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Paradise Glossed

Brian Wilson's still-considerable gifts poke through the bland production on a new album, and the reclusive former Beach Boy is even planning his first solo tour.

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Brian Wilson sits in the lobby of a midtown hotel, flanked by his wife of three years, Melinda, and a publicist. He wears a blue polo shirt and khaki slacks. Wilson looks a visitor in the eye, shakes hands confidently. When it's time for an interview, he gets up, moves to another table, and genially waves his entourage away. In short, he's a pretty regular guy. Neither the twitching, muttering figure who rambled on about "children of God" in the 1994 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey nor the terrified, ashen-faced wreck who in 1995 played five songs at S.O.B.'s, then scurried from the stage, is anywhere to be found. And the recluse who famously equipped his Bel Air mansion with an outsize sandbox? Not here.

"We're going to see Beauty and the Beast tomorrow night," Wilson says. "You only live once. Why not live it to the fullest, you know?"

In the opening lines of Imagination (Giant), his first album in ten years, Wilson sings, "Another car running fast / Another song on the beach / . . . you know it's just / Your imagination running wild." Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Wilson's story will recognize the song as a parable for the singer's own career. In vintage Beach Boys songs, the three-minute paradises depicted amid display after dazzling display of unique melody, experimental harmony, and mind-blowing production had nothing whatsoever to do with the day-to-day realities of their neurotic, perfectionist composer-arranger-producer-sometime singer. It's both a relief and a letdown to discover that Brian Wilson is so aware of the fantastical nature of his own oeuvre. Still, there's a distressing patina of middle-of-the-road normality over Imagination (which was, in fact, co-produced by jingle vet Joe Thomas), through which Wilson's trademark flourishes only occasionally peek. The message of "Your Imagination," Wilson says, is "Don't let your imagination get out of hand." Listening to the disc, though, you sort of wish Wilson's own imagination weren't quite so reined in.

Wilson now uses multitracking to fill the vocal roles that used to be played by the various other Beach Boys. This flawless auto-harmonizing is by far the most affecting aspect of the disc. The final song, "Happy Days," takes Wilson's self-collaboration another step. "I wrote some of it, the first two verses, in 1970," he says. These dissonant passages, with their nightmarish, clustered chords and bitter lyrics ("Dark days were plenty / Never ending sorrow"), Wilson calls "the dirge." The choruses, on the other hand, are just months old: "I finished the song in early 1998, and I tried to make it sound like I've been through some hell, and then, of course," he sings, " 'Happy days are here again . . .' It's a nicer way of saying, You've come through so much, and here you are with your new song."

This fall, Wilson will embark on the first solo tour of his career (he stopped playing live with the Boys in 1964, though he turned up for a gig in 1970): "I did a show in St. Charles, Illinois, May 9, and I was scared shitless," he says. What was frightening about being onstage? "Well, just, will I be rejected? I think I fear rejection. Like, I might not go over too well. After the standing ovation, I felt a little bit better."

In 1966, Wilson sang, "I just wasn't made for these times." Thirty years later, that line became the title of a documentary in which rockers as disparate as Thurston Moore and Tom Petty held forth on Wilson's brilliance. And this year alone, England's High Llamas, Tokyo's Cornelius, and New York's own Sean Lennon have all released albums so heavily indebted to the Wilson sound they border on the fetishistic. ("Every time that happens," says Wilson of the ever-more-frequent homages, "I get all pumped up.")

Wilson-mania is in such full effect that Brian is considering reuniting later this year with Beach Boys Al Jardine and Mike Love to record a version of "Proud Mary." "Don Was and I produced the background," he says. "It's the coolest little groove I've ever heard. We didn't do the vocals yet. And -- cross my fingers -- it would be a smash." A Creedence Clearwater Revival warhorse a late-nineties hit? Even CCR drummer Doug Clifford pointed out to Wilson that the song's been done to death ("He goes, 'There are 300 versions of "Proud Mary." ' That's a lot of versions, isn't it? Add ours to it, that's 301"). On the other hand, two years ago, no one would have predicted that a 25-year-old rap producer named Puffy could turn himself into the biggest pop star in the world with a note-for-note rip-off of an old Police hit. Maybe Brian Wilson has finally found a time he was made for.

In brief: Brian Wilson's artificial paradises are all well and good, but singer-guitarist Gillian Welch uses her musical fantasies to construct a radically different kind of alternative reality. A Los Angeles native and daughter of professional Hollywood songwriters, Welch creates pitch-perfect Appalachian ditties -- bluegrass, faux-naïve folk, scratchy blues. On her second album, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo), Welch gets deeper into it, morally ("The Devil Had a Hold of Me," "My Morphine") and imagistically ("Miner's Refrain"). Call them artificial purgatories, but Welch's bare-bones constructions are at least as moving as any of Wilson's elaborate mini-symphonies. . . . New York guitarist Marc Ribot devotes his major-label debut to the work of Cuban composer Arsenio Rodriguez. Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans) (Atlantic) is a collection of cool, intimate numbers that conjure a smoky Havana nightclub. A master of more genres than would be decent to mention in print, Ribot tosses in the occasional skronkish squall -- but mostly he and his small group play it straight. Their Cuban identity may be a put-on, so to speak, but the Postizo crew have got the beat in their blood. (Ribot & Co. play the Bottom Line, August 11.) . . . In one of the most fascinating cross-cultural developments going, African singer-guitarist Waldemar Bastos has teamed up with producer Arto Lindsay to make Pretaluz Blacklight (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.). Bastos's music is initially tough to place. The shimmering guitar lines and urgent rhythms give it an Afro-pop feel; the complicated chord changes and sibilant vocals seem vaguely Brazilian. Knowing that Bastos is from Lusophone Angola helps one understand the disc: It is Afro-pop, in a sense -- but sung in Portuguese and produced by a Brazilian-American. Bastos is the one artist in this bunch whose exoticism isn't escapist fantasy.


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