Surf's up for Brian Wilson

That Lucky Old Sun, plus B.B King's One Kind Favor

That Lucky Old Sun
BRIAN WILSON

(Capitol)

Brian Wilson's face is a contorted mask, and there are still plenty of us who would love to see behind it. Save for a few fleeting glimpses, though, we don't get much of a look via That Lucky Old Sun, his paean to Los Angeles filled to ickiness with sophomoric platitudes.

There's no other way I can think to say it: That Lucky Old Sun is an embarrassment.

Where to start? Oh yeah, with the several spoken-word interludes that provide the album with ample cringe factor. On the first, "A Room with a View," Wilson narrates his clumsy poem ("Just now thinkin' 'bout another perfect day/ Wishin' it would come again your way") over a classic Beach Boys-style arrangement, accenting certain words like a craggy-voiced sixth-grader reading in front of the class.

It's pretty obvious that these days Wilson has neither the wherewithal for confessionals nor can he convey emotion with his lead vocals. Gone is the whine of his youth, that vulnerable beauty that gave away his deep inner sadness and desperation. In its place is a voice with burned-out chops, singing by rote, making you wonder: "Is there anybody in there?"

Wilson compensates to an extent by surrounding himself with lush orchestral arrangements and background vocals (by members of his regular band) that are the technical equal of anything the Beach Boys ever accomplished. These pillows of voices do not, however, achieve the same sort of magic that Brian and his kinfolk did all those decades ago.

That Lucky Old Sun does have a few grabby melodies — the perky "Good Kind of Love," the soaring "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl" — but most of them have been lifted from the Beach Boys playbook. The album's two best tunes are ballads. "Southern California" ends the album with a swirling epic. "Midnight's Another Day," far and away the disc's redeeming track, offers that glimpse behind the mask. Buoyed by stately piano chords, Wilson sings about his descent into madness in a fashion that's not exactly visceral or soul-baring but is nevertheless revealing just for the fact that the legend knows he's been to hell and (we're led to believe) back. "Lost my way," begins the album's most affecting verse, "The sun grew dim/ Stepped over grace, and stood in sin/ Took the dive, but couldn't swim/ A flag without wind." And later: "Swept away in a brainstorm/ Chapters missing, pages torn."

It's fitting that this is the song where Wilson sounds engaged with his vocal, emitting a tenderness (and, yes, vulnerability) that's absent from the rest of the disc. A bit of genuine truth allowed him to claw through the woodenness and let some humanity out. 2 stars —Eric Snider

One Kind Favor
B.B. KING

(Geffen)

That B.B. King is still lauded as one of the great blues guitarists of all time flat-out befuddles me. His stock lines and tinny tone — and those trademark pings, followed by slides — are very much in evidence throughout One Kind Favor. The guitar solos are the ho-hum part of the disc, but there's good stuff, too. Producer T-Bone Burnett convinced King to skip the slickness and the fawning guest artists in favor of revisiting his past, so the program is made up of blues classics by the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and others. B.B.'s sidemen are an elite group, including pianist Dr. John, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Nathan East and an array of horn players. Aided by Burnett's organic production, the band really coheres throughout the shuffles, boogies, slow blues and, in the case of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," a jaunty New Orleans second line groove. King is 82 and still has plenty of roar in that blues shout of his. He sounds re-energized — except, of course, for the guitar solos, which are as shopworn as ever. 3 stars ES