One of the commenters on our look at Dennis Wilson’s Bamboo mentioned Beckley-Lamm-Wilson’s Like A Brother, and it got me to thinking about this album, and what a pleasant surprise it was for me when it came out. I count myself as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Beach Boys and Chicago, the bands from whence (Carl) Wilson and (Robert) Lamm, respectively, came; I’ve never had any use for America, Gerry Beckley’s band, but he’s a fine enough singer. Anyway, that having been said, I am fully aware that neither Chicago nor the Beach Boys have released anything worth listening to since…oh, God, since when? It’s definitely been longer for the Beach Boys–their last proper studio album was 1985’s spine-tinglingly misguided Beach Boys (I refuse to count 1992’s Summer in Paradise; in fact, it will never be mentioned here again). Chicago’s 1980s stuff has its charm, but really, that creative spark flickered out a long time ago.
I have a point. Here it is: Robert Lamm, once upon a time, might have been one of the great American songwriters. Carl Wilson’s voice is, to me, one of the all-time greatest instruments in pop music — I only wish his brother Brian had used it more often. But by the mid-’90s, when Beckley-Lamm-Wilson became a trio, they’d been content, for far too long, to coast on increasingly noxious fumes. Though they made for an intriguing combination, there was no reason to think they’d bother to eke out anything more listenable than the AC drivel that had been paying their bills for years.
Actually, in a sense, that’s exactly what Like A Brother is. I’ve had people listen to this record without an emotional connection to the backstory and dismiss it as the tinny basement-studio recordings of guys whose musical sensibilities never evolved past the summer of 1987, and that’s a fair criticism. It would be a little silly to expect these three old dogs to reinvent the wheel this late in the game; if late-period Chicago or Beach Boys makes you want to gag, then Like A Brother is definitely not your cup of tea.
But if you can look past that, this is a terrific little album. I hesitate to use a hackneyed phrase like “labor of love,” but Like A Brother stands as proof (the only official proof, really) that these guys actually weren’t happy to just rehash the hits and cash the checks; they were conflicted about the way they and their careers had aged, felt the pain of unfulfilled promises and missed opportunities, and remain surprisingly, defiantly capable of writing a good song.
There are off moments — “Run Don’t Walk” is embarrassing — but overall, Like A Brother is both poignant and infuriating. It’s wonderful to hear Lamm with a pulse, and to hear Wilson’s angelic voice being used in the service of a song that actually matters again, and Beckley’s “Watching the Time” (download) might be the best thing here…but what the fuck were they doing squandering all this talent for so long?
And that’s the bitter irony at the heart of this album. Even after discovering a connection, Beckley, Lamm, and Wilson just sort of piddled around with it for years; the original version of “Watching the Time” appears on Lamm’s 1993 solo album, and they didn’t resurface with their first proper recording until covering “Without Her” for 1995’s For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson. They were still working on the album when Carl Wilson died of lung and brain cancer in 1998.
Wilson’s was one of the few celebrity deaths that have hit me on an emotional level. I never knew him — though we did have a friend in common for awhile — but his vocals meant a lot to me; it’s impossible for me to hear Like A Brother without feeling sadness over knowing it’s the last we’ll hear from him. Lamm’s “Feel the Spirit” (download) was probably meant as a tribute to Terry Kath, but given this album’s posthumous release, it’s easy to find further meaning.
A lot of people talk about Wilson’s “I Wish for You” as the emotional centerpiece of the album, and there’s really no arguing with that — you can’t get much heavier than a dying father talking about the life he wants for his children — but I prefer the title track (download), Carl’s fond, honest tribute to Brian.
The album was originally released by Transparent Music, a label owned by Herbie Hancock, but it appears to have fallen out of print. Luckily, it’s been reissued (complete with bonus tracks) by Lamm himself; if you follow the link above, you’ll wind up at his site’s shop. If you’re interested in Like A Brother, I’d recommend checking out Lamm’s most recent studio release, Subtlety & Passion, also available at the site.