The Number Ones

September 15, 1990

The Number Ones: Wilson Phillips’ “Release Me”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The single edit of Wilson Phillips’ second #1 hit “Release Me” — the version of the song that appears in the video — opens with a watery late-’80s piano and with the three members of Wilson Phillips launching straight into the song’s first verse. But the beginning of the album version is a whole lot cooler. It’s those three voices singing in close harmony, with no instruments in the background: “I know that it’s time for a change/ But when that change comes, will it still feel the same?” They sound great, and the rest of the song can’t live up to the promise of those first 14 seconds.

You’re supposed to review the song that you have, not the song that you wish you had. That’s how criticism works. Whenever I see a critic discussing the creative decisions that they would’ve made — something I see a whole lot in film reviews, especially in reviews of comic-book movies — it drives me nuts. But with “Release Me,” I just can’t help it. When I hear that intro, my brain immediately plugs in a rolling, shuffling breakbeat, the sort of thing that might’ve shown up on a Primal Scream or Soup Dragons track. That version of “Release Me,” as far as I can tell, exists only in my head; the song has no dance remixes. But I like the version in my head so much better than the real one.

Wilson Phillips didn’t make dance records. Richard Perry, the first producer who worked with the trio, had envisioned them as a dance-pop group. At the time, Perry was working with the Pointer Sisters, and he wanted to do that kind of thing with Wilson Phillips. The three young women in Wilson Phillips were not down. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Carnie Wilson practically spells it out: “We don’t want to do dance music, we don’t want to do teenybopper music… We tried to do it, but it sounded terrible. We said, ‘This is definitely not our bag.'”

Commercially speaking, this was clearly the right choice for Wilson Phillips. In the first couple of years of the ’90s, when a few different strains of dance music were exploding on the pop charts, Wilson Phillips travelled a parallel path. They became hugely popular, at least in part, because they didn’t make dance music. They made dreamy, starry-eyed soft rock, music that might’ve been deeply comforting to the aging pop-radio listeners who had great affection for the music that Wilson Phillips’ parents had made in the Beach Boys and the Mamas And The Papas. Whether or not it was intentional, Wilson Phillips were counter-programming.

This wasn’t a case of Wilson Phillips chasing an audience. The group made the music that they wanted to make, and for a certain segment of the public, that music resonated. Maybe that audience wouldn’t have been there if Wilson Phillips had been the type of group who were willing to sing over dance beats. But as someone who loves dance beats, all I can say is that they could’ve been great at it.

Because those Richard Perry dance tracks didn’t work, Perry introduced the group to Glen Ballard, and Ballard helped Wilson Phillips realize their vision. Ballard, the producer of Wilson Phillips’ self-titled debut, co-wrote “Hold On,” the trio’s first #1 hit, but he didn’t have anything to do with the writing of “Release Me,” their second. Instead, the three members of Wilson Phillips — the sisters Carnie and Wendy Wilson and their friend Chynna Phillips — wrote that one themselves.

“Release Me” is the first song that Phillips and the Wilson sisters ever wrote completely by themselves. In the Bronson book, Carnie Wilson says, “We were all going through this time with our boyfriends. It was like a joke — breaking up, getting back together, breaking up. We all said, ‘Let me go, that’s it, I’m not going to come back to you anymore, I’m not going to take this.'” “Hold On” is a song about mutual support, about relying on your friends to help you get through a dark time. Maybe “Release Me” does something similar, but in a smaller way. It’s a personal song about internal struggle, but all three women sing it together, in one voice.

The best thing about “Release Me” is that harmonic convergence. The three members of Wilson Phillips had been singing together since childhood, and their vocals mesh beautifully. On “Hold On,” those three singers playfully layer their voices over each other in some creative ways. On “Release Me,” though, they more or less sing all together, barely ever diverging. There’s no lead vocal on “Release Me.” All three voices are equally important.

If any one singer had attempted “Release Me,” it wouldn’t be a particularly interesting song. The song’s lyrics are vague and general. The narrator(s) try to cut off a sputtering relationship, singing about the same kind of tantalyzing frustration that had fueled the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” a few decades earlier. They lament their own inability to escape: “What is this power you’ve got on me?” And they finally resolve to end things themselves: “Stop coming around my door/ ‘Cause you’re not gonna find what you’re looking for.”

With those three voices working together, “Release Me” gains weight and presence. There’s something unreal and fantastical about those voices all working as one, turning every “I” into a “we.” There’s also a “we” in the text of the song: “You knew it was time to just let go/ ‘Cause we wanna be free.” They’re presumably singing about both halves of the couple — the “you” and the “me” — but it’s also sort of fun to imagine that all three members of Wilson Phillips are singing to the same person.

Wilson Phillips’ harmonies were their chief selling point. But “Release Me” isn’t really the ideal vehicle for those harmonies. The big problem is the production. Glen Ballard clearly agreed that Wilson Phillips weren’t a dance group, and his “Release Me” arrangement is a bit of a plod. “Release Me” isn’t unendurable dreck, like so many other pop ballads of that era. The keyboards and guitars twinkle unobtrusively in the background, which is clearly what they’re supposed to do. There’s nothing wrong with Ballard’s arrangement. It makes sense. In Ballard’s hands, “Release Me” works as effective soft-focus early-’90s easy-listening pop. But I find that production slightly numbing, and I prefer the way the group sounds when they don’t have all that stuff behind them.

As “Release Me” builds, the three voices grow stronger and more confident, and the music gets slightly louder behind them. The piano riff that comes in on the chorus is pretty nice, and I like the way the strings swirl on the bridge. But “Release Me” has the bones of a really good song, and it never gets there. I think it would work better if it was either stripped of all those production flourishes or if it had way more production flourishes. I hear all this pent-up potential energy in “Release Me,” but the hammer never quite drops. There’s not enough tension, not enough release. It never becomes anything more than a nice little song.

In 1990, though, nice little songs were working just fine for Wilson Phillips. By the time “Release Me” reached #1, the trio’s self-titled debut album was already double platinum. The success of “Release Me” meant that Wilson Phillips’ first two singles had both gone to #1, a pretty amazing achievement. (For context: The Beach Boys reached #1 four times, and the Wilson sisters’ father Brian wasn’t even involved in one of those records. The Mamas And The Papas, the group that included Chynna Phillips’ mama and papa, only got there once.) And Wilson Phillips were not done.

Wilson Phillips followed “Release Me” with “Impulsive,” a vaguely Bangles-esque jangle about wishing that they could be impulsive and stop overthinking things. That song peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.) And even after those first three singles, that self-titled Wilson Phillips album had legs. We’ll see the group in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: “Hold On” is an instant nostalgia-trigger for many of us, but “Release Me” is not. Instead, like so many of the chart topping hits of 1990, “Release Me” has vanished into the mist. Nobody covers “Release Me,” samples it, or puts it in movies. But “Release Me” is a better song than most of those memory-holed 1990 hits, so I’m glad that Wilson Phillips kept singing the song themselves. I like this video of a reunited Wilson Phillips, in 2012, singing “Release Me” in what appears to be the lobby of the TV Guide Network offices:

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