CK Retro Review: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard by Paul McCartney

When you have a recorded legacy as monumental as the one possessed by Paul McCartney, it’s difficult to make a dent in it, especially these days when new releases by even the most prestigious of artists suffer quickly deteriorating shelf lives. I would argue though that the three-album stretch begun with Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (I’m not counting the specialty album Kisses On The Bottom) is the finest such stretch of his post-Beatles career. And it all began with this with cumbersomely-titled 2005 album, on which producer Nigel Godrich coaxed Paul to dig deeper, bite harder, and edit more carefully, all while doing his one-man band thing for an album as intimate as the end of the evening and as bracing as the first cold light of day. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

13. “At The Mercy”- The one song here where all of the instrumental passages, while lovely on their own, don’t quite cohere into something greater. It’s too bad, because it’s not often that you get Paul talking about darker emotions like “the fear inside.”

12. “Anyway”- I feel like this song, while pleasant enough, sends the album out on a bit of a recessive note, even with the off-kilter instrumental coda that lengthens its running time.

THREE STARS

11. “Too Much Rain”- Essentially a rewrite of the old standard “Smile,” with maybe a little less of the obvious undercurrent of melancholy that the old song possessed. Not bad, but not earth-shaking either.

10. “Promise To Your Girl”- There’s more than a little bit of “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” in this, the album’s lone true rocker. It has the same kind of shapeshifting quality, at times charging ahead recklessly, at times stopping to ponder its whereabouts with dreamy falsetto vocals. That it holds together is a credit to McCartney’s compositional acumen.

9. “English Tea”- For all of those critics who feel like McCartney can get overly precious at times, this song must grate to no end. I, on the other hand, kind of like the idea of Paul skidding into the curve with this one, owning up to his tweeness with a Victorian era melody and exaggeratedly proper diction. An album’s full of this stuff would be deadly, but one for fun is just fine.

8. “How Kind Of You”- This one takes some clever musical turns, making the gratitude expressed by Paul in the song sound almost desperate. There are many times on this album where the lyrics somehow deepen within their interesting musical surroundings, and this is one of them.

7. “A Certain Softness”- McCartney loves slipping these exotic little numbers onto each album, showing his preference for a mellow, almost jazzy mood now and again. Sounds a little like something Antonio Carlos Jobim might have concocted for Frank Sinatra, which is a good thing.

6. “Friends To Go”- Macca dedicated this one to George Harrison, but I don’t see the connection. If anything, the story of the lyrics slightly recalls The Beatles “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” in the way they detail a wallflower’s wish to remain undetected. One of many tracks on the album that come at us from a funky perspective, making the familiar sound strange and novel.

FOUR STARS

5. “Follow Me”- Like “My Love” many years before it, “Follow Me” overcomes lyrics that might be considered trite on the page thanks to the moving tug of the music. The verses arch upward hopefully, while the middle eight steps unto the breach, fearlessly bringing our narrator to a much-needed friend. The uplift comes without any forcing, so that can feel good about being gently manipulated into warm fuzzies by a master.

4. “This Never Happened Before”- Consider this one along the lines of “Only Love Remains.” It’s clearly in the vein of adult contemporary, tailor-made for a big-screen romance (and it was indeed used in the bizarre Keanu Reeves time-travel tale The Lake House.) And yet the craft McCartney possesses ensures that it’s quite stirring, as it saunters around in the first half before building to quite a momentous climax.

3. “Fine Line”- One of the odder opening tracks and lead singles in McCartney’s oeuvre, yet it’s compelling nonetheless. The off-kilter, almost dissonant piano riff is actually much more like Harrison than anything in “Friends To Go,” and it draws you in. Even though the lyrics don’t necessarily connect the dots, there are enough intriguing lines to keep you inspecting it. Plus it sets the tone for an album that, as a whole, comes at you from a slight different angle than the usual Macca release (and is the better for it.)

FIVE STARS

2. “Riding To Vanity Affair”- Since torment often breeds art, it can be argued that the relatively smooth sailing that Paul and Linda McCartney’s relationship enjoyed was not conducive to inspiration. Paul more than compensated over the years, but this moody, piercing track, perhaps aimed at Heather Mills, perhaps not, you be the judge, operates at a rather prickly frequency. And the thing is, Macca was always really good at these types of songs way, way back; I’m thinking of Beatles’ gems like “I’m Looking Through You” and “You Won’t See Me,” from the days when he and Jane Asher were undergoing a tumultuous romance. Kudos to Godrich for pushing him to improve the lyrics of this song; McCartney responded with a suitably stinging rebuke of fake friends.

1. “Jenny Wren”- Again, there’s a bit of a Beatle callback here. Once upon a time, McCartney mesmerized with a toe-tapping, acoustic, avian-inspired number called “Blackbird.” Here he captures that same kind of sound, albeit with an encroaching darkness surrounding it, emphasized by the strangely hypnotic solo from the duduk. My, this is a stunning melody. And Paul fills it with lyrics that dare us to interpret their fascinating suggestions. I’ve always read the song as a lament at how women are left to clean up the messes of antagonistic men. Jenny seems like a Cassandra character, seeing and speaking the truth but never heeded. Somehow both gorgeous and deeply sad. Gun to my head, I’d say it’s the finest song he’s done since Wings’ implosion.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available from the link below or at any online bookseller.)

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CK Retro Review: Driving Rain by Paul McCartney

It just felt like there was too much going on for 2001’s Driving Rain to have much of a chance of making its mark. It was Paul McCartney’s first complete album of originals since the death of his wife Linda, and, in the interim, he had taken up with Heather Mills, so that aspect of it seemed to overshadow the actual music. On top of that came 9/11, which led McCartney to promote the album with “Freedom,” a jingoistic one-off that had little to do with the rest of the lovey-dovey material. All that aside, however, the album suffers anyhow from being unnecessarily long at 16 songs, not one of which quite muscles its way into classic territory. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

16. “Spinning On An Axis”- McCartney’s first of two songwriting collaborations with son James on the album is sunk by lyrics that aren’t nearly as deep as they want to be and music that struggles to define what it wants to be and ends up not being much at all.

15. “Freedom”- The intent was impeccable, and there’s no question the song did it’s job at the Concert for 9/11. But going back and listening to it as anything more than a curiosity is not something I can see many McCartney fans doing.

14. “Heather”- Some decent chord changes, but this mostly instrumental felt indulgent then. And, of course, knowing the outcome of the marriage, it feels downright awkward now.

13. “Back In The Sunshine Again”- The second McCartney/McCartney track on the album is a little better than the first, but not much.

12. “About You”- The rock racket it tries to raise sounds labored, and, by this point in the album, the praising love songs are struggling to say something new from the ones that preceded them. It does find its groove in the run-out, but by then you might have lost interest.

THREE STARS

11. “Tiny Bubble”- Not to be confused with Don Ho, the best part of this bluesy midtempo track is McCartney’s willingness to let the melody drift to unlikely places. Nothing too memorable, but sounds pretty good while it’s on the speakers.

10. “Rinse The Raindrops”- The main section with the lyrics is forceful enough. How much tolerance you have for endless instrumental noodling probably dictates how you feel about the rest. As someone who thinks “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” should have ended before the bongos enter the picture, you can guess how I feel about it.

9. “Your Loving Flame”-Suffers from a lot of the same issues as “From A Lover To A Friend.” There’s a nice melody in there, but the lyrics are cliched and the production pushes a little too hard to try to get it to lighter-waving mode. That said, it fits into a kind of pleasing balladic template that makes you like it in spite of your best intentions.

8. “Driving Rain”- More jazzy than we’re used to from Paul, this one. And he wears it pretty well for the most part, although the improvisatory lyrics run out of steam as the song progresses. I do like the line, “Something’s open it’s my heart” though.

7. “Riding Into Jaipur”- Just a few weeks after the release of this album, George Harrison passed away. This feels like a preemptive tribute by Paul, and a pretty able one at that.

6. “Your Way”- Locating the heart of the country has never been an issue for Paul, and he does so effortlessly with this little, foot-tapping love song that’s charming if a bit slight.

5. “From A Lover To A Friend”- I feel like this echoes classic McCartney efforts without quite getting there on its own. The music is unmistakably lovely, stirring piano balladry with Abe Laboriel Jr. doing an excellent job on the Ringo-style fills. But the lyrics are all over the place to me, pronouns kind of thrown about willy-nilly to confuse the perspective and no real unifying aspect to really make the emotional connection. The music wins out in the end, but it feels like it could have been so much greater.

4. “Magic”- The serendipity of love is explored on this dreamy song. Macca’s bass work is inventive, and some leftover Jeff Lynne mojo must have been hanging around the studio from the Flaming Pie sessions, because this one could easily have slid onto an ELO album circa ’78 or so, which is a good thing.

FOUR STARS

3. “Lonely Road”- Those electric guitars really have some edge to them, and McCartney’s lyrics speak with a kind of fierce honesty to the disorientation that one feels after someone they loves moves on. Bluesy and tough, this song conjures up some raw emotions. Alas, it sets a personal tone that the rest of the songs just don’t quite sustain.

2. “I Do”- Producer David Kahne doesn’t shy away from ladling some Beatlesque bombast to the production here, and it suits the delicate melody and McCartney’s sweet sentiments. Just enough melancholy is located on the periphery to make the loving center that much more affecting. And Paul is everywhere, both singing high and lovely and rolling underneath it all on the bass, a wonderful performance at both extremes.

1. “She’s Given Up Talking”- Slow, heavy and compelling, with lots of vocal and instrumental effects that make matters all the more interesting. Kahne does a nice job laying things on and then pulling them away, while the relentless thrum of Paul’s bass and the smack of Laboriel’s drums provide steady ground. Add on the quirky little character sketch that McCartney delivers in the lyrics and you’ve got an unheralded track that would make for a great live cut if he ever decided to showcase some of his late-period solo stuff.

(E-mail me at jimbeviglia@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the link below to my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available now.)