In many ways, 1997’s Flaming Pie set the template for what a late-period Paul McCartney album would sound like. With the singles charts no longer an option, McCartney could play directly to his fans and give them what they wanted: Some fun, feisty rockers, a handful of ballads, maybe a special guest or two, plenty of self-reflexive nods to the old days, and nothing that strayed too far from the brand (that’s what his side projects as The Fireman were for.) And Flaming Pie certainly rates on the higher end of these types of “In case of desire for Paul McCartney album, break glass” kind of projects, especially in terms of the love songs. Here is a song-by-song review:
14. “Really Love You”- Some people may love hearing old bandmates McCartney and Ringo Starr jamming away. To me, improvisation is best when you can’t tell it’s improvisation. I think anyone listening to this could tell it was made up on the spot.
13. “If You Wanna”- One of three collaborations with Steve Miller on the album, this sounds pretty good but, ironically considering it’s a driving song, doesn’t really go anywhere.
12. “Heaven On Sunday”- Jeff Lynne, who produces many of the tracks here, gives this one a lovely glow, but the best part is when Paul trades blues licks on guitar with his son James. That instrumental passage seems beamed in from a different song, creating a little disconnect from the adult contemporary feel of the main section.
11. “Souvenir”- Another one that’s a bit schizophrenic, half Wilson Pickett, half “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Lynne can’t quite meld it all together without the seams showing, but the individual parts of the disjointed whole command your attention.
10. “Young Boy”- Just an effortless pop track with a bit of a melancholy tinge. Miller shows his chops on lead guitar, while McCartney proves an able one-man rhythm section. A full album collaboration between these two should be on any Macca fan’s wish list.
9. “Beautiful Night”- The verses are gorgeous, reminiscent of the stellar Tug Of War ballad “Wanderlust,” all with Ringo lending those off-kilter, just-right fills any Beatle fan adores. The refrains are just OK, stirring musically but lyrically needing a bit more care. The coda is a fun ruckus, Starr getting in on the vocal act for old time’s sake.
8. “Great Day”- Paul wrote this album-closer in the early 70’s, and it’s eerie how well he recaptures his sound from that era, right down to Linda’s backing vocals. On an album that looks back as much as ahead, it makes for the right kind of send-off.
7. “The World Tonight”- Lynne gives McCartney’s drums a little Wilbury twist to add some rockabilly heft to the slightly psychedelic tone of this one. And Macca gets in a great couplet: “I go back so far, I’m in front of me.” The lyrical dots don’t always connect, but Paul sings it as if his life depends on it.
6. “The Song We Were Singing”- I could have gone one star higher on this affecting opening track if it had just a little more deviation from the acoustic verse to soaring chorus (with the harmonium, reminiscent of “We Can Work It Out”) formula, which gets repeated a bunch here. Still, it sets the nostalgic tone of the album quite well.
5. “Somedays”- Buoyed by typically sensitive George Martin orchestration, this introspective ballad manages to be both a devoted love song and a subtly pensive meditation on aging. Throw in some genuine empathy for those “who fear the worst” and you’ve got a number that covers a lot of bases without showing any sign of strain.
4. “Flaming Pie”- Among other things, this album is a great showcase for Paul’s instrumental dexterity. A largely do-it-yourself affair, it gives him showcases throughout on bass (of course), drums and acoustic guitar. Here he takes charge with some steamy piano licks, which back up wonderfully nonsensical lyrics inspired by John Lennon’s equally nonsensical tale about the origin of the name Beatles.
3. “Used To Be Bad”- A good little blues song immeasurably elevated by the easy camaraderie and instrumental excellence of McCartney and Miller. If you remember their late 60’s collaboration “My Dark Hour,” consider this duet a sizzling sequel that proves the pair hadn’t lost a stitch in the three-decade interim. People tend to think of Miller as a hitmaker, which he is, but his solos here remind that he can really rip on lead guitar.
2. “Calico Skies”- Well, this has always been what it’s all about with Paul, right? Sitting with an acoustic guitar, enchanting his audiences with the kind of tune that seems brand new and handed down through the ages all at once. And those who get at him about his lyrics should check out this set, which trips from the lips with nimble ease and both warms your heart and breaks it all at once. The kind of song that’s too good to be background music, because it will stop you in your tracks and whatever you’re doing will become secondary to the need to listen. Very powerful stuff in a humble package.
1. “Little Willow”- “Thanks, Mo,” Paul can be heard saying at the end of “Get Back.” This achingly beautiful lullaby was his way of expressing that gratitude to Maureen Starkey after her passing, as a way of trying to ease the pain her children felt. Lynne’s expert massaging of ballads comes in handy here, and his backing vocals provide supportive counterpoint to McCartney’s anguished, wordless cries. “Nobody warns you” is the hard part, the fact that even when you think you’re prepared to lose a loved one, you’re really not. But though you may bend in that cold, hard wind, the goodness of the loved ones still around allows you to locate the strength to hold on tight. All of that conveyed in three musical minutes that can pry cathartic tears from you on any occasion.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives this month. Pre-order it in the link below.)
Incremental improvements were to be expected considering the cramped schedule between albums for the Rolling Stones at the start of their career. 1964’s 12 X 5 makes somewhat of a sideways move as the brash exuberance of the opening album morphs into a steadier, more self-assured tone on the follow-up. Wider variety, better use of vocal harmonies, and marginally improved songwriting efforts from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards combine to make 12 X 5 a success if not quite a revelation. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “Empty Heart”- Since this is a Nanker Phelge composition, it’s a good guess that this was a jam loosely masquerading as a song. Overly busy instrumentally and half-baked lyrically, it’s a time-waster.
11. “2120 Michigan Avenue”- Other than the fact that it gives Bill Wyman a rare chance to shine, there’s not much to say about this ambling instrumental.
10. “Under The Boardwalk”- This one is not in the group’s wheelhouse. The rhythm clunks where it should slink, and Jagger seems at a loss with what to do with the lines about hot dogs and fries. And the less said about his awkward falsetto, the better. Stick with the original.
9. “Susie Q”- A bit too manic and sporting a weird kind of go-go beat, here is another cover of an iconic tune that gets away from them a bit.
8. “Grown Up All Wrong”- The boys kind of forgot about writing a melody here, but there’s enough attitude in the vocals and playing to barely put this one across.
7. “Around And Around”- Jagger doesn’t sound as enthused here as he would once the band started writing their own Chuck Berry homages rather than just covering him. (The ill-fitting reverb in which he’s drenched doesn’t help.) All quibbles are wiped away, however, in the instrumental break once Ian Stewart starts boogeying and Richards takes off on his solo while the rhythm section locks in.
6. “Confessin’ The Blues”- A good chunk of the album was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, so it was only natural that the band should take on a slow, Second City-style blues. The reverb on the vocals is again a bit distracting, but the groove, deliberate and potent, more than compensates.
5. “Congratulations”- Listen to how Richards acoustic and Brian Jones’ electric find space without seeming to muscle each other out. It’s that guitar-weaving Keith always mentions and it, along with Watts’ timpani, lifts this relatively pedestrian lament higher than it has a right to be.
4. “Good Times, Bad Times”- Jagger and Richards were quickly learning the less-is-more approach to songwriting, as evidenced by this Robert Johnson nod which suggests a lot more than it comes right out and says. Why would it need to articulate, when the interplay between Richards’ acoustic, Charlie Watts bass pedal, Jones’ harmonica, and Jagger’s laid-back yet wounded vocal says it all?
3. “If You Need Me”- Messing with a Wilson Pickett tune could have been a disaster, but the band’s genuine affinity for the music shines through on this cover. Plus, knowing what a monumental voice they were taking on here, Jagger and Richards team up to get the job done, providing heartfelt harmonies.
2. “Time Is On My Side”- If the Stones could be accused early on of too closely aping the original versions of blues and R&B songs, they got around it here by taking a song associated with a woman (Irma Thomas) and giving it their own stamp. Little things stand out here, like Watts inventiveness drumming on a slow number and the early vocal chemistry between Jagger and Richards as they form a harmony more profound than the sum of its parts. Jagger lets loose his outsized personality on this song for one of the first times on record, which might be a reason why it connected with audiences like it did.
1.”It’s All Over Now”- Taking a herky-jerky R&B number and giving it a chunky, Carl Perkins-style guitar groove, the Stones practically re-write this song by The Valentinos from the same year without changing a chord or a word. The attitude espoused by the song, that of the narrator turning the tables on the wayward woman rather than sulking about it, would eventually be winningly be copped by the band on their originals. It also features one of Richards’ best ever solos and a chorus brutally simple and unforgettable. Probably the high-water mark of their first year or recording.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My book on the Stones’ 100 finest songs arrives in November’ pre-order it with the link below.)