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Washington Post

BYLINE: Sean Daly, Special to The Washington Post

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Poor Christine McVie: The Fleetwood Mac singer and keyboardist must have grown weary watching band mates Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Back in the '70s, their love-hate shenanigans were the catalyst for "Rumours," one of the greatest pop-rock albums of all time. But two decades later, maybe McVie just couldn't take it anymore.

McVie -- who wrote hook-happy hits such as "You Make Loving Fun," "Say You Love Me" and the band's most popular song-as-SoCal-sunset, "Don't Stop" -- left the group after 1997's live album, "The Dance." That's a shame because her chummy pop-for-pop's-sake attitude is greatly missed on Fleetwood Mac's new "Say You Will." The album is as spectacular for its beauty as for its bloat.

Stoical bassist John McVie and gonzo drummer Mick Fleetwood are still on the job, but Buckingham and Nicks are the only members who matter on "Say You Will," which, at a whopping 18 songs, is just two tracks shorter than the band's legendary double-album debacle, 1979's "Tusk." The dueling leads took equal turns writing the album, this lineup's first studio work since 1987's "Tango in the Night." And though their heavy-handed thoughts on current events and soured relationships grow tiresome, their distinctive talents are hard to deny.

The first single, "Peacekeeper," features those lush, Mac-classic harmonies, Buckingham's quirky production fills (in this case, some nasally "unh-unh-unh's"), and a chorus as memorable as "Rhiannon's." The antiwar sentiment is clumsy -- "We make all of our sons the same / Everyone will suffer the fire we've made" -- but Buckingham's guitar work is jaw-dropping, soft then searing, nearly classical then metallic. The album opener "What's the World Coming To" -- "You can't plant no seed / Where there's only greed" -- has a deliriously uplifting delivery, kind of like an apocalyptic "Second Hand News," with guitar solos that pop up in surprising places.

Buckingham may be the most underappreciated guitarist in rock history -- or at least he seems to think so. On "Say You Will," he tries so hard to show just how underappreciated he is that you worry he's going to lose a finger. "Murrow Turning Over in His Grave" offers a been-there, press-bashing message, but the song is saved by Buckingham's playing, a ferocious mix of bluegrass and what sounds like an air siren. The song's hellfire finish would make ax-master Yngwie Malmsteen proud.

Everyone's favorite crystal-ball-carrying diva certainly has had better showings. In fact, "Illume (9/11)," with its weird "I am a cliff dweller" interpretation of a national tragedy, could be Nicks's worst performance. But the Bella Donna does offer up a few keepers: The up-tempo "Thrown Down" is a female-empowerment gem, with her splendidly scratchy vocals and Buckingham's bubbly guitar line. And though the title track refers to the "fever dance" that went on between her and Buckingham, the song's drive-time chorus is an obvious nod to McVie's candy-coated writing style.

Of the album's 18 songs, 10 are memorable. (You can skip Buckingham's sound experiments on "Miranda" and "Red Rover," and the nasty "Come.") And for those of you who dig the band's soap opera past, the album's lush one-two finale offers plenty gossip fodder. Buckingham's "Say Goodbye" ("The price that we pay / For a love that couldn't hold / I let you slip away / There was nothing I could do") and Nicks's "Goodbye Baby" ("I hope your heart's not broken / Don't forget me / Yes, I was outspoken") are delicate love songs reminiscent of "Dreams" and "Sara."

"Say You Will" would have been an unqualified success had Buckingham and Nicks taken a break after, say, five songs each -- and McVie had stuck around to playfully dilute all those deep, dark thoughts.

(Fleetwood Mac will perform May 9 at MCI Center. To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)