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THE BATTLE for Brian Wilson's soul has been waged with such ruthless ferocity over the past few decades that it's something of a miracle that this most troubled of musical geniuses can still make music at all - though on the evidence of Imagination, the turmoil continues to take its toll.
Indeed, the Nineties have been as puzzling a period as any for Wilson observers. It's 10 years since his last solo album proper, since when there have been "lost" recordings, such as the Sweet Insanity album (cancelled due to the record company's belief that fans wouldn't appreciate an album of self-analysis); a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, Orange Crate Art, which was more Parks than Wilson; a soundtrack to Don Was's Wilson documentary I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, comprising mostly re-recorded career highlights; and yet more "lost" recordings from sessions done with Andy Paley, Wilson's most reliable enabler of recent years.
For Imagination, Paley has been replaced by Joe Thomas, formerly a wrestler known as "Surfer Joe". For all his pseudonymous apposition, however, Thomas seems to have little empathy with Wilson's talent, which is shoe-horned here into the kind of mediocre AOR arrangements that crippled American rock in the Eighties. It's not without its occasional glories - mostly to do with his vocals, which remain sublime - but as a whole it's curiously lacking in the kind of grace and sensitivity that have been a Wilson watchword since the Sixties. Most worryingly of all, the decent tracks date mostly from the Sixties - re-recordings of "Let Him Run Wild" and "Keep An Eye On Summer", and another old tune, "She Says That She Needs Me", one of several songs on which Brian has been ill-advisedly "partnered" by pro song-hacks like Carole Bayer Sager, Jimmy Buffet and JD Souther. Of the more recent songs, the best are "Cry", a solo piece whose melody takes a Wilsonian left turn or two, and the opener "Your Imagination", nostalgie de la plage into which Brian sneaks a cry for help. "I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here," he sings. "You know, it would've been nice if I had something to do." It would indeed.
MERMAID AVENUE BILLY BRAGG & WILCO
INVITED BY Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora to add music to a recently discovered sheaf of her late father's lyrics, Billy Bragg called in American country- rockers Wilco to contribute a variety of rootsy US textures to the songs. The results, as gathered together on Mermaid Avenue, are surprisingly beguiling, with a strength and vigour rare in most modern songwriting.
Guthrie's range, which stretched from children's ditties to rousing socialist sloganeering, is well represented here: "Hoodoo Voodoo" is as daft a singalong as his more famous "Car Car", while his political convictions resound as firm as ever in the union song "I Guess I Planted".
Most of the album exists somewhere between those poles, in the borderline bawdiness of the sailors' shanty "Walt Whitman's Niece" and the self-deprecation of theautobiographical "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key". Both songs have been brought beautifully to life by Bragg and Wilco, who lend the material a sort of good-time, jug-band warmth reminiscent of Dylan & The Band's Basement Tapes.
With guest artists such as Natalie Merchant, violinist Eliza Carthy and the young acoustic bluesman Corey Harris broadening the palette further, Mermaid Avenue is a rare and rewarding exercise in musical archaeology.
BEAUTIFUL MALADIES TOM WAITS ISLAND 524 519-2
DRAWN FROM his 15-year tenure at Island Records, this marvellous compilation reaffirms Tom Waits' position as the primary primitivist of his generation - and a remarkably sophisticated primitivist, at that. For all its diversity, Waits' project retains a singular coherence, as he draws on aspects of every American musical strain, from jazz and blues to the more avant-garde stylings of sui generis Thirties salvage auteur Harry Partch, and blends them into a whiskery folk music of his own devising. It's a method that takes him into the half-hidden corners of America's Latin and European immigrant cultures, to add the angular rhythms of polka and rhumba and plenty else besides, revealing them to his countrymen in a richly evocative way akin to the Coen Brothers' film Fargo: as strange neighbours in a big country.
Rarely has the vagabond variety of life been as richly evoked as it is in Waits' songs, either. There's a rough skein of vernacular - commonplace, slang and nursery rhyme - that binds these character studies and tableaux to truth, and also lends a reassuring familiarity to their wheezing, clanking combinations of harmonium, accordion, marimba, horns and cockeyed counterpoint guitar.
It's pretty good value for money, too: 23 tracks, and not the trace of a dull moment amongst them.
LONG AS I HAVE YOU JOHN HAMMOND
THERE ARE so many indifferent blues albums released each month - mostly tiresome showcases for guitar show-offs - that it's easy to miss the occasional gem like Long As I Have You, on which John Hammond runs through material both famous and arcane in the company of blues bar band Little Charlie & The Nightcats. This is what it must have been like to hear the blues before it went north to Chicago, and electricity.Reuse content