CK Retro Review: Flowers In The Dirt by Paul McCartney

The notion that Paul McCartney needs a strong, bold-faced collaborator to do his best work doesn’t hold water; see Ram, Band On The Run, even Memory Almost Full for examples that refute it. But there is no doubt that pairing up with Elvis Costello was a good match, for both men. A third of the songs on 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt were co-written by the duo, and a couple of those songs stand out as the best stuff that Paul had managed since Tug Of War. Some production fussiness still interrupts the uniformly sharp songwriting at times, but this was a great album at a time when McCartney needed one. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

12. “Rough Ride”- The mix of synths and horns dates this one pretty severely. Fussy and not as danceable as it thinks it is.

THREE STARS

11. “Don’t Be Careless Love”- A weird one co-written with Costello, it takes some nasty turns, including a moment when the person the narrator is addressing gets chopped into little pieces. The doo-wop verses, complete with finger snaps, are the best parts.

10. “Distractions”- Sweet and soft as a lullaby with a hint of a Latin lilt, this one boasts a lovely, winding melody and some off-kilter orchestration. Probably a bit too sleepy to be a true standout, but it’s nice nonetheless.

9. “How Many People?”- It treads the same ground as “Ebony And Ivory,” simplifying issues that are endlessly complicated. But the reggae puts enough of a playful twist on it to keep any kind of heavyhandedness from entering the sonic picture.

8. “We Got Married”- This has more promise than what it actually delivered. The lyrics certainly boast some strong lines and a clear-eyed view of matrimony. It gets bogged down on a sludgy side road after the light-footed opening, David Gilmour’s estimable presence on lead guitar notwithstanding. By the end of it, it’s almost a different song than the one that began, and not a better one, but the strong opening weighs heavily enough for a positive grade overall.

7. “Motor Of Love”- Yes, it’s overproduced as well. But the chorus pulls things together in such stirring fashion that all is forgiven. And McCartney’s heartfelt effort on vocals keeps all of the saccharine elements from invading on the song’s better nature

6. “This One”- Bright and friendly if a bit too polite, this paean to taking action now instead of later when it comes to expressing your love glides by on its goodwill. Nothing too fancy, but displaying pop chops to spare.

FOUR STARS

5. “Figure Of Eight”- Paul’s energy level never falters on this one, and the song follows suit. He sings everything but the bridge in a high-pitched yelp, the desperation in his hapless narrator palpable as he tries to escape the soul-deadening rut which his relationship has carved. A rock-solid way to start Side Two, back when such things started to dwindle in importance with the advent of the CD.

4. “Put It There”- Here Paul is in foot-tapping, acoustic mode, a pose that suits him very well. When he keeps it light like this, the melodies that seem to ooze out of him are given full room to blossom. How sweet the sentiment also, a sepia-toned father-son story in song with no rancor or recrimination. A little ditty that lingers in the best possible way.

3. “You Want Her Too”- McCartney mildly complained after the fact that Costello playing the Lennon role meant that Elvis got all the best lines. He was probably referring to this quirkily effective duet. The production here very much sounds like Spike-era Costello, with a flying trapeze-like instrumental hook and a searing refrain. And Paul is right; playing the straight man tends to throw the spotlight on the wiseass, who, if you had to put money on it, would probably be the one to get the girl in this love triangle. But the two voices in potent harmony in the chorus is what you remember most.

FIVE STARS

2. “My Brave Face”- It should have been a bigger hit, but 1989 was already the beginning of the era where great songs were no longer hits, so that explains it. Costello seemed to give McCartney the permission to get as Beatle-y as he’d been in years (and to use far more syllables per line.) The chorus comes first, the acoustic guitar lick sounds like “And I Love Her,” Paul’s bass is forefronted, and there’s even an psychedelic little quaver on the electric guitar: all Fab 4 signposts. Throw in a just right lyric about the perils of bachelorhood and you have pop perfection.

1. “That Day Is Done”- Might just be the best of the Costello/McCartney collabs, and that includes “Veronica,” which is a brilliant song. And I’m not even sure this is the best version of it; check out Elvis’ take with the vocal group The Fairfield Four, which brings down the house. Nonetheless it’s a song that’s somehow beautiful and chilling at once, no matter who performs it. The production here leans heavily to The Band, what with the drowsy horns and all, and the gloomy lyrics owe a nod to “Long Black Veil” for sure. It’s a credit to the potency of McCartney’s personality on the microphone that he sounds completely at home with a song that you wouldn’t think was in his wheelhouse at all. And Nicky Hopkins is on piano, so there’s that too, if you weren’t yet convinced.

 

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney and The Beatles, check out my new book arriving in March, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs. You can preorder it at the link below.)

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CK Retro Review: CHOBA B CCCP by Paul McCartney

With a couple days to kill in the studio and some ace session men on hand, Paul McCartney ripped off a bushelful of songs consisting mostly of classics from the first wave of American rock and roll. The resulting album (CHOBA B CCCP or Back In The U.S.S.R.) was released only in the Soviet Union in 1988 before finally getting a worldwide release three years later. Although the arrangements sometimes betrayed the tossed-off, hurried nature of the sessions, McCartney’s affinity for and ease with this material makes it an invigorating listen, reminding anyone who might have forgotten how great a rock and roller this guy is.

TWO STARS

14. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”- A rock arrangement of this standard might have worked with just a tad more lightness to highlight the deft nature of Duke Ellington’s melody. But the band sort of bludgeons it, even if the instrumental break is well-done.

13. “Ain’t That A Shame”- Cheap Trick had a pretty good go at this song by not playing it too close to the vest. The respect that McCartney shows to the original smothers it a bit and makes it come off as more imitation than inspiration.

THREE STARS

12. “Midnight Special”- Maybe too light a touch is employed here by McCartney and the band, with the arrangement by Paul not quite capturing the darkness in the song that makes that ever-loving light so important in the first place. Nice guitar work on this one by Mick Green though to recommend it.

11. “Lucille”- The groove is a touch mathematical here, especially when you compare it to Little Richard’s raucous original. McCartney has fun with the vocal though, inspired by one of his true idols, and there’s no denying that this is a bona fide classic that’s hard to botch as long as you bring the energy.

10. “That’s All Right, Mama”- You have to hand it to McCartney on one account: He certainly didn’t back away from the behemoth songs of the genre. His take on this track that Elvis immortalized hews a bit more country and western, with the exception of the robust guitar break. Doesn’t threaten the original by any stretch, but a fine turn nonetheless.

9. “Kansas City”- McCartney knows his way around this song, as it was included way back in the day on Beatles For Sale. His voice sounds remarkably spry considering the quarter-century between recordings, doesn’t it? But, then again, it sounds pretty spry today even further down the road. Pretty good heft delivered by the band on this one.

8. “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday”- McCartney is, for sure, a “real gone cat” throughout this collection. On this, one of three Fats Domino-penned songs on the album, he and his buddies bust it up pretty good and vigorously sink their teeth into a tale of romantic revenge.

7. “Twenty Flight Rock”- This one holds a special place in Macca’s heart, as it was his knowledge of the song’s lyrics and changes that allegedly impressed John Lennon back in the day when the pair first met. Mick Gallagher gets a nice showcase on piano, as the band, taking the Eddy Cochran classic at a lope instead of a sprint, keeps their footing very well.

6. “I’m In Love Again”- Anybody’s who’s ever heard “Lady Madonna” should know that McCartney can do Fats Domino better than anyone save Fats himself. He slips into this rambler with no sweat at all, as Gallagher nails the piano triplets to anchor the music.

FOUR STARS

5. “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy- Man, does Paul sing this one wonderfully, touching every bit of the playfulness and bluesiness in the lyrics with ease. The fuzz of the guitar doesn’t quite square with the swing of the arrangement, in my humble view, but that’s nitpicking. The positives far outweigh that little nick.

4. “Crackin’ Up”- This is the most obscure song on the album, and it benefits from that, sounding alive and fresh rather than encased in glass. McCartney gets a lead guitar showcase and makes the most of it, while seeming to enjoy the quirkiness of the lyrics.

3. “Just Because”- The quartet nails the rockabilly vibe of this one, an antiquated song that Elvis also made famous. Great interplay among the musicians, while Paul’s bass and vocals bring a lot of charm to the proceedings. Certainly one of the most fun recordings on an album where “fun” was the operative word.

2. “Bring It On Home To Me”- Taking on a Sam Cooke song isn’t for the faint of heart if you’re a vocalist. McCartney tears into it fearlessly, adding a bit of a grittier edge in the higher notes compared to Cooke’s break-no-sweat smoothness. The call and response at the end leaves everything on the floor. A great showcase for his vocals, which retain their youthfulness and yet still reference the heartbreaks only life experience can engender.

FIVE STARS

1. “Summertime”- Taking this George Gershwin song and giving it an arrangement that hits the ominous notes of “House Of The Rising Sun” proves to be a stroke of genius. It really transforms it into something that Gershwin himself might not have realized possible. And it’s the one place where the heavier tones of the electric guitar don’t sound like they’re overwhelming the content of the song. Paul puts everything he has into the vocal; Ella would have been proud.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter & JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in March. You can preorder it at the link below.)

 


CK Retro Review: Press To Play by Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney largely took the middle part of the 1980’s off, with the exception of 1986’s Press To Play. Some might snicker that he might as well have sat that one out too, and there is some merit to that argument. As brilliant a producer as Hugh Padgham and as adventurous a songwriter as Eric Stewart might have been, their styles seemed to clash with McCartney’s instead of complimenting it. He deserves credit for trying something out of his comfort zone, but, for the most part,  McCartney seems at sea here, which, combined with a dearth of memorable songs, hamstrings this album. Here is a song-by-song-review:

TWO STARS

10. “Pretty Little Head”- Sounds like it was crafted for a Miami Vice scene where Crockett and Tubbs have to find the drug dealers in a dense jungle. As much as I love Miami Vice, this is not a compliment, especially since the style didn’t suit McCartney whatsoever.

9. “Talk More Talk”- While the experimentation and wacky wordplay is admirable, the sterile production keeps this from being more than an oddity that won’t interest you more than once or twice.

8. “Angry”- If there was a target to this diatribe in song, it’s now lost to the mists of time, as McCartney himself might put it. What’s certain is that the participation of Pete Townsend and Phil Collins is largely wasted on this feisty but underwritten and overdone track.

7. “Press”- Imagine a television with a brightness knob. In the 1980’s, pop music production brightened from the sleepy twilight of the late 70’s until it hit just the right level and the day-glo colors popped perfectly around 1984. Only they kept turning the knob up until we could no longer distinguish the substance behind the blinding light. That’s the best way to describe this, one of McCartney’s least effective singles ever.

THREE STARS

6. “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”- A nice little reggaefied workout, that, despite the title, contains some creeping melancholy. McCartney’s bass work is as nimble as could be expected. The second half of the song is a bit more musically mundane, but not an embarrassment by any means.

5. “Stranglehold”- The opener mixes some rockabilly acoustic guitar, soulful horns, and a stop-and-start rhythm into something promising. The lyrics nicely conjure the sweet agony of anticipated passion quite well. Here the production doesn’t get too busy and the song is better for it.

4. “Move Over Busker”- Paul is on much firmer footing with this funny rocker. The lyrics seem to suggest that the musician doesn’t hold as much weight in the world as the bigger stars he encounters; the title alone implies a kind of disrespect for what McCartney does. He has the last laugh, however, since the song swaggers with more raucous confidence than most movies can ever hope to achieve.

3. “However Absurd”- The title is apropos here. The music suggests something of great circumstance, as it seems to be intentionally overbaked what with the stomping drums and the stressed-out strings and all. Meanwhile the lyrics contain some striking individual lines, even if they don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things. At times it almost seems like a Rutles track parodying an earnest Beatles ballad. Not sure what Paul was after, but it’s fascinating anyway.

FOUR STARS

2. “Footprints”- McCartney has always had a soft spot in his songwriting for the outsider who many of us might not even consider, the still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow with a whole world going on behind his staid expression, a world about which we can only guess. “Footprints” is played with great touch and sensitivity by the instrumentalists and features a melody that takes you to places you never expect when the ride begins. An understated but affecting character sketch.

FIVE STARS

1. “Only Love Remains”- I know you’re not supposed to make a ballad the lead single, but I wonder if Press To Play might be regarded a bit differently if Paul had led with this atmospheric, romantic, grand slam of a ballad. Tony Visconti’s orchestration is subtle until it needs to be sweeping, and Paul’s melody soars when it’s not allowing a little bit of doubt to creep in to keep things honest. There’s not a false moment, and the message may be time-worn, but it’s still crucial. We all can get caught up with things that ultimately don’t matter too much, but songs like this, especially when rendered by a master like Macca, set us straight on what’s truly important and resonant.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. And preorder my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s available in March.)

 


CK Retro Review: Pipes Of Peace by Paul McCartney

Recorded for the most part at the same time as predecessor Tug Of War and released by Paul McCartney just a year later, 1983’s Pipes Of Peace suffers by comparison to the earlier album. It’s hard to hear some of the songs and not think that they were leftovers. That said, it’s the more experimental album, as McCartney and producer George Martin attempted to keep listeners on their toes, not easy to do for an artist as ingrained in the culture. They occasionally succeed and occasionally overdo it, but the efforts are admirable. Here is a song-by-song review (ratings based on a five-star maximum):

TWO STARS

11. “Tug Of Peace”- Attempting to provide a kind of link to the previous album, McCartney included this percussive, electronic quasi-instrumental that calls back to “Tug Of War.” Busy, but not that engaging in the end.

10. “Through Our Love”- The idea, I suppose, was that this would be the unifying, stirring ballad to wrap it all up. But it’s lyrically underwritten (lots of “true/you/do” rhymes) and lush enough to cause a toothache.

THREE STARS

9. “The Man”- The arrangement is a little overbaked, helping to undercut some interesting ideas (the lyrics are a kind of cousin to “The Fool On The Hill”) and the combined charisma of McCartney and Micheal Jackson on the lesser of their two collaborations on the album.

8. “Average Person”- Some of the effects get a bit cloying on this track, one which would have been better served by just playing it close to the vest with the solid piano-driven rhythm. Maybe one too many musical ideas on this one, but McCartney’s energy and commitment keep it afloat.

7. “Sweetest Little Show”- On this track, some good-natured rockabilly gives way to a contemplative acoustic guitar part. This is one of the times on the album where the experimental bent helps lift what could have been a pedestrian track.

6. “Hey Hey”- A fiery instrumental co-written by jazz fusion legend Stanley Clarke. It kicks up more dust than anything else on the record.

5. “Pipes Of Peace”- The title track is quirky and melodic, even if it seems grafted together from the bones of other songs, including ELO’s “Fire On High,” The Beach Boys’ “Heroes And Villains,” and Macca’s own “C Moon” and “Let ‘Em In.” It always struck me as the set-up for a concept album that never materializes, but it’s heartfelt enough to register.

4. “The Other Me”- It’s not me; it’s me. That seems to be the argument leveled here by the guilty suitor portrayed by McCartney in this nice, if relatively inconsequential, little midtempo number. And, hey, haven’t we all acted like a “dustbin lid” from time to time?

3. “Keep Under Cover”- It has an effective, stomping groove that nicely counteracts the strings and really pops when it emerges from the dreamy opening. The lyrics mainly stay out of the way, but McCartney sings them fervently enough to make you think there’s more there than meets the ear.

FOUR STARS

2. “Say Say Say”- McCartney certainly got the better end of the bargain when it comes to his collaborations with Michael Jackson. Whereas Michael kept the limp “The Girl Is Mine” for Thriller (and, who remembers this, actually released it as the leadoff single,) Paul was able to include this pop-funk ripper (and “The Man”) for Pipes Of Peace. He wouldn’t always be so fortunate in his business dealings with the Gloved One, of course, but these were happier times between the two. Their ease together pours out of the speakers here.

1. “So Bad”- I’ve professed my affinity for Paul’s occasional falsetto soul testifying elsewhere in this series, and he really nails it in this one. I’ll also defend the lyrics, which may seem to some to be mindlessly simple. I would argue that complicating them would have distracted from that melody, as soft and mesmerizing as a leaf gently twisting in the wind as it falls to ground from on high. Should have been a bigger hit, if you ask me.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney’s first band, check out the link below to preorder by new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, which arrives in March.)


CK Retro Review: Tug Of War by Paul McCartney

The show must go on, as they say, and Paul McCartney rose to the occasion on his first album following the death of John Lennon with one of his finest efforts in years. 1982’s Tug Of War reunites him with George Martin, who brings his gilded touch to the album, especially the ballads, which are uniformly fine and occasionally brilliant. The mid-tempo numbers glide about elegantly, while the harder stuff is feisty and fun. The first side outdoes the second side by a pretty good margin, but overall Paul was back on firm, crowd-pleasing footing with this one.

TWO STARS

12. “Dress Me As A Robber”- Way too busy, this Latin/disco number doesn’t ever settle on an identity.

11. “Be What You See (Link)”- Dreamy interstitial that’s gone almost as soon as it arrives.

10. “Get It”- McCartney’s chance to work with idol with Carl Perkins is far from objectionable. But there’s not much to it that will make it stick in your memory banks, other than Carl’s laughter at the end of the track.

THREE STARS

9. “The Pound Is Sinking”- It gets a little more twee than some of Macca’s biggest critics would like, but the bounciness of this rundown on the world’s currency keeps it in the black. Good enough to be somebody’s favorite on the album, for sure.

8. “Ebony And Ivory”- Hey, we’re not arguing that the views on race relations are anything too profound. But the melody is as comfy as old slippers, and the funky coda where McCartney and Stevie Wonder go to town with some vocal improvisations is worth the price of admission.

7. “Somebody Who Cares”- The way the bluesy, minor-key verses open up into the surging chorus is the evidence of an old pro at work. This one doesn’t do too much but what it does it does well. Pleasant on the ears, for sure, if not particularly challenging.

6. “Ballroom Dancing”- It’s kind of out of place on the album, but I guess it would be out of place on any rock album (except maybe the White Album, where stuff like this was all part of the crazy tapestry.) McCartney’s ability to pull off this antiquated material always amazes me; even when you don’t think it’s what you want to hear, he convinces you otherwise.

5. “What’s That You’re Doing”- Wonder revives some of his mid-70’s magic with this relentless funk workout, letting Paul tag along for the ride. It doesn’t go very far from its initial groove, which carries it a long way, although maybe not quite six-plus minutes down the road. Still, the two superstars fit together seamlessly on a song that easily could have been a hit had they edited it down and released it as a single. But “Ebony And Ivory” sold about a quadrillion copies, so who am I to quibble?

FOUR STARS

4. “Take It Away”- If there’s a fault to be found with this song, it’s that it very much sounds like it could have been on a late-70’s Wings album, not quite in synch the early 80’s times. Still, McCartney is relaxed and smooth throughout, with the lyrics tripping off his tongue effortlessly and the charging chorus, with “Savoy Truffle” horns and Ringo Starr and Steve Gadd pushing the beat recklessly onward, is grabby. Paul’s bass work counters the light-footed melody nicely. Everything in its right place.

3. “Tug Of War”- McCartney keeps the lyrics vague enough that they might refer to his relationship with Lennon or to actual armed combat. Or maybe both. It nicely captures the senselessness of combat, much like Floyd’s “Us And Them” in that regard. The inherent sadness in the song comes from the unspoken fear that the “time to come” and “another world” promised might not actually arrive. In addition, it smoothly modulates between the acoustic, dreamy opening section and the urgent, electric second half. An excellent starter, for sure.

FIVE STARS

2. “Wanderlust”- I know that Paul has certain crowd-pleasers that have to go into every concert, but I couldn’t believe when I read that he has never played this live. Ringo adds his inimitable sense of touch on the ballads here, the horns are suitably buoyant, and McCartney sings the stuffing out it. When all of those countermelodies start to crash into one another in the final moments, prepare for the chills you’re bound to receive. As moving a defense of restlessness as you’re ever going to hear; the Captain, representing the staid world that refuses to take chances, gets his head handed to him in this musical argument.

1. “Here Today”- Imagine the pressure McCartney must have felt to make some sort of epic statement on his relationship with Lennon. That he had the foresight to pull back and simplify things down to their essence is beyond admirable; it was a stroke of genius. The song sidesteps the sappiness that easily could have enveloped it while still delivering raw emotion, and Martin does one of his stirring without being showy arrangements in the fashion of “Yesterday.” Isn’t that what friendship is, the idea that someone gets inside the song that we sing in a way that mere acquaintances can’t possibly achieve? Hurting as we all were, McCartney’s song was as much what we needed to hear as it was what he needed to say.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul’s “other” band, check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s due out in March.)