Shadows and Light

I was one of those snobby critics who didn’t like Wilson Phillips when their first album came out two years ago. What really put me off was something more personal than the group’s fluffy, mostly anonymous music: Sisters Wendy and Carnie Wilson and their lifelong friend Chynna Phillips were barely past their teens and yet already seemed to live wholly in the dreamland of the entertainment biz.

Not that I was blaming them for their celebrity parents (Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas). But what about the breathless thank yous — 113 of them — in their CD booklet? The young women sounded like stars gushing haplessly at some minor-league award show. (”FRANKIE — You’re the best engineer around. How you make those buttons work, nobody will ever know.”)

But soon I found myself smiling along with Wilson Phillips’ hits. And now — just in time for the group’s second album, Shadows and Light — I’ve capitulated. First, Phillips and the Wilsons really can sing. Oh, maybe not sharply enough to make it as soloists. But they harmonize with a hard-to-resist verve that leaves their voices linked but still distinct. Even the simplest chords ring out with a fresh, alert zing.

And then we have the group’s new songs, all written or cowritten by Wendy, Carnie, and Chynna. They’re polished till they glow, richer by far than the songs on the first album, and full of chords that often aren’t at all simple. They’re even meant to be serious, and not just because the album’s hit single, ”You Won’t See Me Cry,” is a tough/sweet blend of sadness and underlying strength. As press releases and sound-bite-length interviews have endlessly trumpeted, the women dare to sing, and pretty explicitly, too, about their estrangement from their fathers.

These songs could go deep; in ”Flesh and Blood,” Wendy and Carnie paint Brian Wilson as what he no doubt is: a recluse so emotionally damaged that he won’t communicate with his daughters at all. But the tune can’t muster enough force to sound much more than wistful. And there we tumble back onto the palm-lined streets of that glittering L.A. entertainment dreamworld. Wendy, Carnie, and Chynna really want to be serious but (with 118 gushy thank yous in their new CD booklet) they haven’t yet looked much beyond the world in which they were raised. They even sing a song called ”Goodbye, Carmen,” in which they remind themselves that their Central American maids are people too — apparently without ever stopping to remember that L.A. has a vast community of Central Americans far worse off than the servants of the rich.

So maybe I’m falling into snobbery again. I could even complain that the group’s none-too-subtle drumming threatens to pound the songs into unabashed radio mush. But instead I’m inclined just to count my Wilson Phillips blessings. Things could be much worse. Wendy, Carnie, and Chynna have returned with an accomplished and, within its limits, determinedly honest album — one touching enough to show snobs everywhere that even girls besotted by the entertainment biz can have real feelings. A-

Shadows and Light
  • Music