Mediocre Vibrations

Brian Wilson Turns His Smile Upside Down

You'd think Brian Wilson would have given up on concept albums by now. After all, his last one took 37 years to complete. That record, SMiLE, was started way back in 1967, when Wilson was still the brains behind the Beach Boys; nearly four decades, many false starts and numerous breakdowns later, he finished his fractured and somewhat overrated follow-up to Pet Sounds amid much fanfare.

Wilson's latest concept album, That Lucky Old Sun, finds its muse in a place that inspired many of his best songs: Southern California. And 40-plus years of prescription-drug cocktails, shifty hangers-on and living-room sandboxes haven't dampened Wilson's spirit any. He's still as bubbly as a can of Orange Crush, even if his voice - once an ocean-soaked instrument that harmonized gorgeously with his brothers and cousin - has been left ravaged and scarred over the years.

But where SMiLE was an abstract and nearly impenetrable series of splintered song suites about worms, vegetables and whatever else was running through Wilson's post-Pet Sounds mind, That Lucky Old Sun makes the crucial mistake of being about something Ð or at least it tries to be about something, as Wilson weaves a wobbly narrative about Los Angeles. Imagine a tribute album to a city that, in Wilson's mind, hasn't changed a bit in 35 years, add some Beach Boys-style fun-in-the-sun harmonies and sprinkle in a dash of SMiLE weirdness, and you've got a pretty good idea of what That Lucky Old Sun is all about.

Or do you? Wilson jumps in as the story's narrator from time to time, mumbling about "hustlers and hawkers" and "prehistoric locusts." These spoken interludes really don't give listeners any signs as to what the album is trying to say. Neither do the individual tracks. Unless its point is "Gee, isn't California great?" (and that could very well be its message), That Lucky Old Sun is often just as maddening as SMiLE for fans looking for some kind of meaning.

Which leaves the songs, the arrangements and Wilson's occasionally overbearing production. Longtime cohort Van Dyke Parks is on board, adding to the album's nostalgic value. But it's more mess than masterpiece, as themes, characters and melodic quotes snake in and out of the 18 songs, all thinly tied together by the title tune, a 60-year-old Tin Pan Alley relic that's been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia. Still, there are occasional glimmers of Wilson's old spark. "Morning Beat" rolls along a sun-kissed highway before it detours mid-song for a flight of SMiLE-like whimsy. "Good Kind of Love" crams a half-dozen ideas into three minutes of song. And "Going Home" is basic, frills-free pop. But too often, like on "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl," Wilson leads That Lucky Old Sun to a place that was boarded up many years ago.

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