Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Life of Brian

Former Beach Boy finds solo luck

By Shelton Clark

JULY 27, 1998:  Brian Wilson is the very definition of a "troubled genius." In the tradition of Phil Spector, Wilson's prodigious talents as a songwriter, producer, arranger, and singer took his group, the Beach Boys, to the top of the music world before he'd even reached his 20th birthday. But the pressure to replicate the Beach Boys' early success, along with various addictions and mental-health problems, have kept Wilson mostly out of commission for the past 20 years. His eponymous 1988 solo album showed flashes of brilliance, but the proceedings were undercut by the amateurish songwriting collaboration of Wilson's then-manager/psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy.

Since then, Wilson's career appears to have made a slow, steady climb. In 1995, he was the subject of Don Was' documentary, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, which captures some of Wilson's heartbreak and inspiration, as well as obeisance from figures such as Tom Petty. Now, two years after his LP collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, he's back with a new Giant Records album, Imagination, which offers an even better portrait of the musician who is arguably America's greatest pop songwriter.

"Your Imagination," which kicks off the album, reasserts Wilson's unparalleled skills both as a song craftsman and as a vocalist. The song, like the rest of the album, recalls some of Wilson's best work over the years: The Spector-esque "wall of sound" instrumentation is perfectly suited to the wonderfully over-the-top harmonies, which are all sung by Wilson.

Interestingly, Wilson's new release builds on several Nashville ties that date back to the Beach Boys' Fan Fair appearance a couple of years ago. The band came to town in 1996 to promote Stars & Stripes, Vol. 1, an album that awkwardly matched the group with country artists such as Lorrie Morgan, Sawyer Brown, and the normally dependable Willie Nelson. The album represented Brian Wilson's first album-length work with the Beach Boys in over a decade. Wilson and then-River North Records president Joe Thomas coproduced the project, using Nashville's A-list session musicians, among them drummer Eddie Bayers, bassist Michael Rhodes, and guitarist Brent Rowan. These three musicians also appear on Imagination, as does Thomas, who produced the collection and wrote five of the album's tunes.

Though Wilson fans may grumble that Thomas' production is self-serving, it's only fair to point out what's right with the album. Tracks that shouldn't work--the quasi-Calypso "South American" (cowritten by Jimmy Buffett) and remakes of the Beach Boys' "Let Him Run Wild" and "Keep an Eye on Summer"--work beautifully, thanks to Wilson's natural talents and the superb musicianship of Bayers, Rhodes, Rowan, et al.

Imagination offers a few surprises too. The album-ending "Happy Days" almost shocks with its dissonance; its lyric, the best of the album, gives a glimpse into Wilson's mental torment of the past 25 years. And "Lay Down Burden" is a poignant requiem for Wilson's brother (and fellow Beach Boy) Carl, who died of cancer this past February.

Like John Fogerty, whose recent Blue Moon Swamp was well-received by critics and fans alike, Wilson has made a modern album that proves he is the genuine article in a marketplace full of imitators. So it's not Pet Sounds, Part II. Still, anyone who thinks Celine Dion can make a good pop record--and that's apparently 90 percent of civilization--would do well to let Wilson's Imagination run wild.

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