Album Review: Wilson Phillips, “Dedicated”

ALBUM TITLE: Dedicated
ARTIST: Wilson Phillips
PRODUCER: Rob Bonfiglio
BEST TRACK/S: Don’t Worry Baby, Dedicated to the One I Love, Got a Feelin’

Sisters Carnie and Wendy Wilson, alongside childhood friend Chynna Phillips, are the vocal trio known as Wilson Phillips. Since the girls’ hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1990 with Hold On, the Billboard Hot 100 Single of Year for that year, the girls have had quite the career. The self-titled debut album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200, sold five million copies in the United States, and earned two more #1 hits for the group (Release Me and You’re In Love; Impulsive peaked at #4, while The Dream Is Still Alive stalled at #11).

Since then, Wilson Phillips has released another album of originals (1992’s Shadows and Light, Billboard 200 peak #4), and a cover album, California, in 2004 (Billboard 200 peak #3). The group has also released a holiday collection (Christmas in Harmony, 2010, peak #135 Billboard 200). With the April 2012 release of Dedicated (debut and peak in 2012, Billboard 200 #29) a collection of songs from 60s harmony pioneers the Beach Boys, and The Mamas and the Papas, Wilson Phillips has come full circle, as Chynna is the daughter of Mamas and the Papas members John Phillips (+) and Michelle Phillips; Carnie and Wendy are the daughters of Beach Boy Brian Wilson.

I went into Dedicated knowing what the girls were up against; in their liner notes, they themselves noted nothing really compared to the original tracks. So why, I wondered, even bother recording another set of covers? The groups hasn’t released an album of original material since 1992! Nevertheless, I have the entire Wilson Phillips catalog, so it was a no-brainer that I would be securing a copy of Dedicated. What I wasn’t expecting was to be rather pleased with the end results of the songs.

Dedicated contains 12 tracks originally by the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas. Producer Rob Bonfiglio, Carnie Wilson’s husband, does a more than capable job producing the album. It isn’t easy tackling pop-rock royalty, but Bonfiglio throws himself heart and soul into the attempt, and produces an album that pays a respectful tribute to the original songs, but also allows for Chynna, Carnie, and Wendy to put their own spin on several of the songs.

That said, Dedicated offers a glimpse into the considerable catalog of both 60s groups, and selects both classics as well as relatively obscure material that, while easily part of the catalog, would be lesser known to folks who didn’t happen to be fans of either The Beach Boys or The Mamas and the Papas. The end result is a pleasing collection of songs that highlight the enduring timelessness of these tracks.

Album opener California Dreaming, originally a Top 5 hit for The Mamas and the Papas, is given a faithful rendition by the girls, particularly Chynna Phillips, who adds a certain sense of urgency with her lead vocal on the track. I expected California Dreaming to be on 2004’s California, but was surprised that the girls went instead with Joni Mitchell’s California. Thankfully, the girls right that wrong with the first track off Dedicated; the harmonies are, by and large, faithful to the original.

Wendy fares better on Wouldn’t It Be Nice, a light and whimsical rendering of the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit (it peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100). Wendy’s vocals have clearly improved since her uneven vocal debut performance on Impulsive back in 1990, and songs like Wouldn’t It Be Nice suit her pop-oriented voice significantly. It’s a pleasant track, could be AC single material.

The next track, Dedicated to the One I Love, was a standout on a variety of levels. First, I was stunned because I thought I heard Mama Cass Elliot sing on the record; I thought it was one of those nice little technology tricks a la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole on Unforgettable in 1993. Much to my surprise, I later learned that it was Cass’ daughter Owen Elliot-Kugell, who sounds exactly like her mother! Chills and goosebumps all around. From instrumentation to the rich harmonies, Dedicated to the One I Love, a cover of the #2 Mamas and the Papas hit, is clearly one of the best tracks on Dedicated.

The next track, Don’t Worry Baby, is my favorite of the entire CD. I feel Don’t Worry Baby – the B-side to the Beach Boys’ #1 gold-selling hit I Get Around – never got its full due, peaking at #24, and Wilson Phillips’ take on Don’t Worry Baby, with Chynna’s crystal-clear voice taking center stage, really updates the song and gives it a very contemporary, very “now” feel. Also, the harmonies on the chorus, with Wendy and Carnie coming in together in sweet thick vocal layers, sound amazing when done in with female voices. Altogether, I feel Don’t Worry Baby would be a brilliant single.

I’ve always liked Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon) (The Mamas and the Papas, #20 peak) for the distinct musical personalities of the minor-chord-driven verses vis-a-vis the clearly pop, major-chord chorus. Like Wilson Phillips notes, I too have no idea what the song actually means, but it’s fun to sing and fun to listen to. Bonfiglio also puts together some pretty interesting instrumentation in the background with the tinkling piano lines and the organ underneath. The girls sing Twelve-Thirty in three-part harmony all throughout the song, which I totally love.

I Can Hear Music is the first track on Dedicated that I hadn’t heard the original (the Beach Boys’ original peaked at #24 in 1969). On Dedicated, it’s Carnie Wilson’s first time at bat to take the vocal reins, and the normally dependable Wilson falters a bit. Methinks the choice of key might be a little high for Carnie’s delightfully rich alto, and while she still sounds fantastic, it’s unusual to hear Carnie a little unsure of herself; Wendy sounds more confident in her chorus lines, which says a lot. Also, the brief a capella break that starts at 1:58 is unexpected and delightful.

Monday Monday, the Mamas and the Papas’ sole #1 hit, was already covered brilliantly by Wilson Phillips in California, so it was odd to see another take on Dedicated. Carnie leads the cover of the 1966 chestnut, and she sounds significantly better, but Chynna and Wendy sound so vocally doctored in the background that it sounds strangely unnatural. Even the harmonies of this version don’t seem as lush as the California version; given the choice, I prefer the 2004 take over the 2012 release.

Do It Again, a cover of the Beach Boys’ 1968 #20 hit, is terrific. Do It Again gives us a taste of the California surf sound, with the hand claps, the rock-and-roll shuffle guitar treatment, and the pa-ra-rum harmonies.

Got a Feelin’ isn’t as obscure as Wilson Phillips would like us to believe; the B-side to the Mamas and the Papas’ Monday Monday is still part of most The Mamas and the Papas collections. I love the rich harmonies on this, alongside the really, really good production and instrumentation, and I believe Wilson Phillips’ version of Got a Feelin’ improves on the original significantly. I realize that John Phillips really made a phenomenal pop song with Got a Feelin’, and Wilson Phillips brought me to that realization.

After the rather somber mood of Got a Feelin‘, we’re brought to Fun Fun Fun, which captures the essential pop-rock brilliance  of The Beach Boys. The #5 hit gets a faithful rendition from Wilson Phillips, led by Chynna, who infuses the track with as much enthusiasm as her lithe frame will allow. Altogether a great track, a quintessential Beach Boys must-have.

Carnie sings the lead vocal on God Only Knows, a #39 peaking track that was the B-side to the much more successful Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Wendy admits this is her favorite track, and it’s my wife’s as well. Carnie sounds amazing on this track, and the layering sends chills down one’s spine. The rich harmonies on God Only Knows carries over into the final track, Good Vibrations, an a capella take on the Beach Boys’ 1966 #1 that represents everything Wilson Phillips is about. Gorgeous harmonies – a little too auto-tuned for my taste – but still a standout song, and Wilson Phillips’ first a capella single. To date, Good Vibrations has peaked at #25 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.

Overall, Dedicated is a solid effort from Wilson Phillips, a quality effort from three daughters looking to honor their parents’ musical legacy. They’ve taken many of their parents’ songs and breathed new life into them, making them more accessible to a new generation of listeners. For this, and many other reasons, we should be thankful.

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