The Wilsons
The Wilsons
(Mercury Records)

With the wretched Wilson Phillips, Carnie and Wendy Wilson--along with childhood chum Chynna Phillips--cashed in on a fleeting pop moment. At the dawn of this decade, progeny rock managed to unite proud baby boomers (who vicariously felt that they had raised these pampered superstar offspring) and confused teens, whose resistance had been lowered by too many Roxette videos. Along with the mannequin-pretty boys of Nelson, Wilson Phillips dented the airwaves with music so blandly generic it sounded like the songs had been written by market researchers. The masses quickly came to their senses, however, and Wilson Phillips' second album died a quick, painless death. Nowadays, the loin of superstar loins (e.g., Jakob Dylan) are expected to pay a few dues and maybe even write a decent song or two.

In light of all that, it's hard to think of a project less eagerly anticipated in 1997 than a collaboration between the two Wilson sisters--what, we have to listen to them, and we don't even get to see Chynna in the videos? But this album is being billed as much more: a full-blown family reunion, with dysfunctional dad Brian Wilson lending his long-absent genius to the proceedings. Unfortunately, as with so many Beach Boys albums of the past 25 years (remember the "Brian's Back" campaign for 15 Big Ones?), the publicity effort shows much more creativity than the music. Brian lends his vocals to only four tracks, sounding stronger than he has in ages, but not quite fitting inside his daughters' cramped doll house. He only contributed to the writing of three songs, and one of them, the eternally gorgeous "'Til I Die," is three decades old.

Nonetheless, the album begins on a promising note. The punchy "Monday Without You" (co-written by Carole King) rides a chiming 12-string into a catchy chorus that's slick without setting off any Muzak detectors. For a moment, you think maybe the Wilsons have elevated their California pop to the formulaic-but-pleasing level of late-period Bangles. No such luck.

Wendy and Carnie are decent singers, and their obvious sibling love is endearing, but whenever their voices blend, you feel like you're trapped in commercial-jingle land and someone's trying to buy the world a Coke. At his mid-'60s peak, their dad could take similar block-harmony arrangements and make your heart skip a beat. But as any Spinal Tap aficionado knows, there's a fine line between cleverness and stupidity.

--Gilbert Garcia

Robyn Hitchcock
Uncorrected Personality Traits:
The Robyn Hitchcock Collection
(Rhino Records)

Always be suspicious of retrospectives like Bob Dylan's Biograph and Prince's The Hits which aren't sequenced in chronological order. That usually indicates an artist whose best work is somewhere in the middle and whose later work proves too anticlimactic to provide a satisfactory set closer. In the case of Robyn Hitchcock, whose lyrical potpourri of fish imagery, insect-egg hatching, first-thing-that-pops-in-your-head rhymes and vegetable matter is a career continuum, linear progression is probably a moot point.

While the man himself approved the song selection and includes amusing anecdotes on each, works like "Bass" and "Queen Elvis II" seem slight compared to missing classics like "Brenda's Iron Sledge" and "Leppo and the Jooves." You're better off revisiting Black Snake Diamond Role, Groovy Decay or even the live Gotta Let This Hen Out! in their entirety, albums that capture the extent of Hitchcock's obsessions at a given moment, than by this sprawling cross-fertilization of nine albums. Far from winning him any new converts, this sampler doesn't even make a compelling case for his cult status.

--Serene Dominic

Barry Black
Tragic Animal Stories
(Alias Records)

Any college rocker worth his bachelor's degree will sooner or later head wide-eyed in search of postgrad sound adventures. Few, though, will be as well-equipped to handle a musical career beyond the gates as Eric Bachmann, maestro behind the one-person pop ensemble called Barry Black.

It shouldn't surprise us: Bachmann's main gig, Chapel Hill's Archers of Loaf, has always exhibited an aptitude for making music that transcends its indie-rock pedigree even while helping define the genre. Besides, Bachmann had the advantage of spending his college years in music school. While most were chugging Pearl Jam, Bachmann sipped Stravinsky.

Bachmann's first steps outside the Archers' conventional four-man rock thing came in 1995 with Barry Black's self-titled debut, a patchwork of spare-time recordings with local North Carolina musicians (Ben Folds), producers (Caleb Southern) and random scenesters. Though too informal and unassuming to assert itself as anything but a lark, the recording was an unexpected gem of eccentric pop that revealed compositional talents Bachmann had only hinted at in his other band. Fortunately, Bachmann deemed his side show worthy of further exploration.

So we have Barry Black's follow-up, Tragic Animal Stories, a far more formal and self-conscious affair. Taking time to more fully script and sculpt the arrangements, Bachmann cashes in on some of the skills he learned in orchestration class. With a blend of instruments both classical (strings, horns, woodwinds, piano) and modern (guitars, percussion, loops), he paints each of the 10 tracks in a rich and distinct--and playfully appropriate--hue: Plodding tubas motivate "Dueling Elephants"; an ominous violin sounds "When Sharks Smell Blood"; synth washes and distant whale-call vocals start the "Tropical Fish Revival"; and so on. Even lumping in fond references to Satie's piano figures, Cage's exotic percussion, Eno's static ambiance and Beefheart's dissonant guitar, the pieces are consistently generous to modern pop tastes. It's like listening to Peter and the Wolf done by the Brian Wilson Chamber Group.

--Roni Sarig