The Boston Phoenix
June 18 - 25, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Old school

Ringo Starr and Brian Wilson

by Brett Milano

Brian Wilson By my rough calculation, one of the last times Brian Wilson and Ringo Starr released new songs in close proximity was 32 summers ago, when the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" both topped the Billboard charts. Those singles would later turn up on the landmark albums Pet Sounds and Revolver. It goes without saying that the simultaneous release of Brian Wilson's Imagination (Giant) and Ringo Starr's Vertical Man (Mercury) is nowhere near as much of an event. Both albums try their hardest to echo the glory days. Both are full of sonic references to the Beatles and the Beach Boys -- Ringo's even has a song by his old band, Brian's has two. But in terms of competing with the past, both will leave old fans reaching for their Revolver.

In a career touched by genius and madness, Brian Wilson has been great and he's been horrible, but until now he's never been boring. On his best post-'60s albums -- 1977's cult classic The Beach Boys Love You; 1992's Sweet Insanity (never released because of conflicts with psychiatrist/lyricist Eugene Landy, but frequently bootlegged) -- Wilson looked into his troubled psyche yet maintained an underlying sweetness and optimism. Imagination is his first official album of new songs in 10 years, but it's less a comeback than an adult-contemporary makeover. Producer/co-writer Joe Thomas (who oversaw the Beach Boys' recent country disaster, Stars & Stripes) helps him make the kind of easygoing album Capitol wanted in 1966, when he knocked his label for a loop with Pet Sounds instead. The now-trademark rough vocals and roller-rink keyboards are gone, but so are the brilliantly eccentric chord changes and the touching turns of phrase. In their place are breezy love ballads, pointless Beach Boys remakes, and new summer-fun songs that seem ready-made for soft-drink commercials. The only thing missing is Mike Love.

Prime example: "She Says That She Needs Me," better known to bootleg collectors as "Sherry She Needs Me," a song that got thrown away in '78 and is rewritten here. The singer is about to leave his girlfriend; he's begging her to understand that his new love needs him more. In the original, the climactic plea is "Sherry, don't hate her guts because she took me away," a line so ridiculous that only someone in that situation could have uttered it. The new version calls in Carole Bayer Sager for a cosmetic lyric rewrite. It also smoothes the rough spots out of the melody and substitutes a glossy LA arrangement for the idiosyncratic keyboards. (Wilson's instrumental contributions are kept to a minimum throughout.) Although an improvement on every technical level, the new edition is a routine love ballad that lacks the endearing clumsiness of "Sherry."

The old magic does turn up twice. "Where Has Love Been?" (co-written by J.D. Souther) is a haunting tune that recalls the Beach Boys' exquisite " 'Til I Die." "Cry" -- one of only two written without outside help -- is the first blues song in Wilson's catalogue, and it shows off his much-recovered vocal range. But the autobiographical epic "Happy Days" is a major letdown: it cuts from ominous intro to sunny finale, with no development other than a bad sax solo. And the album's beach songs, "Sunshine" and "South American" (co-written by Jimmy Buffett, of all people), only recall what the Beach Boys did in Wilson's absence. It's ironic -- and sad -- that with the cachet of Pet Sounds at an all-time high, Brian Wilson is off rewriting "Kokomo."

When Ringo Starr scored a solo hit with his 1974 Ringo (whose opening track, the John Lennon-penned "I'm the Greatest," borrowed the audience effects from Sgt. Pepper), the pattern for his albums was set: pack in as many star cameos and Fab Four references as possible and let Ringo's personality do the rest. Vertical Man carries that formula to extremes. It's so packed with production tricks, celeb walk-ons, and familiar licks that it could be a Rutles album. On "King of Broken Hearts" alone, you've got a plodding drum/strings groove straight out of "Free As a Bird," a bit of sitar straight out of 1968, and a slide-guitar solo straight out of "Something" (George Harrison even plays it) -- all on a number that cries out to be a low-key country song. The title track calls in Ozzy Osbourne to re-create the vocal effects from "I Am the Walrus." And on a remake of the Dobie Grey hit "Drift Away," Ringo trades verses with, yes, Steven Tyler and Alanis Morissette -- maybe they were just putting together celebrities who look alike.

At times the production is so thick that the songs get overwhelmed -- not a bad idea with a lot of these numbers, which were mostly written by Ringo with producer Mark Hudson. Still, Vertical Man offers a relatively guilt-free way to sustain the nostalgia buzz one got from the Beatles' Anthology and Paul McCartney's Flaming Pie. If you still miss the Beatles, rest assured that you're in good company.

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