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.)
1995’s Mutineer is a fascinating entry in the Warren Zevon catalog. It’s a series of mostly slower, often contemplative songs. Zevon dials back the wisecracking (for the most part) and gets to the heart of the matter, emphasis on heart. He also takes some interesting musical risks, and though they don’t all pay off, the ones that do are revelatory. Some pedestrian rockers that are haphazardly thrown in really only break the spell; this one is at its best when it’s at its dreamiest. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Rottweiler Blues”- The author Carl Hiassen helps out with the lyrics here about a particularly ferocious guard dog and his ornery owner. Too bad nobody bothered to do much with the squawking rock arrangement.
9. “Seminole Bingo”- The other song co-written with Hiassen takes place in the author’s Florida haunts, depicting a scam artist on the run from the SEC. The story never really ignites, although Zevon gets in some ferocious guitar licks toward the end.
8. “Piano Fighter”- In typically idiosyncratic Zevonian fashion, this tale of a have-piano, will-travel outlaw features very little ivory-tickling. In fact, the production gets a bit too wild for its own good. But I do love the idea of Zevon as a musical gunfighter.
7. “Something Bad Happened To A Clown”- Zevon once sang of a “running-down calliope”, which is a good approximation of the sound of this oddity. Bruce Hornsby chips in with an evocative accordion part. Zevon’s lyrics don’t really go much further than the old tears-of-a-clown cliche, but the off-kilter mood is sustained quite well.
6. “Poisonous Lookalike”- A rather rancorous dressing down of a deceptive lover, this one possesses enough minor-key potency to get by all right. In a similar vein as Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” but with a bit more bile.
5. “Similar To Rain”- Zevon cops a Brian Wilson Smile vibe here, with dissonant sounds fluttering at the edges of an ethereal musical landscape. The lyrics are a bit of an afterthought; just drift along with the strangely stirring music and you’ll do fine.
4. “Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse”- This one has the same stately, medieval feel as “The Indifference Of Heaven.” Zevon seems to be targeting the kind of lifeless gatherings of the affluent that he’s nailed before. This one is best enjoyed for its sprightly melody and the fun refrain.
3. “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”- Judee Sill, like Zevon, came from the Laurel Canyon scene in the late 60’s and the early 70’s and was one of David Geffen’s first discoveries. Unfortunately, her career sputtered and she died at age 35 in 1979. Zevon does her wonderful tribute with this elegiac version of her first single. Hornsby’s accordion bed breaks all falls, and Warren does the sweet but sad melody tender justice.
2. “Mutineer”- Zevon performed this in unforgettable fashion in his last appearance on David Letterman before his death, and anyone who saw that could tell that this was a personal song for him. The hazy synths conjure a nautical feel, albeit with a touch of melancholy. His wistful lyrics admit to his rebellious tendencies but also project heaping helpings of vulnerability. Bring your hankie.
1. “The Indifference Of Heaven”- It’s all well and good to look at the bright side, but sometimes a dose of dour reality is necessary. The narrator, a down on his luck yet poetic convenience store worker, takes umbrage here with both God and the Boss, an empty horizon yawning in front of him. And yet a kind of grace is bestowed upon him by the acoustic sheen of the music and Peter Asher’s benevolent harmonies. What a wonderful juxtaposition of lyrical theme and musical tone.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
If you’re a pop music fan of any kind, I highly suggest you check out Grace Of My Heart, the 1996 movie that prominently features “God Give Me Strength,” the collaboration between Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach that led to Painted From Memory. It’s fun to watch the film and spot who the different fictional characters are supposed to represent. It would take only casual knowledge of that era in music to recognize stand-ins for Carole King, Lesley Gore, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector. I don’t know if the 60’s were really like that, with every major musical personality haphazardly interacting with each other, but it’s a fun fantasy to indulge.
In the film, the main character, a King stand-in played by Illeana Douglas, gets up the courage to perform a composition she wants to record herself in front of the Wilson stand-in, played by, I kid you not, Matt Dillon. Eventually, she does record it, with the help of the Spectorian producer, but it turns into a “River Deep-Mountain High”-like flop because it’s just too personal for mass consumption.
Listening to the song in the Costello-Bacharach version, you can sort of hear it in that context, as this massive account of a break-up that may cut a little too close to the bone for everyone in the audience. The verses are an eloquent evocation of sorrow, as would be expected from a songwriter like Elvis and a tune-spinner like Bacharach. In the bridge, however, things are amped up to a harrowing level, as the emotions turn to the darker side: “See, I’m only human/I want him to hurt,” sings Costello, and his barely-controlled voice bellow betray the wounds accrued from this experience that no span of time could ever hope to heal.
In the first two refrains, Costello uses a soft falsetto to sing the title phrase. In the last one, he uncorks another powerful howl, one you might call cathartic if you actually believed it would lessen the narrator’s pain in any way. “God Give Me Strength” manages to transcend the specificity of its Hollywood origins, even as it hangs onto its stature as a work of unbearably painful honesty.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
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Dylan takes the same approach to a love song here that Brian Wilson took on “God Only Knows”: He shows the importance of his companion by imagining life without her. While “If Not For You” is far too unassuming to scale the heights of that colossal Beach Boys achievement, its own modest charms can’t be denied.
What grabs me most about this song are the smaller touches embedded in the music. The verses have a nice, lilting feel to them, such as you might expect from a song of love. But in the run-up to the refrain, the chords turn a shade darker. Suddenly, the prospect of a life without this woman seems like an actual possibility and not a hypothetical situation. This subtle maneuver lends the song some much-needed gravity, and it also creates a great tension release when Dylan sings the title again, almost as if he’s letting out a sigh of relief.
Speaking of sighs of relief, Dylan fans probably breathed some big ones after hearing this song kick off New Morning. After the debacle of Self Portrait, Bob appearing in fine form again with this sweet, simple song likely assuaged a lot of doubts.
George Harrison’s version, buffed to a fine sheen by producer Phil Spector, loses some of the subtlety, although George’s underrated interpretive abilities help to get the song over. I’ll take Bob’s version in a split decision, but it’s hard to go wrong with anyone performing a song so good-natured and full-hearted.