Sunday, January 21

Soundbites


A&E


Brian Wilson “SMiLE” Warner Music Group
Rating:

Hype is relative. For instance, using it in reference to, say,
Franz Ferdinand is one thing. But when discussing
“SMiLE,” it can’t quite convey the mythic
expectations heaped upon rock’s now-legendary great lost
album, Brian Wilson’s abandoned follow-up to “Pet
Sounds” and response to the Beatles’
“Revolver” ““ both usually seen standing side by
side at the top of most greatest albums lists. After 37 years of
leaks, fan mixes and bootlegs, Wilson has re-recorded and finally
completed an official release of “SMiLE.” And press
cliches such as “much hyped” or its slightly less
exciting cousin, “eagerly anticipated,” don’t
quite do it justice. By the same token, describing the result as
pop music seems almost trivializing. “SMiLE” covers a
remarkable range of thematic and aural territory; Wilson both
revels in the joy and idealism of youth and early America and
mourns their losses, cutting and pasting them with playful
imagination and a swath of Americana into a brilliant kaleidoscope.
Wilson utilizes a modular approach to his work, fashioning together
what he calls “feels” ““ distinct snippets of
music ““ into a larger context. Given the sheer number of
moving parts, the greatest triumph of this final cut is its
cohesiveness ““ how surely the pieces fit together into three
suites, arranged around respective centerpieces “Heroes and
Villains,” “Surf’s Up” and “Good
Vibrations.” But “SMiLE” doesn’t transcend
pop; it embodies it wholly at its most genuine and inventive, in
the spirit of Gershwin. Although Wilson’s voice shows its age
at times, he sounds so revitalized and assured throughout the album
that it never becomes distracting. Original lyricist Van Dyke
Parks’s abstract phrasing seamlessly complements the
not-quite-tangible quality of Wilson’s compositions. The
point is, though, that after nearly four decades, they got just
about everything right. Does it deserve a spot next to the
landmarks of the ’60s? Maybe not. But it is most likely the
best pop record in years, and will quite possibly be remembered as
the first true masterpiece of the 21st century. -Alfred
Lee

Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama “There
Will Be A Light” Virgin Records Rating:

Yes, gospel music can rock, Ben Harper proves with his latest
release, “There Will Be a Light,” a collaboration with
gospel patriarchs The Blind Boys of Alabama. With each new album,
Harper has shown that he truly is a chameleon rocker able to mold
himself into any genre. And as this album proves, he can do it
quickly as well. “There Will Be a Light” was recorded
in only eight days, creating a simplicity of sound. There’s
really nothing esoteric about this organic-sounding selection of
original and cover songs. Just good gospel infused with soul, funk
and blues. In addition, the pacing of the album is impeccable.
Slower tempo songs like the heartfelt ballad “Where Could I
Go” and the traditional dirge “Mother Pray,” sung
a cappella, come in between funky electric songs like “Wicked
Man” and “Church House Steps,” which also feature
Harper’s superb slide guitar soloing. And the Middle Eastern
lullaby “11th Commandment,” a solo lap-steel guitar
instrumental, segues perfectly into “Well Well Well.”
Originally a pro-environment song penned by Bob Dylan and Danny
O’Keefe, the song now sounds as if it were straight from the
Mississippi Delta during the earlier part of the 20th century.
Another beautiful cover is “Satisfied Mind,” originally
done by Jeff Buckley. On the album, Harper and the Blind Boys turn
it into an electric blues doo-wop. “There Will Be a
Light” gently exposes rock fans to a less-familiar genre,
much like Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose” did
earlier this year with the help of rocker Jack White, who produced
the album. And while the songs clearly carry the traditional gospel
themes of a loving God, Hell and salvation, it’s not
asphyxiating. Listeners can rest assured there is no excessive
preaching or 10-minute congregation-type call and responses. This
record is a soulful and uplifting experience: part of what good
music is all about. -Angela Lu

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