What George Harrison said about the oft-rumored Beatles reunion -- that as far as he's concerned, it won't happen as long as John Lennon remains dead -- is true enough, and yet as the new albums by World Party, Adrian Belew and Jeff Lynne illustrate, the Beatles' influence on pop-rock in the '90s is very much alive.
World Party: 'Goodbye Jumbo'
Perhaps no one is a greater student and fan of the band's craft these days than World Party's Karl Wallinger. In preparing to record "Goodbye Jumbo" (Chrysalis), World Party's second album, Wallinger reportedly studied photos of the Beatles taken in the studio 25 years ago so he could create a similar recording environment.
That sort of obsessiveness easily could have led to overly calculated results, but what prevents that from happening on "Goodbye Jumbo" are both Wallinger's affection for a broad range of classic '60s pop and folk styles -- the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector and Motown top the list -- and his willingness to experiment with the sort of simple melodies, catchy choruses, sweeping guitars and topical themes that frequently distinguished '60s pop.
Sometimes Wallinger evokes his primary influences shamelessly. On the Stones-like "Way Down Now," a television-age tale of despair and alienation, he freely appropriates the trademark "woo woo" chorus from "Sympathy for the Devil," as if the familiar refrain were just another instrument at his disposal. He is no less cautious about concealing Lennon's influence on the enigmatic "Put the Message in the Box," or the impact Dylan has had on him as a singer on "Take Me Up," or his fondness for the Beach Boys' sweeping harmonies on "God on My Side." And in "When the Rainbow Comes," Wallinger mixes things up gloriously, borrowing a snippet of "Please Mr. Postman," conjuring Harrison's languid slide guitar and re-creating Spector's layered sound.
For all the obvious references, though, "Goodbye Jumbo" sounds far more clever than derivative. And despite its often gloomy social and environmental themes and its indebtedness to '60s protest music -- even the cover art recalls an old Tim Buckley album -- its spirits are buoyed by a recurring optimism that Wallinger can't conceal either.
Adrian Belew: 'Young Lions'
Apart from one notable exception -- a pair of cameos by David Bowie -- Belew's new album, "Young Lions" (Atlantic), picks up right where last year's "Mr. Music Head" left off, with Belew playing guitar and virtually everything else. Granted, nothing stands out quite as engagingly as the last album's "Oh Daddy," but the Bowie-Belew duet "Pretty Pink Rose" is the catchiest thing Bowie has recorded since he teamed up with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983 for "Let's Dance," and most of the remaining tracks, powered by Belew's terrifically colorful guitar, recall the Beatles' knack for creating simultaneously accessible and innovative pop.
The least impressive cuts are two familiar songs: the Traveling Wilburys' "Not Alone Anymore," a faithful but oddly unmoving tribute to Roy Orbison, and "Heartbeat," a mildly diverting leftover from Belew's tenure with King Crimson. Otherwise the album is full of quirky sonic delights, beginning with the stomping percussion ensemble that underpins the title track and jungle fable "Young Lions."
The Motown-inspired "Looking for a UFO" is another of Belew's whimsical oddities. A plea for extraterrestrials to solve the Earth's woes, it boasts an arrangement that sounds custom-made for the Supremes. Even more curious is "I Am What I Am," which combines the hypnotic voice of a real-life mystic, the Prophet Omega, with an elemental beat and a scorching guitar. Other highlights include "Men in Helicopters," a vibrantly orchestrated reprimand aimed at African poachers, the intensely homesick "Phone Call From the Moon" and the skittish Bowie-Belew sign-off, "Gunman."
Jeff Lynne: 'Armchair Theatre'
Where Wallinger and Belew bring genuinely distinctive personalities to '60s-derived pop, Lynne's "Armchair Theatre" (Reprise) sounds utterly sterile by comparison. Of course, given the popular success Lynne has enjoyed over the years, first as the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and more recently as a member/producer of the Traveling Wilburys and producer for Harrison, Orbison and Tom Petty, no one should be surprised if "Armchair Theatre" outsells "Goodbye Jumbo" and "Young Lions" combined. After all, Lynne knows Top 40.
What he doesn't seem to know is how to compensate for his own limitations as a singer. Part of his commercial appeal as a producer has always been his ability to surround more compelling voices (Dylan and Orbison) or at least more interesting ones (Harrison and Petty) with stacked vocal harmonies, soaring guitars and sheeny pop-rock textures. That's the game plan as well on "Armchair Theatre," but Lynne's strictly average voice leaves a gaping hole at the center of the stylized rockabilly rave-up "Every Little Thing," the R&B cover "Don't Let Go," the soaring inspirational ballad "Lift Me Up" and other high-gloss cuts.
As a result, despite the input of Petty and the late Del Shannon, plus some nice slide guitar work by Harrison on the remakes of "Stormy Weather" and "September Song," the album has little more than polished surfaces and a few undeniably hook-laden melodies to recommend it.