Lindsey Buckingham has never been bashful about his admiration for Brian Wilson. As leader of the Beach Boys, Wilson established the southern California rock 'n' roll of optimistic melodies, yearning harmonies and hot-rod rhythms. In the solitude of Hollywood's Goldstar Studios, Wilson created a mythical aural California quite unconnected from the real one.
As the dominant figure on the last two Fleetwood Mac albums, Buckingham has rediscovered the sound of that utopian California. On his first solo album, "Law and Order" (Asylum, 5E-561), Buckingham expands the boundaries of that land. Much like the hermitic Wilson, Buckingham shut himself up in a Burbank studio, where by engineering ingenuity and sheer imagination he has built an enchanting world removed from current music fashions and real-world bitterness.
Thousands of musicians have imitated the Brian Wilson sound, but only a handful -- Buckingham, Paul McCartney, Christine McVie, Wendy Waldman, Roger McGuinn -- have captured its essence. Most imitators make the mistake of reducing the Beach Boys songs to common elements, which quickly become bland formulas (the Eagles, for example). Buckingham is sharp enough to realize that idiosyncracies were the key to the Beach Boys' sound.
"Law and Order" is full of quirky touches. On "Bwana," the sweet vocals are given a sudden nasal twist, and the guitar solos are voiced like kazoos. The dominant instruments on "I'll Tell You Now" are the cymbals; they wash over the lead vocal and merge into the shimmering backing vocal. "Johnny Stew" is so heavily echoed it becomes an urban nightmare of a million guitars imitating ambulance sirens, train brakes and radio announcements. "Love From Here, Love From There" is an original Dixieland tune with the electric guitar sounding like a clarinet, the electric bass sounding like a tuba and the trashy drums subverting everything.
Except for the rhythm track on "Trouble" and the backing vocals on two other songs, Buckingham handled every instrument and vocal himself. Much of the album was recorded in a small Burbank storeroom with minimal equipment. With a nod to the reclusive Wilson, Buckingham sings: "That's how we do it in L.A. It's a lonely, lonely, lonely place. But it's the only, only, only place." The result of this isolation is an intensely personal music of internal monologues. It should be recognized, however, by anyone who spends much time mulling things over alone. "Bwana," for example, is not about any jungle in Africa but about the imagined jungle to which "our demons . . . escape."
For all these esoteric techniques, the resulting songs are quite gorgeous and accessible. "Trouble," the first single, has the floating backing vocals that always buoyed the Beach Boys' surf ballads. Threaded through the song is splendid Spanish picking on acoustic guitar. This romantic music contains disturbing music. As the singer begins to fall in love, he says, "I should run on the double; I think I'm in trouble." "Mary Lee Jones," a snapshot of a woman's life falling apart, begins with breathy harmony vocals, but a grating guitar track emerges from the background to swallow the song.
In addition to eight originals, the album contains three covers: Skip & Flip's 1959 doo-wop hit, "It Was I"; Kurt Weill's torch number, "September Song"; and the folkie standard, "A Satisfied Mind." Buckingham fills up all three with idealistic California harmony vocals and young, brash guitars, much as Wilson once filled out old songs by Chuck Berry and the Weavers. The best song on "Law and Order" is "Shadow of the West." The lovely melody, a singing cowboy's lament, is shadowed by Christine McVie's husky harmonies. The lyrics, though, reveal the melancholy that always lurks behind the optimism of Fleetwood Mac and the Beach Boys and thus gives it depth. Buckingham may have captured every Californian's private fear when he sings: "The setting of the sun scares me to death. I'm a shadow of the West."
If Fleetwood Mac represents the most creative side of Hollywood music-making, Quarterflash represents the most commercial side. "Quarterflash" (Geffen, GHS 2003), this Oregon sextet's debut album, is carefully calculated to sound like a cross between Seattle's Heart and Hollywood's Eagles. Quarterflash is one of the few new acts to break into David Geffen's label of established stars (Elton John, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Donna Summer). Producer John Boylan -- hitmaker for Boston, Charlie Daniels and the Little River Band -- was contracted to lend his Midas touch to this new band.
All the parties fulfill their responsibilities with admirable professionalism. Lead singer Rindy Ross has a voice that measures out just enough hard rock wail (source: Pat Benatar) and just enough romantic mysticism (source: Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks). Guitarist Marv Ross has written eight songs that show how carefully he has studied what gets on FM radio. "Harden My Heart," a regional hit in the Northwest last year, has a melodic, determined vocal, a punchy bass line and well-planned guitar solos. "Find Another Fool" toughens up the formula a bit with crunchy hard rock guitar; "Love Should Be So Kind" softens it up with string synthesizers and a weepy vocal.
John Boylan makes it all sound squeaky clean. You can hear every instrument, the rhythm section is well-behaved and the lead instruments wait for their turns politely. "Quarterflash" is very competent and very marketable. It also has no soul. There isn't a single credible emotion on the record. Nor is there the slightest trace of excitement. This is what happens when the best impulses of West Coast rock are reduced to reproducible formulas.