Brian Wilson
(Giant Records)

In the months leading up to the release of Brian Wilson's second solo album of new material--and first in a decade--the buzz was that Imagination marked a return to the innocence and warmth of 1965's Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!). In the hands of co-producer Joe Thomas, however, this album frequently takes on too many of the gauzy characteristics of slick, sterile '80s adult contemporary. On a purely sonic level, the Beach Boys influence seems to begin and end with the wretchedly bland "Kokomo."

This is too bad, because Wilson's voice sounds stronger and more confident than it has in ages. One has to be impressed by the way he handles all the vocal parts on a remake of the Beach Boys' classic "Let Him Run Wild," even if the track ultimately falls slightly short of the original. A few fine songs, like the soaring "Your Imagination," and the dreamy "She Says That She Needs Me," suggest that Wilson still has much to offer, in the hands of a more sympathetic producer/collaborator. Next time, maybe he should call Van Dyke Parks.

--Gilbert Garcia

Sean Lennon
Into the Sun
(Grand Royal)

It's hard to imagine any male pop singer sounding less like John Lennon than his "beautiful boy," Sean. Whereas John effortlessly alternated between tonsil-shredding rock screamer and dreamy, falsetto-packing balladeer, Sean's voice always sounds thin, nasal and wimpy. Next to him, Sonny Bono was Barry White.

In a way, it's not such a bad thing that Sean offers so few aural hints of his legendary father. Half-brother Julian's career suffered mightily when his Lennonesque vocal quirks promised a depth and talent that he couldn't deliver. By contrast, Sean sounds more like the pampered offspring of Claudine Longet and Haircut 100's Nick Heyward. As a result, Into the Sun forces the listener to deal with Sean on his own terms, not as the continuation of some perceived rock dynasty.

Unfortunately, his self-conscious optimism and infatuation with bossa nova can be an overly sugary pill to swallow, particularly on the mega-wimpy title song and the spare, acoustic "One Night." Also, his lyrics are frequently bubbleheaded enough to make Paul McCartney pause. "Mystery Juice" commits several sins in the name of a hackneyed rhyme scheme: "Every day I watch the TV shows/It's getting so I know the shows' hosts/I don't boast/Maybe I should try and make the most."

What Sean does have to offer is expert musicianship--he plays several instruments, including guitar, bass, drums and various keyboards--and a solid knack for production and arrangement. The album's highlight, the infectious "Home," benefits from Sean's ability to create a Brian Wilson soundscape and then kick into a dirty, Weezer-inspired chorus. Nearly as strong is the breezy "Queue," which lovingly evokes a British pop recasting of Motown soul. Along the same lines, "Two Fine Lovers" practically begs for a Hanson cover (if the Spice Girls don't get to it first). Sean also shows a willingness to push the stylistic envelope with the jazz-funk instrumental "Photosynthesis," an impressive nod to his avant-garde roots.

Like all fey pop wimps--from Gilbert O'Sullivan to the aforementioned Haircut 100 to Papas Fritas--Sean constantly straddles the dangerous line between charming tunefulness and cutesy lameness. While he makes enough missteps on Into the Sun to prevent this from being a truly first-rate album, he does provide some evidence that this 22-year-old could yet be a significant pop auteur. As long as someone else is handling the vocals.

--Gilbert Garcia

Bob Newhart
Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart: The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!
(Warner Archives)

For better than 20 years, Bob Newhart has been one of American TV's greatest treasures. His bland, pleasant, unassuming Everyman persona has anchored two long-running sitcoms (plus one misfire) and can currently be enjoyed in CBS's George and Leo. His television success has been so strong that his earlier career in standup comedy is often forgotten, so the friendly folks at Warner Archives have given us these two great reminders.

In the late '50s, hip new comics such as Shelley Berman and Lenny Bruce were bringing social commentary to huge numbers through the relatively new medium of spoken-word comedy records. Mort Sahl's pointed political observations and Nichols and May's satirical sketches also had a huge audience. Newhart's style was different--gentler and more low-key than his contemporaries. He played a slightly intimidated, nervous, sane person trying to make sense of all the insanity around him. His character lived in a rapidly changing modern world that didn't seem to make perfect sense.

Newhart didn't attack the times, he just questioned them, and this questioning was his comic device. Indeed, all of his success on TV is a further refining of this same approach.

These two albums--his second and third releases--are fine examples of what Newhart does best. The bits are often one-sided conversations--a cop using reverse psychology to talk down a ledge jumper ("This your first time?"), for instance, or the slightly drunken speech by a bitter office worker at his retirement. Maybe the best routine on these two albums involves the instructor at a school for bus drivers, giving lessons on slamming the door in the passengers' faces and mispronouncing street names. Newhart's background--he left a 9-to-5 job as an accountant to pursue a comedy career--becomes clear in such details. This is a guy who has put in his time commuting to the office.

Both of these releases originally saw the light of day in the early '60s, so some of the more topical humor is pretty dated by any standards. It's a good bet that the story of an American tourist meeting Khrushchev won't pull the same yuks it once did. But most of the material is pretty universal, and stands up to this day.

--David Gofstein


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