Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kat's Korner: Why a very good album isn't great


Kat: I didn't realize Wilson Phillips' Dedicated was out yet. I knew the TV Guide reality show had begun airing. Mainly because I heard Ava and C.I. all last week discussing whether or not they could cover it at Third Estate Sunday Review, debating whether they knew too much 'behind the music' to cover it, whether they wanted to analyze Chynna Phillips, Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson the way they would characters in a scripted show and might they be too close to the three to be impartial?

In the end, it was all for naught. The sexism of The Water Cooler Set meant Ava and C.I. would tackle the posers pretending to be critics who betray standards and dumb down the world for all of us. It's a great piece but I, for one, would have preferred to have seen them explore the group dynamics of Wilson Phillips which, as portrayed in the reality show Wilson Phillips Still Holding On, are a messy free-for-all. There's so much to tell.

I'm not the one though because, unlike Ava and C.I., I don't personally know Chynna, Carnie and Wilson. Years ago, when they were first starting out, I was dating a guy at RCA and he passed me a cassette. He put it down, the music, the three women. They were singing Stevie Nicks' "Wild Heart" in a beautiful three part harmony. I believe there was also a Heart song ("Dog and Butterfly"?) and I can't remember the third. The three were then working with Richard Perry, laying down demos. I'm not sure if they had set out to interest RCA or if a friend had merely slid the tape over to my then-boyfriend. But he was very dismissive of the trio and I listened to the tape repeatedly attempting to figure out why?

I know music as well as anyone else and the gals clearly had talent, the songs they sang (not their own compositions) were strong ones with unique interpretation. Why the hatred? "They've had it too easy," insisted my boyfriend. It's a line used to dismiss various women at various times. Supposedly, Carly Simon's had it to easy, Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt -- basically any woman who didn't get busted for a heroin habit. Like the increasingly repulsive Ani DiFranco, men think they can demand that women bleed.

It's a way to keep women out of the club and nothing else.

But how did Chynna, Carnie and Wendy have it easy?

Chynna, daughter of Michelle Phillips and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, had a drug using and dealing father who might have cared more about her if seeing her required a prescription. By all accounts, the creative genius of the Beach Boys was much more loving but Brian Wilson was also much more often unreachable due to his inner demons. Like Chynna, the Wilson sisters were raised largely by their mother (Marilyn Wilson of the 60s girl group The Honeys who recorded albums and also sang back up on Beach Boys and Jan and Dean tracks).

"I know there's pain . . ."

So opened Wilson Phillips first single -- one that went all the way to number one in June of 1990 -- "Hold On." Written by Chynna and new producer Glen Ballard (with "additional lyrics by Carnie Wilson"), the single was catchy, perfect for the times and made it harder for even the sexists to insist that the three women had it easy growing up. It also allowed Michelle and Chynna Phillips to become the first (and so far only) mother and daughter to have number one hits separately (as opposed to on a song they sang together) -- Michelle with the Mamas and the Papas' "Monday, Monday." (Triva note, on Belinda Carlisle's 1987 album Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Michelle and Chynna Phillips and Carnie Wilson are among the back up singers.)

Their debut album, the self-titled Wilson Phillips, had more hits including chart toppers "You're In Love" (written by Glenn Ballard, Chynna Phillips, Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson) and "Release Me" (written by Chynna Phillips, Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson), the top five hit "Impulsive" (written by Clif Magness and Steve Kipner) and the number 12 hit "The Dream Is Still Alive" (written by Glen Ballard, Chynna Phillips, Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson). Even better, the non-singles weren't just filler. Their interpretation of Tim Hardin's "A Reason To Believe" brought new interest to the song (three years later, Rod Stewart would 'remember' he'd recorded the track in 1971 and include it in an MTV special).

The album was huge. The group was huge. And had a huge problem.

There's not a group in the world that hasn't had tension over who gets attention which is why the distrust and dislike for the front person is a theme even in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. The other Bangles were jealous of the attention Susanna Hoffs received, the other Go-Gos were jealous of the attention that Belinda Carlisle received. Stevie Nicks was trashed repeatedly in the late 70s by Lindsey Buckingham who couldn't deal with her success. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have a decades long love-hate relationship that would be hate-hate had Keith not been elevated to one of the Glimmer Twins.

Chynna got her mother's beauty. There are few women who will ever look as lovely as Michelle Phillips. (In the reality show, when Chynna's not fully made up, she looks even more like her mother.) As a California blond, and a gorgeous one, Chynna was going to get attention. As the co-writer (with Ballard) of the band's first number one and with a song so clearly autobiographical, Chynna's songwriting chops were going to be recognized and "additional lyrics by . . ." credits weren't going to improve Carnie's standing there. The first song that was not Chynna on lead or all three sharing lead was also the first not to go number one ("Impulsive"). There was a lot of attention and flattery Chynna was receiving.

Equally true, she had a healthier self-image than the other two because, and this is the point of "Hold On," she's already addressed her father issues. While Chynna's father descended into drugs, Brian Wilson had different problems. And the relationship, in 1990, was forever in flux as Brian began attempting to resurface from his reclusive state. It wasn't easy for either Carnie or Wendy.

In addition, the beauty issue was a problem for Carnie who couldn't accept that she was pretty and she was heavy. We'd all love to be Michelle Phillips' size but we're not all going to be that. Carnie had it easier than most large women ever will. She was attractive and talented and, by standing next to Chynna, she got to recall the one and only Cass Elliot who'd been in the Mamas and the Papas with Michelle. She never got how easy she had it -- and judging by the TV show and her decision to have yet another surgery to lose weight, she still hasn't.

Poor Wendy. She was a very pretty young lady. And in a band with drop dead gorgeous Chynna and pretty but heavy Carnie, Wendy was never going to be noticed. She was also the weakest singer of the three in 1990. Chynna possessed range and breath control, Carnie possessed sheer power. Wendy's vocal skills were still emerging. The biggest news about their track on 1991's Elton John tribue album Two Rooms ("Daniel," number seven on the adult contemporary charts) was how far Wendy had come as a vocalist. Her growth would continue on the group's 1992 release Shadows and Light.

Shadows and Light is seen as a failure (it sold over a million copies in the US alone) and people can't understand why it failed. I argued in real time -- and still do -- that they could have survived grunge (which emerges on the charts in 1991) because they were unique and modern . . . except they'd done the Elton John tribute album. "Daniel" killed it for them. The 80s had been all about the baby boom generation, in terms of music. 10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M. were huge . . . on college radio. It took Janet Jackson and the Beastie Boys to really break through the wall-to-wall baby boom. "Daniel" came too soon after the wall was broken down. It left Wilson Phillips looking tired and old.

They had two top forty hits from the album -- "You Won't See Me Cry" made it to number twenty while "Give It Up" made it to number thirty and both tracks were written by the group with Glen Ballard -- and that's really all they had. Chynna left the group.

By Beach Boy standards, it was shocking. The Beach Boys have replaced and reshuffled throughout the years -- only Mike Love and Brian are constants -- and even had Toni Tennille as a Beach Boy. You keep going, no matter what, you keep going! So the Wilson sisters did a Christmas album and then, with their father, 1997's The Wilsons.

Chynna came from a different tradition. At the height of their fame, the Mamas and the Papas were fine with breaking up. They'd recorded four albums -- all huge sellers -- and had 15 singles hit the top 100 -- ten of them going top 30. And breaking up didn't fill the band with fear, everyone was ready to do their own thing. Michelle would act and sing, Cass would sing, act and do variety shows, Denny would sing and host his own variety show in Canada. Only John couldn't let go of the ghost and, really, that was only after attempts at being a solo artist and at writing for Broadway resulted in failure. Chynna's group broke up after two albums? Her parents group broke up after four.

Wilson Phillip's gotten back together for shows before and even got back together for 2004's California which was half-very good and half-not-so-much. When it worked, it sounded wonderful, like a real trio was working it. When it didn't work, it sounded like the weakest tracks of People Like Us -- the Mamas and Papas 1971 album that they recorded only because their label was going to sue them for a million dollars if they didn't produce once more record and an album that largely found Cass on the sidelines due to health reasons.

Watching the reality show last week and seeing Chynna announce that she was doing Dancing With The Stars as Carnie exploded, I thought, "Uh-oh." Chynna insisted Wendy and Carnie could work in the studio and then, after a day of taping the ABC dance show, Chynna would come in for an hour and do her vocals. That is not the key to a successful album and Carnie had every right to be furious.

As the reality show unfolds, we may learn Carnie got her way or Chynna came to her senses. Something had to have happened because Dedicated is really something.

But, sadly, it's not enough.

And they're responsible for that conclusion.

They invite the criticism. 12 tracks and only 5 are Mamas and the Papas?

I mean, come on. Are they asking us to explain to them which group was rock and roll and which was rock?

I had a long section where I ripped into the Beach Boys that I've removed. I'll simply note one group was a musical and cultural forces and one wasn't. The one that impacted on all levels was the Mamas and the Papas.

Split it down the middle equally or people are going to quibble.

And if they're forced to quibble, it won't be at the Mamas and the Papas expense.

The Mamas and the Papas didn't copy the Doors or anyone else to try to climb back to the top.

Including "Do It Again" really begs for a critical push back on that song and a final acknowledgment of the huge debt it owes to the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" which was released two years prior to the Beach Boys 'similar' song. In real time, critics noted "Do It Again" was a return to their surf sound. No. That's really the only way the Boys knew to do a fast song. Listen to "Do It Again" and listen to "Soul Kitchen" and you'll see Brian Wilson was attempting to copy the new California sound, not return to the old. (Brian wrote the music, Mike Love wrote the awful lyrics.) If you play the two songs at the same time, you'll really notice the similarities including how the riff Ray Manzarek's pounding out on the Vox Continental matches exactly with the hand claps on the Boys' track.

By refusing to split it down the middle, six of one group and six of the other, they're reminding you that, for example, they're not recording "Safe In My Garden," the Mamas and the Papas 1968 single that is perfect for a soft blend from Chynna and Wendy on the first four lines of the verse and then Carnie belting out the next four. Or what about the undiscovered gem that is "Snowqueen of Texas"?

That is the sort of feel the album (produced by Carnie's husband Rob Bonfiglio) really seems to be going for. And "Do It Again" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" don't belong at all. They don't work either lyrically or musically with the gentle vibe the album's creating elsewhere. An up tempo Beach Boys number like "Vegetables" (written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks) or "I'd Love Just Once To See You" (written by Brian and Mike Love) would have been a better fit for the album.

In addition, someone needs to explain to Wilson Phillips that if you have nothing new to offer on "Fun, Fun, Fun," you really have no reason to include it. And I felt that way when Joan Jett recorded it for her Good Music album (1986). I feel that way only more so when three adult women, all in their forties and all with father issues, are left singing an insulting song about a young woman's quest for freedom being interrupted because "Daddy took the T-bird away." It's a trifle of a song, there's no reason to include it lyrically and the trio's done nothing with it musically to warrant its inclusion.

The uneven split leads the listener to more questions. For example, you wonder why they didn't try the Mamas and the Papas "String Man" or if "Creeque Alley" didn't make the cut because the "no one's getting fat" bothered one member of Wilson Phillips?

Cass Elliot had no problem belting out that line or any other in the classic John and Michelle wrote and one of the big surprises on the album is when Owen Elliot-Kugell comes in on "This Is Dedicated To The One I Love" sounding so much like her mother. And the track is one of the album's strong moments. On this and many other tracks, there's no 'star' and it's about the interplay of the voices. However, there are tracks when one member takes the lead such as when Wendy steps out front of "Wouldn't It Be Nice." It's on that track especially that she demonstrates she's the vocalist who's come the furthest and really hints that she could seriously (and successfully) explore jazz if she so desired.

Carnie gets out front with "Good Vibrations" which is probably the strongest recording on the album. While Carnie delivers the lyrics, Wendy and Chynna create the aural landscape Carnie's able to bounce off of. And as the track fades (the last on the album), you're left wishing they'd do a psychedelic album. Maybe work in Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," Love's "She Comes In Colors," the Who's "I Can See For Miles" and the Mamas and the Papas "Too Late"?

Until that album comes along, we've got Dedicated which contains solid singing, often inspired arrangements, some nice drum work and ten tracks you'll find irresistible. It's by no means a bad album. If fact, I expect this to be a contender for my year's top ten. It showcases one of the most talented trios doing some gorgeous work and putting a lot of genuine love into the songs. Nine tracks are really worthy of praise with four being outstanding ("Dedicated To The One I Love," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Don't Worry Baby" and "Good Vibrations") -- excellent even. They more than make up for "I Can Hear Music" which is lackluster. But they can't overcome "Do It Again" or "Fun, Fun, Fun" which do not fit with the album's musical theme and which really offer nothing to justify the re-recordings. Those two tracks bring down what would otherwise be an excellent album, leaving it with the grade of just "very good." For some, that'll be enough. For others? We'll treasure the bulk of this album but keep hoping this is just the warm up for the group's second phase.