1971’s Ram has always been viewed as Paul McCartney’s effort to get back to being a proper studio artist after the critical backlash against the homemade feel of McCartney. Yet even with the occasional contributions from sidemen and wife Linda (who gets a co-credit), the album has the feel of a one-man tour de force, the full breadth of McCartney’s mercurial personality given free reign. And it’s a triumph, completely underrated in its time and only now gathering a cult of followers who hear it as pop music at once fearlessly ambitious and enjoyably freewheeling. Here is a track-by-track review:
11. “Long Haired Lady”- One clunker out of twelve (if you count the two versions of “Ram On”) ain’t bad. This just goes on and on without much direction, and putting Linda out front on the vocals didn’t do her any favors.
10. “3 Legs”- Plenty of lyrical fodder here for the Beatle obsessives (“My dog he got three legs/But he cant’ run.)” That saves it from being forgettable, although the music is also quirky enough to make it an intriguing listen.
9. “Eat At Home”- Not a bad little rambler, if a tad on the generic side. As for the lyrics, well, something tells me dinner isn’t what’s really on the menu or on his mind.
8. “Smile Away”- This kind of driving rocker was always right in McCartney’s wheelhouse, yet it shouldn’t be taken for granted. After all, these kinds of songs often tripped him up on the lesser of his solo albums, when they aimed for ingratiating but landed on grating. “Smile Away” avoids that with its persistent groove and ebullient refrains.
7. “Back Seat Of My Car”- McCartney would have been better served sticking with the Beach Boys-style verses all the way through; I’m not sure that the romping connecting sections work in tandem with that, and the Abbey Road-style pomp of the “We believe that we can’t be wrong” section is in a completely different ballpark. A bit of a rollercoaster, but lovely passages throughout compensate.
6. “Heart Of The Country”- Nothing new to hear here, especially if you’ve checked out the superior, similarly-themed “Mother Nature’s Son” on the White Album. But the bouncy thrum of McCartney’s bass playing off his high-pitched vocals is irresistible. (And, man, this dude can scat!)
5. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”- To this day I haven’t the foggiest idea what this song is trying to tell us. But who cares, really? There are 1,001 hooks, even more headphone delights buried in the mix, and enough whimsy to turn away even the staunchest of cynics. McCartney’s obsession with song suites is hard to disparage because they usually turned out quite good, if not masterful. Put this one in the quite good category.
4. “Ram On”- There’s a lot of Brian Wilson in this little ditty too, from the overhanging backing vocals to the off-kilter sound effects. McCartney holds down the center with his ukulele, his dreamy vocal, and a simple but effective message of love not unlike the one he delivered at “The End” of his former group. Utterly charming.
3. “Too Many People”- McCartney has always been coy about this being a direct broadside against the Lennons, which it clearly was. Of course, John heard himself in the entire album, to the point where he likely thought he was Uncle Albert. In any case, Paul wins this round: “Too Many People” is miles better, musically and lyrically, than the clumsy “How Do You Sleep?” The tension of the music is compelling and the swerving guitars of Macca and Hugh McCracken add some muscle to the ominous proclamations.
2. “Dear Boy”- With its harmonies (and, say what you want about Lindas’ vocals, but she’s in there contributing) and multi-tracked Maccas swooping in from all angles, this track sounds like something Beatle buddy Harry Nilsson might have concocted. The melody is classic McCartney, the minors twisting in the knife and the majors healing the wounds. One of his most unheralded beauties.
1. “Monkberry Moon Delight”- Of all the things that angered Lennon about Ram, it had to really rile him to hear McCartney do bizarro wordplay with all the aplomb of “I Am The Walrus” on this marvelously unhinged song. And the musical backing McCartney concocts is pretty dynamic as well, all churning piano, spiralling guitars, Linda’s conspiratorial harmonies, and his larynx-straining vocals making him sound like some kind of grizzled deviant. Why Macca hasn’t hooked up with TGIFriday’s to patent a drink based on this song is beyond me. I guess he doesn’t need the money. If you don’t know this song? Well, listen to what the man says: “Catch up, cats and kittens.”
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For an in-depth look at Mr. McCartney’s original group, check out the link below to pre-order my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, out in March, 2017.)
With it’s high-drama melody and straightforward yet piercing lyrics, “You Don’t Have T0 Say You Love Me,” released by Dusty Springfield in 1966, seems like the greatest minds of the Brill Building coming together in an effort to create a ballad so heart-wrenching that it’s best to pull over the car when it comes on the radio lest the welling tears block your vision. That it was originally an Italian tune and featured lyrics by a pair of songwriting novices (Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell) is nigh impossible to believe. But it’s true, as Springfield heard the tune during an Italian festival and eventually asked a pair of friends to come up with English words to match.
The fanfare opening immediately demands your attention, clearing the air for Springfield to lay it on the line. It would have been so easy to oversing this song, as many cover versions sadly prove. But Springfield’s performance here is an all-timer, as she effortlessly conveys emotions that the words on the page barely suggest. There’s obviously great pain in there, but there’s also bravery and perseverance that makes us root for this heroine even more.
Which, of course, makes it all the more tragic when we realize that she’s singing to a memory. The upswing of the melody in the refrains wants us to believe that there is hope, that this romance can work as a one-way compromise where she does all the leaving it alone and he does all the running around. The sheer futility of her plight is devastating, and yet Springfield’s dignity still persists.
It all leads to her cries of “Believe me,” three times, each one a little more urgent than the one before. Fifty years ago this unlikely song came to be, and, thanks to Springfield’s goose bumps-inducing vocal, it has only gained in power since. Greg Kihn was right to say they don’t write ’em like that anymore. But even if they did, you’d need a singer like Dusty Springfield to deliver maximum impact.
Never has such a humble album caused so much stir as 1970’s McCartney, the first solo album by Paul McCartney. The reason, of course, wasn’t the album itself, but rather Macca’s disastrous strategy for publicizing it, during which he announced its release in concord with the breakup of the greatest musical group the world will ever know. But if you can set aside McCartney‘s place in history as the final straw that broke The Beatles’ back, you’ll find a sweet, tuneful, unassuming collection of tossed-off ditties with one or two excellent ones in there just to remind us what he could do when he was motivated. It’s an album that’s not trying to beat the world so much as get away from it. Here is a track-by-track review:
13. “Valentine Day”- Paul has admitted that the instrumentals here were used more to test out his recording machine than anything else. Alas, that motivation comes through all too clearly here.
12. “Lovely Linda”- It’s just a fragment, albeit a pleasant one. Important as a statement though because he brings Linda into the songwriting picture just like John brought in Yoko.
11. “Kreen-Akrore”- McCartney’s tribute to a Brazilian Indian tribe is ambitious if a bit overdone. Fancy him taking all those drum solos when they only ever let Ringo have one.
10. “Hot As Sun/Glasses”- Too bad this instrumental didn’t last a little longer, because it seems to be just getting warmed up (no pun intended) when it trails off.
9. “Oo You”- If nothing else, McCartney seems to anticipate the way outtakes and cutting-room floor material would soon be fetishized by rock aficionados. Hence Paul has no problem leaving a song with nothing much to recommend it besides a gritty groove in the running order.
8. “Teddy Boy”- A poster-child for the kind of thing that drove critics mad about Paul’s solo career. The music is effortlessly catchy and ingratiating, while the melody latches on to the listener immediately. The lyrics are simplistic to the point of childish. The tune wins the tug of war, but still.
7. “That Would Be Something”- It has the focused vibe of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”, that one idea pounded in over and over again. As usual with Macca, the bass ups the melodic quotient considerably, and the scatting vocals in the connecting sections are fun.
6. “Momma Miss America”- McCartney would marry similar minor-key intrigue to nonsensically brilliant lyrics on “Monkberry Moon Delight,” from Ram, not too far down the road. This is like a test-run. The first part of the song is much more engaging than the second, however.
5. “Singalong Junk”- Oh so pretty.
4. “Man We Was Lonely”- The jaunty refrains play well off the meditative verses, with McCartney seeming to reference his life story at the time. The chorus wants you to believe in a happy ending, but the tug of the other sections causes us to think that it’s not going to be quite so easy. Some nice steel guitar in there as well by the ever-resourceful Paul, and the intro and outro are moodily pretty as well.
3. “Maybe I’m Amazed”- I think people grab on to it because it’s the most finished thing on that album (and certainly the most Beatles-y), but it’s by no means the best. The performance is better than the song by a good margin, with McCartney’s leave-nothing-in-the-tank vocal putting across the message, about needing someone so desperately that it doesn’t even make sense anymore, better than the words or even the music, which gets the benefit of a stirring arrangement and excellent guitar and piano work from Paul.
2. “Junk”- Call me a sentimentalist (you’d be accurate), but the idea of discarded household trinkets representing a kind of loss of innocence gets me every time. It helps that McCartney hangs it on one of his most wistful melodies. And, again, his wordless vocals say a lot.
1. “Every Night”- It comes on like a lovely love song, but there are darker themes playing about. The bit about not wanting to get out of bed hints at the depression through which McCartney was working as his group shattered around him. “Resting my mind” likely seemed like an unattainable goal but for the love there to pull him back to warmth and humanity each evening. The falsetto “ooo-ooo” vocals are triumphant release in this context. The first one of his where you could say, “Hey, this is as good if not better than some of the best stuff he did with The Beatles,” and you can’t hold a song to a higher standard than that.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the link below to pre-order my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due in March.)
As I write this (9/23/16) the rumors are flying that The Rolling Stones will be releasing a new album sometime in the near future. But if it doesn’t happen, and A Bigger Bang is the last studio album we receive from them, it wouldn’t be the worst way to go out. (Heck, could you imagine if they actually broke up after Dirty Work and that was their last?) Released in 2005, A Bigger Bang is a shade or two better than its predecessor, Bridges To Babylon. 16 songs is too many, of course, but there’s some solid stuff here and not too much of it feels derivative of older work, which, when you’ve released as much stuff as they have, is no small feat. Here is a song-by-song review:
16. “Look What The Car Dragged In”- By the time you reach Track 14, one more diatribe against a female with wandering tendencies is one too many. But Mick Jagger does name-drop Sgt. Pepper, so that’s something.
15. “Oh No, Not You Again”- Remember when I said that there wasn’t too much on the album that was derivative. This one, which gets lost somewhere between self-deprecating and vulgar, makes a liar out of me.
14. “Driving Too Fast”- Jagger sustains his metaphor about life being a highway well enough, if a bit too long. The music doesn’t really help him either, coming off like a busy freeway when a one-lane country road might have been more effective.
13. “She Saw Me Coming”- About the only thing you might take away from this one is that Mick Jagger isn’t a bad little bass player. Other than that, it’s B-side filler at best.
12. “It Won’t Take Long”- Three straight churning rockers at the start of the album was probably too much, especially when they produced diminishing returns. You might forget this one pretty quick after you hear it.
11. “Infamy”- Keith Richards gets the last word as usual, but, oddly enough, it’s not with a ballad. Instead he tosses off a gurgling rocker that, aside from Jagger’s harmonica fills and Charlie Watts’ forceful backbeat, doesn’t do a whole lot.
10. “Dangerous Beauty”- A weird one, as a grungy groove is utilized in service of a character sketch of a female who literally tortures her prey. This is what happens when you’ve got sixteen songs worth of music to fill, but, like I said, it’s just bizarre enough to be memorable.
9. “Sweet Neo Con”- When the album was released, Richards spoke about worrying that this one song, a Jagger broadside against President George W. Bush, would steal a lot of the album’s publicity. And he was probably right. The song is OK, mostly because the music expresses the tough stance better than the lyrics, but not good enough to be the center of attention, as opposed to say the brilliant but ridiculously unheralded “Laugh, I Nearly Died.”
8. “Rain Fall Down”- Some funk courtesy of Jagger to change the pace a little bit. A sultry bridge with moaning backing vocals connects the flickering guitars and relentless beat. Lots of open spaces for the atmosphere to seep in, even if it wears out its welcome after a while at nearly five minutes.
7. “Let Me Down Slow”- Jagger keenly notices some changes in his paramour and figures that she might be changing partners as well. The nice little descending melody in the chorus lives this one up nicely.
6. “Back Of My Hand”- One of their purest nods to the blues in quite some time. At least with the music: Jagger going on about “Goyas, paranoias” in the lyrics takes you out of the moment. Luckily his harmonica and Richards subtly scorching riffs get you back in there time.
5. “Rough Justice”- It’s your typical blast of adrenaline, fuzzed-out guitar, Mick being Mick album-opener from the boys. Jagger gets off some cleverly dirty couplets (“So put your lips to my hips, baby/And tell me what’s on your mind”) and Richards and Ronnie Wood get their money’s worth while Watts cracks the whip. It may adhere to the tried-and-true formula, but it’s still fun.
4. “Biggest Mistake”- Jagger surprises a bit by playing a narrator who admits his restlessness caused the breakup that’s now hounding. There’s a certain elegance to the music, even with the electric guitars adding a little muscle. The Stones occasionally get in trouble when the songs are too lyric-driven, but this is one of those that works.
3. “This Place Is Empty”- Richards takes the lead for an out-and-out love song, albeit one filled with enough minor chords and bluesy ambience to make you wonder if his intended in the song might not have one foot out the door. Beautifully arranged, as all Richards’ ballads tend to be, and it’s nice to hear Jagger pitching in on harmonies instead of sitting out a Keith number as he often does.
2. “Streets Of Love”- “Fool To Cry” was probably the first time Jagger unleashed his falsetto on a Stones ballad; he must have realized it was effective, because he’s gone back to it many times since. There’s something so over-the-top about the effect that it’s almost as if he wants us to think that life’s too short for such painful emoting. Regardless, he’s never less than compelling here and he outperforms the just-OK quality of the lyrics and tune.
1.”Laugh, I Nearly Died”- Out of nowhere comes this moody marvel that resuscitates the second half of the album. Actually it’s so good that it leaves the rest of the material well behind. It’s the one time on the disc where Jagger’s wordy lyrics find a true home, as he portrays a fellow suffering through a nomadic existence in an effort to forget his heartbreak. The chain-gang backing vocals, the dynamics from the bluesy crawl of the verses to the rising angst of the refrains, Jagger’s anguished performance: Everything here is in concert. The great lost classic of their late period.
(For more on The Rolling Stones, check out the link to my book below. As always, feel free me to e-mail me at countdownkid @hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter at jimbeviglia.)
It’s been four years since Tempest, Bob Dylan’s most recent studio album of original material. The album astounds me anew with each listen. It’s a classic just waiting to be anointed as one: From the gritty rock of “Pay In Blood” and “Narrow Way,” to the ambition of “Tempest” and “Scarlet Town,” to one of the most idiosyncratic tribute songs you’ll ever hear in “Roll On John,” Dylan killed it. For my money he can release Sinatra covers till the end of time; Tempest earned him that right.
“Long And Wasted Years” is the heartbreaker on the album. Bob’s ballads are fewer and farther between on his most recent albums, but when he drops one, it’s always worth the wait. This one rides on a guitar riff that drags itself up a flight of stairs only to tumble back down every time, mimicking the Charlie Brown-ish gullibility of the narrator’s once-high romantic hopes.
But not anymore: “One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.” Of course there are the usual Dylanesque digressions to keep us from getting any kind of linear narrative. But that’s what life is like, right? One moment you’re musing on a lost love, the next you’re thinking about your enemies back behind you in the dust, the next you’re egging someone on to dance. OK, maybe that’s what Dylan’s life is like, not ours, but it’s such a fascinating place to visit.
As always he reveals more about himself than the biographies could ever approach: “I think that when my back was turned/The whole world behind me burned.” And then, that last verse, it hurts just to write it let alone hear Dylan sing it with his brilliant phrasing: “We cried on a cold and frosty morn/We cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears/So much for these long and wasted years.” On second thought, give us an original album, Bob. Nobody writes songs like these anymore. Nobody did before, either.
1997’s Bridges To Babylon got lost a bit on the battleground between Mick Jagger’s efforts to drag The Rolling Stones into modernity and Keith Richards attempting to put the kibosh on those efforts at all costs. There’s nothing here that’s an out-and-out embarrassment not is there anything essential to the catalog. But it’s interesting as a document of the intra-band power play. Here is a song-by-song review:
13. “Gunface”- Goes on for quite a bit and tries to cop a tough lyrical attitude to go along with the music, but there’s never a part of it that truly feels special.
12. “Out Of Control”- The transition from quiet to loud feels more like a forced enterprise than something that’s essential to the meaning of the song. Nice, swampy harmonica work by Mick Jagger though.
11. “Low Down”- Not too bad in a grinding sort of way, elevated by the chorus, which sounds a lot like “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, the song that precedes it on the album. Better sequencing could have been exercised here.
10. “Too Tight”- Clearly a Keith Richards contribution in terms of the songwriting, based on those “Ah-ah” backing vocals and the ringing, raunchy guitars. I’d even go so far as to say it might been more effective had Keith taken the lead vocal and given one of those half-wounded, half-wicked performances.
9. “You Don’t Have To Mean It”- If you haven’t figured out that Richards likes reggae, you haven’t been listening too closely. But he always honors the music with his performances. On this one he gets help from some soulful backing vocals and perky horns. Lyrically, the message seems to be if you can’t say anything nice, lie to me and make something up.
8. “Might As Well Get Juiced”- This is one of the ones where The Dust Brothers’ influence seems to really come to the fore. Jagger’s strangled cries are surrounded by all manner of synthy distractions, but it still comes off suitably bluesy even with its modern touches. Again, Mick’s harmonica work helps immensely to that end.
7. “Saint Of Me”- Richards is nowhere to be found on this one, and it indeed sometimes feels like a Mick solo effort. Some surprising guest stars here, including Me’Shell Ndegeocello on bass and, returning to the Stones fold after many years away, Billy Preston on organ. Jagger makes his devotion to doing the wrong thing sound like gospel, of course.
6. “Already Over Me”- Apparently Babyface Edmonds tried to collaborate on this song with Jagger, only to have his efforts left on the cutting room floor. Turns out to be your average Stones ballad, which turns out to be better than the average ballad when you compare it to everything else.
5. “Thief In The Night”- It feels like an instrumental; the vocals are incidental, adding more through their sound than the meaning of the words. Richards does a great job arranging these kind of after-hours, slinky tracks, which often linger a lot longer than the brash rockers for which the late-period band is known.
4. “How Can I Stop”- It’s funny, but Bridges To Babylon feels like Jagger’s album in a lot of ways, only for Richards to deliver a one-two punch on the end that almost feels like it belongs on another record, one jazzier and more contemplative. It’s a simple song that relies upon subtle instrumental flourishes for its power. The last of those, provided by saxophonist Wayne Shorter over Charlie Watts’ surprising fills, is a real grabber.
3. “Anybody Seen My Baby?”- Jagger on the prowl is always captivating, especially when he’s in search of those beautiful, ethereal girls that only seem to cross paths with rock stars. That his wingman in this case was Biz Markie and not Keith may have come as a surprise (an unpleasant one to Keith, apparently, based on his later dismissals of the Dust Brothers’ production ideas), but you can’t just rely on rockers and 12-bars forever, right? A pleasant surprise as a first single back then and it still holds up nicely.
2. “Flip The Switch”- The sinewy bass line laid down by session man Jeff Sarli, the tough-guy guitars of Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Waddy Wachtel, Jagger’s defiant sneers in the face of all manner of insult and injury: It’s all fine. But it’s hard to imagine this song packing the punch it does without Watts’ backbeat, which is somehow, as John Wooden would have wanted, quick but not in a hurry. It’s a real wake-up call of an opening track; any doubters wondering what the old boys had in them were quickly put in their place.
1. “Always Suffering”- After being upstaged by Richards’ ballads in the previous few albums, Jagger reached back for a little something extra on this weeper. “We’re already lost,” he sings, suggesting there’s no way to reverse the course of painful events and unforgiving time. Keith does chip in with some sweet harmonies and understated guitar work to make a crucial contribution. Not much to say about this one except that it expertly touches that place inside of us that can’t see the bright side, a place where we all dwell from time to time.
(For a more in-depth look at The Rolling Stones, check out my book in the link below. As always, you can reach me on Twitter @jimbeviglia and e-mail me at email@example.com.)