Janis Joplin). Her keyboard work is just about dull enough to match the studio musicians who sleepwalk through their parts.

This is the kind of record that has nothing to do with soul and absolutely everything to do with cross-marketing. In fact, let's not even call it a record. Let's call it what it is: a product.

-- Steve Almond

The Four Blazes
Mary Jo
(Delmark)

Tab Smith
Top 'N' Bottom
(Delmark)

Although Delmark has been duly lauded as one of the finest contemporary blues and jazz labels around, the Chicago-based indie's excavation of the United Records vaults has produced some of R&B's most essential reissues. The best of the latest batch is Mary Jo, a stunning and illuminating assortment of urbane, intimate, but unquestionably swinging early-Fifties vocal-group bop from the Windy City's Four Blazes. "Mary Jo," the group's debut for United, defined the Blazers' style, with a slinky twelve-bar rhythmic vamp, darting sax, William Hill's tasty jazzbo guitar fills, and a sly, crooning vocal from bassist Tommy Braden. (Think Charles Brown without the late-night melancholy, or the King Cole Trio on a jump-blues bender.) The song spent three weeks at the top of the R&B chart in 1952, and though none of the followups to "Mary Jo" came close to its success, everything on this stellar collection -- the dazzling six-string showcase "Stop Boogie Woogie," the romping "All Night Long," and "Rug Cutter" especially -- defines the sound of R&B in the prerock era.

Also worth finding is Top 'N' Bottom, part three in Delmark's series devoted to the complete United recordings of Tab Smith. An important if unacclaimed alto and tenor sax giant who spent the Forties in the orchestras of Count Basie and Lucky Millinder, Smith led his own combo throughout the Fifties, wedding masterfully the taut swing of small-combo jazz with the swagger and raunch of honking uptown R&B. His lone hit for United, 1951's "Because of You," is included on Delmark's Jump Time (part one of the series), and his greatest performance -- "Sunny Side of the Street" -- appears on part two, Ace High. But Top 'N' Bottom features a wealth of previously unissued essential wailers and weepers, from the heartbreaking "My Ideal" to a stunning, swooping version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." (Delmark, 4121 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618)

-- John Floyd

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