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Fleetwood Mac: Soldiering on without Christine McVie. (Courtesy photo)
The four-piece Fleetwood Mac can't quite locate its group chemistry

What accounts for the enduring interest in Fleetwood Mac, nearly 30 years after their relatively brief heyday? When you think about it, the five-piece band lineup that practically owned FM radio in the second half of the '70s was essentially a merger of mediocrities.

A journeyman British blues-rock band, way past its prime, enlisted the help of a failed California folk-rock duo called Buckingham/Nicks, and an inexplicable pop-culture combustion happened. Mac gave Buckingham/Nicks a righteous rhythm section and a touch of pop-aristocracy glamour. The duo gave Mac an infusion of strong material, some finger-picking guitar heroics, and a budding sense of production wizardry.

More than anything, though, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks gave the band a sense of drama. The couple's breakup in the mid-'70s provided the dark emotional edges that made 1977's Rumours a pop blockbuster. Hearing the nightly roars of exultation when the ex-lovers made friendly onstage during the band's 1997 reunion tour - complete with a well-choreographed hug after every performance of Nicks' "Landslide" - was enough to convince anyone that their soap-opera saga was what kept people coming back to this group of gray-panther warhorses.

That's why Christine McVie's post-tour announcement that she was leaving the band seemed like a big ho-hum. On the '97 tour, more than ever, she looked like a third wheel, a bland distraction from the underlying fireworks between Buckingham and Nicks.

For some reason, though, this year's Big Mac release, Say You Will - the first Fleetwood Mac studio album in 16 years to feature both Buckingham and Nicks - feels off-kilter in a way that is hard to put your finger on. You immediately sense that a band that got most of its mileage out of collective chemistry has lost its equilibrium. Part of the problem is that at 18 songs, evenly split between the two remaining songwriters, you just get too much of both Nicks and Buckingham.

After Nicks showed serious songwriting promise on Rumours - not only contributing three outstanding tracks to the album, but also emerging with the B-side gem "Silver Springs" and writing the bulk of the band-defining "The Chain" - she swiftly devolved into a self-indulgent dime-store mystic. On her tiresome series of solo albums, her erotic obsessions with witches, moon fairies, and rock 'n' roll hobbits suggested that maybe she needed to get out of her SoCal mansion a little more often.

Buckingham's solo records were more intriguing, if nearly as exasperating. Buckingham always stood in relation to his bandmates in much the same way as Neil Young with Crosby, Stills & Nash. He was the one who made things happen; the one willing to challenge audience expectations.

In the late '70s, while his fellow Macsters were scared by punk and new-wave - and who can blame them, considering that a snotty L.A. band called the Rotters targeted Nicks with a tune called "Sit On My Face Stevie Nicks" - Buckingham found the new sounds inspiring. More recently, he even offered praise for Camper Van Beethoven's affectionate dismantling of Mac's 1979 Tusk album. Buckingham's twisted, home-demo creations for Tusk represented the peak of his creativity. His solo albums have occasionally recalled such triumphs - particularly 1992's Out of the Cradle - but in big doses, Buckingham tends to come off as an expert studio tinkerer with nothing much to say.

The Mac's post-Tusk albums have been equally disposable: records squeezed between solo projects, and mapped out with the cold precision of an accountant's ledger. Buckingham even revealed that 1997's tour and live album (The Dance) were motivated not by artistic ambitions but by a desire to help drummer Mick Fleetwood with his financial woes.

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Say You Will, like 1987's Tango in the Night, started as a Buckingham solo album and slowly morphed into a band project. That might explain both the album's lack of an authentic band dynamic, and Buckingham's unprecedented willingness to set sail on wild guitar excursions.

As the album unfolds, you find yourself missing McVie, even if you can't pinpoint exactly what you miss about her. Ultimately, even if her stubborn romanticism tended toward predictability, at least her feet seemed planted on the ground. Without her hint of earthiness, the Mac is a paper kite drifting aimlessly in the stratosphere.

Individually, some of the album's tracks are appealing. Buckingham's "Peacekeeper" and "Steal Your Heart Away" are first-rate pop confections and Nicks' title song is pleasant enough. Nicks also proves that she can find mythological heroines in the most unlikely venues. The bizarre "Silver Girl" pays tribute to her pal Sheryl Crow, with such unintentionally hilarious sentiments as, "She was a silver girl/lost in a high tech world," and "She's got a million bucks/and she looks like it." When Nicks moodily intones, "You cannot see her soul," you feel tempted to fire back: "How can we see what's not there?"

The overall impression of the album is of a group playing out the string, replacing whatever mojo they once possessed with an over-abundance of studio craft. There is no explaining the mysteries of band chemistry, but it's easy enough to tell when it's gone. Fleetwood Mac simply doesn't have it anymore. •

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