CK Retro Review: Off The Ground by Paul McCartney

It’s funny how much better this album is than I initially remember. When Paul McCartney released Off The Ground in 1993, I was underwhelmed. I think that’s because the songs that Paul chose as singles and the ones he put forth to promote the album in various TV spots were some of the poorer ones on the record. And there’s no killer, must-have track on here. But this is a very consistent collection of songs and performances, with McCartney ruminating on topics that were important to him with the able support of his tried-and-true touring band. If you’ve slept on this one, you should give it another try; take it from one who knows. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

13. “Looking For Changes”- What happens sometimes when people write songs about issues is that they get so concerned with getting their lyrical point across that they forget to worry about the melodic aspects. I feel like that happens here. Paul’s lyrics are pointed enough about mistreatment of animals, but they don’t hit home as they might have had their been more hooks involved. And the generic title phrase kind of cops out. Which is too bad because, whether you agree or not with McCartney here (and I do), you have to admire his taking on the topic.

12. “Biker Like An Icon”- The music works for me, nicely downbeat and highlighted by an urgent chorus. And the story itself of the runaway girl compelled by a charismatic is interesting. I just could never get past the wordplay of the refrain to rate it much higher; that phrase is just too clumsy and somehow unintentionally funny, undercutting the serious intent.

THREE STARS

11. “Golden Earth Girl”- “Julia”-like lyrics more comic than cosmic to these ears. Maybe they’d sound better recited at a poetry slam (and then again, maybe not.) And yet the music bails them out to an extent, as one of those McCartney tunes of simple yet boundless beauty gets the job done.

10. “C’mon People”- There’s a kind of arms-waving, all-inclusive, well-meaning McCartney song that can be grating when executed poorly. This one just sneaks by; it’s no classic, but the sentiment is expressed all right and the arrangement is off-kilter enough to keep it from getting too familiar, Beatlesque horns and all.

9. “Cosmically Conscious”- McCartney’s love of non-sequitur album endings is indulged here with this “hidden” psychedelic fragment that was apparently written way back in the White Album days.

8. “Winedark Open Sea”- Subtly rendered and all the better for it, McCartney keeps this love song simple save for the striking title. Nothing here that we haven’t heard before, but still quietly effective.

7. “Off The Ground”- The title track delivers some bluesy rock and solid lyrics. I would have gone up to four stars, but the “la-la-la” refrain in the chorus always struck me for a bit too cutesy for a song that’s tougher than all that.

6. “Mistress And Maid”- The arrangement Paul uses here does this song, one of the finest of the McCartney/MacManus compositions, no favors. It turns the story into a farce, when it’s better rendered as a tragedy. There’s a live version of Paul and Elvis duetting on this that’s a stunner; would that the album version had taken its cues from that. Nonetheless, the song itself, with that mumbling to garment-rending melody and the lyrical details of harrowing relationship neglect, still reaches you, even in the wrong setting.

5. “Peace In The Neighbourhood”- The looseness of the groove is quite inviting, keeping this from getting preachy, which could have happened easily. And I love those opening lines: “Best thing I ever saw/Was a man who loved his wife.” It suggests that love and peace begins at home, which is quite a profound notion when you think about it.

4. “I Owe It All To You”- There’s a certain desperation in the chorus, even as it expresses such warm sentiments, that makes the devotion and gratitude of the narrator all that more touching. This is also one of the more musically affecting songs on the album, with an arrangement that doesn’t overdo it and adds just the right touches to the acoustic foundation. Very well done in every respect.

3. “Hope Of Deliverance”- There’s nice interplay here between the light-footed acoustic guitars and the sudden melancholy shift of the music when the chorus approaches. And that refrain is pretty apt, because we are always in the terrible position of not knowing what comes next, and thus are forced to cling to hopes that might never be satisfied. That entire chorus sequence is so good that you can forgive McCartney for going to it so often in this relatively short song.

FOUR STARS

2. “Get Out Of My Way”- McCartney sinks his teeth into this Chuck Berry-esque ripper with relish. The live-band approach used on this album is well-suited to a track like this, and the horns are a surprise and well-utilized. Crash bang wallop, indeed.

1. “The Lovers That Never Were”- Not quite as good a song as “Mistress And Maid” just in terms of lyrics and music (though close), and yet the fact that the band pulls this tricky number off delicately in conjunction with McCartney’s forceful performance pushes it a notch above everything else on record. The melody keeps surprising you, phrases like “a parade of unpainted dreams” really stick with you, and the narrator’s helpless pleas to engage his reticent paramour make a strong impact. Another example of the McCartney/Costello partnership proving simpatico.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, will be released in a few weeks, but you can preorder it at the link below.)

 

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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.)


CK Retro Review: East Side Story by Squeeze

In 1981, Squeeze released East Side Story, and it’s generally regarded as the peak of their recording career. Spurred on co-producer Elvis Costello and boasting a key contribution from new member Paul Carrack, the band branched out from the tight pop songs of their previous albums and created a wild ride of an LP unified by the outstanding songwriting of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

14. “Piccadilly”- This one has always been a bit busy for my tastes. The rhythmic thrust and chunky guitars are reminiscent of Madness, but there isn’t much of a hook onto which to hang.

13. “There’s No Tomorrow”- Slow-motion psychedelia was just one of the many stylistic detours Squeeze took on East Side Story. The song does indeed mirror the drunken stumblings of a broken-hearted fool, maybe a bit too well to be anything more than a novelty.

THREE STARS

12. “Heaven”- The band had a knack of pulling hooks out of the air, and they prove it here with some melodic elements that flirt with discordance yet somehow pull together. Difford’s observations of the weary souls inhabiting a barroom are typically literate and on-point.

11. “Messed Around”- The rockabilly swagger of this track makes for an understated way to end such a heady album. It’s also further proof that good songwriting will work in any genre, and Squeeze always had that.

10. “Mumbo Jumbo”- I have no idea what the hell “The dip is dabbled” means; I just know it’s a blast to hear Tilbrook high-step his way through Difford’s wildly intricate lyrical constructions. Bizarre yet catchy.

9. “Someone Else’s Bell”- Some bluesy attitude drips from Tilbrook’s lead vocal about a cuckolded lover, pushing this one a few notches above mere filler. Then again, even Squeeze’s filler was better than filler, you know?

8. “F-Hole”- The tale of a one-night stand gone horribly awry is an excellent showcase for Chris Difford’s humorous rhymes, such as “Wallpaper very scenic/Her outlook very beatnik.” The strings, just a tad askew from the rest of the song, are meant to evoke the surreal nature of this encounter. Note how the end of the song leads cleverly into “Labelled With Love.”

7. “Someone’s One Heart”- Difford takes the lead on this one, getting harmony support from Tilbrook through a twisting, moody melody. Nice work by the rhythm section of John Bentley on bass and Gilson Lavis on drums on this one, an affecting tale of romantic misconceptions.

FOUR STARS

6. “In Quintessence”- The lone track on the album produced by Dave Edmunds carries a little bit of his rockabilly feel in the guitar break, but otherwise this track is indeed quintessential Squeeze. The high/low harmonies of Difford and Tilbrook bounce through the nimble wordplay in a clever, funny, and somehow poignant character sketch of a young man who’s an expert at wasting his life.

5. “Is That Love”- Perfectly-constructed power pop seemed to just flow out of Squeeze at their peak, and this is a perfect example. The melody is wonderful, the music achieves just the right bit of tension and release, and the lyrics flow so inevitably from one word to the next that it seems effortless. Bonus points for the hushed coda.

4. “Vanity Fair”- Difford’s lyrics here are an almost cruel dissection of a not-quite beauty trying to live the high life but destined for mediocrity. It’s a good thing Tilbrook caresses her in such a sympathetic melody, which, when given the “Eleanor Rigby” orchestral treatment, makes you believe her “Vanity Fair” dreams will come true

3. “Labelled With Love”- It’s tempting  to write this big UK hit as a tongue-in-cheek embrace of country music cliches. But there’s a moving tale hidden beneath the wisecracks. A war bride finds herself all alone on a Texas prairie after her husband’s death, and slowly disintegrates into a haze of booze and squalor. It’s not exactly uplifting, but the band wisely shows sympathy rather than snark for this sad character, and that makes all the difference.

FIVE STARS

2. “Woman’s World”- One of the underrated songs in the band’s catalog, “Woman’s World” is perfect in just about every way, from the yearning melody to the band’s expert handling of the material to Glenn Tilbrook’s great vocal. The title is an ironic allusion to the pressures of being a wife and mother, pressures that drive the protagonist to a night of drunken revelry in defiance of her role as head of the household. Songs like this one prove that the whole “Difford/Tilbrook are this generation’s Lennon/McCartney” theory wasn’t that far-fetched.

1. “Tempted”- Paul Carrack is one of the underrated singers of his generation, and his all-time performance (and, yes, I’m aware of “Living Years”) is this wonderful effort that has become the band’s signature song. That’s Elvis Costello pitching in on vocals in the second verse, but he wisely ceded center stage to Carrack, who nails the emotions of a guy who’s been left behind by his love and struggling with whether or not to move on. Look up blue-eyed soul in the dictionary, and the dictionary will play you this song.

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com, or follow on Twitter @JimBeviglia. E-books and books based on material that originated on this site can be found in the link below.)

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Elvis Costello Countdown #6: “When I Was Cruel No. 2”

Elvis Costello has always been a guy who’s been able to maintain some mystery about his private life. As a result, the manner in which his fans perceive him is mainly derived from the persona he creates in his songs.

His acknowledgment and subverting of this perception of him is what gives “When I Was Cruel No. 2” its particular potency. The song invites listeners to envision the real-life Costello living within the bounds of its fictional world. Once they’ve made that leap, the songwriter toys with their expectations and makes them rethink any assumptions they’ve made about his personality based on the nature of his work.

Coming on an album (2002’s When I Was Cruel) that was billed as a return to his rock roots after years of forays into other genres, “When I Was Cruel No. 2” is actually anything but rock. It’s reminiscent of the ambient music in some 60’s art-house film, the strange sampled female voice adding a hint of exoticism. Elvis’ guitar ambles about the scene like a panther getting ready to pounce (recalling the guitar part in “Watching The Detectives,”) but the music never uncoils to release the tension, settling instead for a trance-like rhythm that sounds like a tango for the undead.

The song portrays Costello as the entertainment for a society wedding, and from that vantage point he casts his unblinking gaze on all of the humanity before him. It’s not somewhere you would expect him to be: One of the world’s finest musicians performing for drunken magnates and their vapid wives. (I don’t know if Elvis is one of the many musicians who plays corporate gigs for big bucks, but, if he ever did, he must have been taking notes for this song.) From the boat show model-turned-fourth wife to the bitter exes to the gossiping hangers-on, there isn’t one of these tortured souls that escapes the notice of the bandleader.

Up until the final verse, it’s still possible to imagine that the narrator is just a wedding-band musician, since he makes no references to himself. That’s when a combative newspaper editor recognizes him from way back in “’82.” His reminiscences with the singer reveal how their respective fortunes have been transformed: “‘You were a spoiled child then with a record to plug’/’And I was a shaven-headed seaside thug’/’Things haven’t really changed that much’/’One of us is still getting paid too much.'”

The chorus is where Costello upends our expectations. As the narrator surveys this scene full of joyless dancers and tarnished wealth, you might expect Elvis, given his past excoriations of such subject matter, to either revel in their misery or dismiss them altogether. Instead, he seems more dejected then anything else as he mewls out the refrain, “But it was so much easier/When I was cruel.”

It’s a fascinating line, suggesting that a younger version of Elvis could have blown through that scene and endured it all only by inflicting some damage himself. By contrast, the older version regards it all with weary heartbreak, perhaps because he can identify a bit too closely with all those sad eyes looking up at him on the bandstand.

“When I Was Cruel No. 2” can be enjoyed simply based on its unique music and Costello’s impressive lyrical feats. It gets even better though when you consider those features in conjunction with an appreciation of the song’s fascinating portrait of the artist as a man older, wiser, and no longer able to sneer away the pain.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #15: “New Amsterdam”

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen famously released his home demos as an actual album (Nebraska) when attempts to capture the songs with a full band lacked the power of the rough recordings. Although it wasn’t a whole album’s worth, Elvis Costello had a similar experience with the song “New Amsterdam” a few years earlier, and the end result was similarly captivating.

Costello recorded a demo of the contemplative track that would make its way onto Get Happy!! at a studio on London, playing all the instruments himself, even drums. He then took it to the Attractions, who tried to recreate the demo in full-band form. That attempt can be heard on the bonus disc of the Get Happy!! Rhino reissue; it’s clear from that evidence that something was lost in the translation and that Elvis made the right choice in putting the original on the album.

Maybe the reason that the one-man demo worked so well, and it does have a dreamy, melancholic vibe to it, is because the song is about one man’s loneliness. In particular, it’s the kind of loneliness that’s borne from being heartbroken while living in an unfamiliar city. “Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile,” Costello sings, capturing the feeling of being an Englishman in New York.

It was a stroke of genius to use the archaic name of New York as the song’s title, since it really emphasizes the strangeness of the narrator’s situation. Without a familiar face to whom he can tell his troubles, the guy becomes a stranger even to himself: “Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten/Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten.”

Get Happy!! definitely features a Motown vibe on many of the songs, but Costello wisely knew enough not to get too carried away with some sort of unifying sound all the way through. Otherwise, an engaging pop ballad like “New Amsterdam” might not have gotten the green light. It’s inclusion makes the album a richer experience.

I can’t think of an occasion where Costello has written a song specifically about the trials and tribulations of life as a rock star on the road. Those songs, even when done well, tend to put up a barrier in front of the listener because the experience behind the song is specific to the performer. By contrast, anyone who has ever felt like they have no connection to the comforts of home can appreciate “New Amsterdam,” a lovely place to visit vicariously via Elvis’ pretty song even though you would never want to live there.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #24: “How To Be Dumb”

Full disclosure: I have never read The Big Wheel, Attractions’ bassist Bruce Thomas’ thinly-veiled account of the life of a rock star on the road, so I can’t speak to its merits. The only thing I can be sure of is that Elvis Costello didn’t like it too much. I don’t know if it was because Thomas was breaking some sort of rock star omerta or if he told tales that weren’t true or if he just painted an unflattering picture of the man he referred to in the book only as “the singer.” At least it inspired “How To Be Dumb,” which, while not a particularly good thing for Thomas, is certainly a good  thing for Elvis’ fans.

“How To Be Dumb” might be the most vituperative song on an album, Mighty Like A Rose, that’s full of venom. Indeed, it’s all the more potent for being an intensely personal attack. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it before: Never cheese off an eloquent songwriter, because they’ll always get the last word in on a record and it will usually be the definitive stroke of the back-and-forth argument.

The interesting thing is that Costello marries the song to a very Attractions-like arrangement, almost circus-like in its ebullience. Larry Knechtel plays the Steve Nieve role, adding frenetic piano fills, while Pete Thomas plays the Pete Thomas role, beating the tar of the drums. Most fetching of all is the little saxophone riff, played by Roger Lewis, that really brings the chorus to life. The music is triumphant, as if Elvis is signalling that he’s coming out on top of this tete-a-tete.

Costello paints Thomas as someone who is enjoying the kudos he’s receiving for his “brand new occupation” (and, it should be noted, the book did get some good reviews.) “And beautiful people stampede to the doorway,” he sings, “Of the funniest f*#!er in the world.” Yet he also makes it clear what he thinks of Thomas’ authenticity: “There’s a bright future/For all you professional liars.”

As the song goes on, the attacks get nastier. When you parse through all of Costello’s verbiage, you find out that he essentially calls his nemesis a gutless, jealous poseur. In the final lines, he sounds almost gleeful as he dehumanizes his former bassist: “Scratch your own head, stupid/Count up to three/Roll over on your back/Repeat after me/Don’t you know how to be dumb?” That might be the most damning insult of all, as Elvis insinuates that his longtime bandmate can’t even get stupidity right.

It’s too bad that things had to go down this way, but the two patched things up enough to play together again for a few albums before the separation became permanent, so that’s something. Hey, sometimes people don’t get along, and sometimes it deteriorates pretty badly. It’s just that, as public figures, this personal disagreement played out in front of the reading and listening audience at large.

This song sounds like it was cathartic for Elvis, and, as a listener, you can substitute your own personal enemies and get that same kind of satisfying jolt of musical revenge. “How To Be Dumb” turns out to be just the opposite of “You’re So Vain,” in that nobody would want this song to be about them.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)


Elvis Costello Countdown #38: “That Day Is Done”

Earlier in the list, I talked about “Mistress And Maid,” an excellent song co-written by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello that got away from Macca a bit when he brought it into the studio. Luckily, he had no such problems with “That Day Is Done,” which was impeccably rendered on Flowers In The Dirt, the Paul album which takes its title from lyrics in the song. McCartney renders the song with the mixture of grandeur and sorrow that the lyrics demand.

We are also lucky that Costello provided his own version of this heartfelt song on the extra disc of the All Useless Beauty reissue. In that take, Elvis is accompanied by legendary session man Larry Knechtel on piano and the inimitable Fairfield Four on backing vocals. This version, especially with those amazing backing vocalists on board, really drives home the song’s gospel influences.

“That Day Is Done” feels like the duo’s attempt to replicate some of the somber majesty of the early recordings of The Band, especially the Dylan-penned numbers “Tears Of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released.” The open spaces in the music, the gospel influences, the lyrics which come from the perspective of a man who can’t keep his promise to his love because death has intervened, all of that recalls the mystery and magic of those first two Band albums.

Costello delivered a moving performance of this song at a tribute concert for Linda McCartney in 1999. Such painful occasions are why songs like this are written, because they pinpoint the myriad emotions inside of us better than we could ever possibly articulate them ourselves. That kind of beautiful sadness is generally the province of a master songwriter; “That Day Is Done” came from two of those masters, so the results are doubly heartrending.

(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BXLUFN2

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)