Now that he has been successfully cajoled back on to the horse, there's no stopping Brian Wilson, it seems. He appears to be shrewdly alternating serious projects with pot-boilers, last year's monumental Smile being preceded by the flimsy duets-and-outtakes collection Getting in over My Head and now succeeded by that leakiest of music-biz gambits, a Christmas album.
Brian's been here before, in the company of his old band; indeed, there are retreads here of The Beach Boys' festive chestnuts, "The Man with All the Toys" and "Little Saint Nick", the latter of which, sad to say, possesses more genuine pop pep than anything else on the album. It also demonstrates that, for all his litigious spite, there are some lyrical tasks that only Mike Love can handle comfortably. A Van Dyke Parks or a Tony Asher, for instance, would probably balk at the cornball sentiments of "Little Saint Nick", but sometimes cornball is exactly what Brian Wilson's songs need.
What Brian really wants for Christmas, one imagines, is a simpatico lyric-writing partner, someone who might steer him away from phrases such as "a ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong day", one of the lines he comes up with for "On Christmas Day". There are a couple of candidates involved here, though neither looks like a long-term prospect. Bernie Taupin contributes the lyric to the title track, every line of which Wilson delivers as if it's a thought-provoking aphorism, rather than a festive cliché.
Rather better is Jimmy Webb's "Christmasey", which manages to rhyme "light up the candles" with "a song of Handel's", and has Brian claiming, "It gives me such a lift/ Makes me wanna give myself a gift", a welcome shaft of light-heartedness into what can be at times a fairly po-faced affair.
For the most part, Wilson has resisted the temptation to try to emulate the legendary Spector arrangements of A Christmas Gift for You, avoiding the same material in favour of wholesome, earnest arrangements of carols.
Within the formula, a few tracks stand out: "Deck the Halls" is given a slinky rumba arrangement; the otherwise ponderous "It Came upon a Midnight Clear" features a nice bluesy piano break; and "Auld Lang Syne" appears in an a cappella version whose vocal arrangement recalls Wilson's heroes The Four Freshmen, albeit employing some unusual diving glissandi. This, you suspect, is where Brian would really like to be at Christmas: around the tree with his late brothers, all neatly sweatered, working on some outlandish harmonies.
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