Old-time rock 'n' rollers are again stirring up the pop and album charts. In some cases their latest work is top o' the line, comparing very favorably with earlier recordings _ and underscoring just why they have been stars for so long.
BRIAN WILSON _ "Brian Wilson" (Reprise/Sire Records). **** When Brian Wilson lost his mind, the Beach Boys lost the creative genius that fueled the hit-making machine.
From 1962 to 1966, the Beach Boys scored nearly two dozen Top 40 singles and recorded 12 albums. Almost all of the music was written and produced by Brian Wilson.
As Brian's late brother and Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson once said, "Brian is the Beach Boys. We're his messengers."
The truth of that statement has rarely been challenged, and it will be disputed even less so with the release of "Brian Wilson," Wilson's first-ever solo LP and his first major record since "Pet Sounds" 22 years ago.
In many respects, "Brian Wilson" picks up where "Pet Sounds" left off. It is not perfect, but it is breathtaking: Breathtaking in its lush harmonies, breathtaking in its lyrical integrity, breathtaking in its melodic emotionalism.
It is everything Beach Boys fans could hope for. It is beyond all expectations for Brian Wilson fans.
Ironically, it was the pioneering success of "Pet Sounds," along with other emotional and drug-induced factors, that destroyed Brian Wilson. As one publicist put it, after the "Pet Sounds" album, "Brian was determined to make a record that would blow everybody's mind, including the Beatles'. Unfortunately, Brian's new music ended up blowing his own mind."
After years of emotional and psychological therapy, his self-imposed musical exile has been shattered with the release of "Brian Wilson," an album that seems to say, "Hello, old friend. Boy, it's good to see you again."
It's also an album filled with subtleties, powerful emotions and layered production _ things we expected to hear 22 years ago. It's an album that mirrors a lot of pain and searching, as well as joy and optimism.
The album opens with addictive "Love and Mercy," a song to rival any in the Beach Boys catalog, and then follows it with one strong cut after another. Some carry the traditional Beach Boys sound, others have a more sophisticated '80s feel. All of them have Wilson's trademark harmonies layered one over another.
And all 10 songs are lyrically stimulating. Unlike a lot of the Beach Boys' early material, there's nothing simplistic here.
In addition to "Love and Mercy," the album's best cuts are "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long," "Let It Shine" (with Jeff Lynne) and "Melt Away" (about Brian's identity crises).
And then there's the revealing "Walkin' the Line." As Wilson himself put it, "The lyrics are all about me, how I'm always walking over thin ice, could fall through any minute. I tread lightly on everything I do. It is one of my sub-theme songs of my whole life."
You could say the same thing about the entire "Brian Wilson" album. It is a mirror of 22 years of a troubled musical genius. Good to have you back, Brian.
STEVE WINWOOD _ "Roll With It" (Virgin Records). ** 1/2 How hot is Steve Winwood? His new LP "Roll With It" is barely out of the starting gate and already he has logged a No. 1 single with the title track, and the LP is in the Top 10 and moving higher.
"Roll With It" just keeps rolling along, the current stardom offering Winwood an outlet for the same kind of blue-eyed soul (or is it yuppie-rock?) he's played for more than 20 years. The new stuff is no better than what he's done before, and no worse. It's basic Steve Winwood, simply put.
Of course that won't stop millions of newfound fans from buying the album and catapulting "Roll With It" to the top of the album charts and making Winwood an even bigger star than he already is.
While most of the eight tunes on this offering are rather average, there is some good stuff to sink you teeth into. The bouncy "Shining Song" has No. 1 potential written all over it, and the ballad "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do" is one of his best.
And "Roll With It" is a good, raw rocker reminiscent of the days before superstardom found its way to Winwood's door (Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Fatih).
But other touted tunes, like "Put on Your Dancing Shoes" and "Hearts on Fire" (written with former Traffic mate Jim Capaldi), come across rather flat, as if he went to the pop well once too often. Hard-core fans may like them, but don't look for spectacular results.
The bottom line on "Roll With It" is you get three or four good tunes and three or four average tunes. Which is what you got with most all of Winwood's solo albums anyway.
Which puts "Roll With It" in the middle of the pack. But it's not a bad pack to be in.
ROD STEWART _ "Out of Order" (Warner Brothers Records). *** When Rod Stewart's Utah concert was canceled, the real losers weren't necessarily United Concerts or Rod Stewart's bank account. The losers were fans who missed seeing and hearing one of the great rockers of all time.
That Rod Stewart's new album "Out of Order" is a real winner makes the concert cancellation all the more disappointing.
"Out of Order," Stewart's 15th solo album, may not be his best ever, but it is certainly one of the finest offerings since "Blondes Have More Fun" (1978) or "Footloose and Fancy Free" (1977).
"It's the best I've done for some time," Stewart agrees. "I haven't made silly commercial mistakes like I did on the last album with `Love Touch.' "
The reasoning is simple: It is vintage Stewart in its tough-as-leather sound and rough-edged texture. Forget the ballads. Forget the spicey horns and saxs. What makes "Out of Order" work is the guitar-rooted, bluesy rock 'n' roll.
And it's Stewart's powerful vocals that fuel the album's captivating energy. (It doesn't hurt that he has Power Station stalwarts Andy Taylor, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson laying down some powerful tracks.)
The best of the batch here include "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," a feedback-laced tune that conjures up images of "Maggie May" and "You Wear It Well."
Also a top pick is the haunting ballad "Forever Young," a song not at all unlike Bob Dylan's tune of the same name. But it still goes into the catalog of Stewart's very best songs.
And there's the current single "Lost in You." Though not exceptional, this tune is typical of the pop-rock appeal of the entire album. There are few glaring weak spots to be found on "Out of Order," and each of the 10 songs grabs you in a slightly different way.
The bottom line is "Out of Order" is a very likable album. Too bad we couldn't have heard some of it in concert.