Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cd Review - George Harrison "Living In the Material World"

This is a killer album - possibly my second favorite Harrison release, though that's a toss-up with "Brainwashed." For whatever reason, "Material World" gets forgotten - probably mainly because it followed up the epic "All Things Must Pass" and how could it possibly have lived up to those expectations?

Well, maybe back in the early '70s, but all these decades later I think it's only fair to judge the album on it's own terms. The lyrics do get a little heavy on the religion - which may or may not be an issue for you. "The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)" is every single bit as heavy-handed as the title would suggest - but the music is great, so it doesn't especially bother me. George did all his own lead guitar playing on this album, as opposed to his last, and he is far and away in a different league than during his Beatle years (he was just beginning to reach his mature style in '69). Even more striking than the guitar playing is the passion singing George musters on "The Day the World Gets Round" - though obviously never possessing the range and power of Lennon or McCartney, on this track he is every bit their equal for expressiveness.

This isn't really a rock album - most of it is down-tempo and rather mellow. But not without exception: the title track chugs along at a good clip (the Indian-music-themed bridge, "In the spiritual sky..." is drop-dead gorgeous) and "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" is one of the most commercial-sounding pop records George ever did. Speaking of pop singles, "Give Me Love" was a deserved number one hit single. Oh, and "Sue Me, Sue You Blues" cuts a surprisingly deep groove - GREAT slide playing from George on that one.

The only clunker for me is "Try Some, Buy Some" which I understand was originally recorded by Ronnie Spector and George re-used the same backing track. Something like that. I don't care about the backstory all that much, however, because it just isn't all that good a song.

Here's where things get a little complicated: whether to go for this deluxe boxed version or the single disc version. For the vast majority of people, I'd say hte single disc will more than suffice. Both of them have the same two bonus tracks - each previously released as b-sides, but making their CD debut. "Deep Blue" is is a good bluesy track, I believe it was an expression of grief following the passing of George's mother. The A-side was "Bangla Desh," so far only available on The Best of George Harrison. I was disappointed at it's exclusion, but I guess there must be other plans for it. The other B-side is "Miss O'Dell" which is a fantastic George song, perversely marred by hysterical laughter from none other than George himself. It's funny to hear initially, until A) you realize how good the song is and B) you watch the DVD.

The DVD is frustrating because it should be the main attraction; the most compelling reason to shell out beaucoup bucks for this deluxe version. The DVD is too short, but the problems go beyond even that. First up is a Live In Japan performance of "Give Me Love" - fine, that makes sense and it's nice to see (though the complete concert will hopefully be released someday, at which point this one song will be redundant). There are two bonus tracks on the DVD that play over slide-show images. These should have been bonus tracks on the CD, if you ask me. What I was getting at about "Miss O'Dell" earlier is that the song appears on the DVD as well, in an alternate take with no laughing! I really truly wish this version had also been featured on the CD. The second song is a demo of "Sue Me Sue You Blues" which is quite extraordinary - just George singing over his acoustic slide guitar playing - and is sounds like something off an old Mississippi Delta blues recording from the '20s! Okay, okay - I'm not a blues expert (I wish), so Mississippi Delta might not be the correct comparison. But my point is, this sounds a lot like an old vintage blues recording - and NOTHING like any George playing I've ever heard. It's awesome, and I really wish it had been on the CD (and I really, REALLY wish I could hear the rest of George's demos for this album!). Outside of that, there is a very unusual 'music video' of the album's title track that shows footage of the vinyl record albums being pressed and packaged.

So get this album if you like George Harrison and/or the Beatles, but be forewarned: this version is a bit too expensive considering what the extras are.

DVD Review - "Lou Reed's Berlin"

More than three decades after its original release, Lou Reed has finally made good on a long dormant plan to adapt his 1973 album Berlin for the concert stage. In December, 2006, Reed spent five nights performing the album's ten songs for an appreciative New York City audience. The event was filmed for a theatrical release, directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the DVD of that film, Berlin is now available. The results are decidedly mixed: great music, but flawed visual presentation.

Performing Berlin live was certainly a good idea. Along with 1992's Magic and Loss (a masterful song cycle about the death of two friends), Berlin is Reed's most cohesively structured lyrical narrative. The story is simple: two lovers marry and have children, though drugs, violence, and infidelity eventually ruin their lives. Musically, the album is a bit of an odd duck in the Lou Reed canon.

Loaded with musicians (including horns, a choir, and a ton of session players), it's considerably overproduced. Reed barely plays on the entire record, and the bombast threatens to overwhelm the project. I prefer the stripped down rock of Reed's latter era (especially from 1989's New York and beyond). The music, as presented in the concert film, is an interesting blend, adding substantial rock grit while maintaining the ambiance of the 1973 recording. Reed plays guitar, backed by his longtime rhythm section of Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums. These guys, along with guitarist Mike Rathke, have been touring together since 1996 and are as tight a rock combo as I've witnessed.

Though Rathke is absent, in his place is Steve Hunter. This provides a neat bit of historical continuity, as Hunter was the lead guitarist on the Berlin album (and toured with Reed in the '70s). The main quartet is supplemented by a wide array of musicians, including a horn section, strings, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and backing vocalists. Also present are Rupert Christie on keyboards and Rob Wasserman (Reed's bassist in the early '90s) on stand-up bass.
After a very brief introduction, Reed and company take the stage and perform the album's ten songs in about an hour. The arrangements are tight and Reed is focused in his intensity. As with his entire body of work, those unfamiliar to Reed's vocal style might have to adjust to his delivery. Throughout his forty-odd year career, Reed has defined - perhaps more than anyone in popular music - the "art" of non-singing. As his voice deepened and his range narrowed, Reed arrived at a half-speak/half-sing style not far removed from that of George Burns (albeit much darker).

Though I feel he conveys the emotional content of the songs effectively, there will always be those who can't get past the unconventional vocals. One of the strengths of the performance on this DVD is that Reed invests the lyrics with a deeply felt sense of gravity. His phrasing, often erratic, is more focused than usual. His atonal, distorted guitar soloing offers a dramatic counterpoint to Hunter's cleaner leads. Some songs, like "Men Of Good Fortune," rock drastically harder than the album version. "How Do You Think It Feels" is underscored by an earthy groove - a result of the rhythm section's longtime association.

As for the climatic series of painfully sad songs that constitute the album's final act, a spellbinding atmosphere is cast. Children crying for their mother are heard during "The Kids," as gut-wrenchingly as on the album. "The Bed" is bolstered by Reed's most delicate vocal. And the extended instrumental section of "Sad Song" manages to feel simultaneously celebratory and resigned to defeat. Unfortunately, Schnabel included some rather banal film footage throughout the performance instead of simply trusting the strength of the material. The album's central character, Caroline, is portrayed by an actress (Emmanuelle Seigner). The footage was apparently projected during the songs on curtains behind the stage. These visuals don't really contribute anything valuable. While the overall focus remains on the Reed and the other musicians, I could've done without these distractions. Even worse, Schnabel occasionally attempts a sort of psychedelic approach during portions of some songs, with the picture turning a weird color and going into a strobe-like effect. Why? I guess he thought it looked cool. Thankfully, this nonsense is limited to relatively brief segments. Still, the overall presentation would've been stronger without any of it.

Since the Berlin setlist only lasts about one hour, more material was needed to make this a feature-length film. A little historical context by way of interviews might have been a nice way to precede the concert, or maybe even a little glimpse at the rehearsal process. Instead, we are treated to a mixed bag of encore songs.

Reed dips back into his Velvet Underground catalog for "Candy Says." The lead vocal is handled by Antony Hegarty, who contributes backing vocals elsewhere during the performance. Hegarty has sung this with Reed before (on the live album Animal Serenade), and he has a nice voice. But the mood of "Candy Says" doesn't really fit with the Berlin material. Besides, when I watch a Lou Reed concert movie I want to hear Lou Reed. Next up is a much more recent song, "Rock Minuet," from 2000's Ecstasy.

This is a great song, but for a much better peformance - showcasing Fernando Saunders' incredible bass playing - see Lou Reed - Live at Montreux, 2000. Finally, and inevitably, Reed kicks into "Sweet Jane," over which the end credits roll. "Sweet Jane" is to Lou Reed what "Satisfaction" is to The Rolling Stones. He always plays it, and it's almost always the same somnambulistic reading.

The DVD itself is technically excellent. The widescreen presentation is rich and clear. There is a satifyingly full-bodied Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The special features are extremely disappointing. There is a five minute excerpt from an interview with Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel, conducted by Elvis Costello, that comes very close to saying literally nothing at all. Besides that, there is the promisingly titled "Berlin On Tour" that turns out to be only six minutes long. Combining some entirely unenlightening shots of stage gear being set up with a pair of 30-second clips of Reed onstage in Europe, this feature is a waste of time. Reed took the Berlin stage show on the road for a European tour in 2007, and this six minute montage (complete with closing credits) is all we get to see. The theatrical trailer is also present to round off a very uninspired set of extras. Berlin is worth a viewing for fans, but it ultimately could've been so much more.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

CD Review: Prince's "Batman"

In 1989, Prince released his soundtrack to Tim Burton's blockbuster movie Batman. Music critics generally viewed the album as a disappointment. His fan base largely dismissed it as merely marking time. Nearly twenty years later, it is high time for reappraisal. The past decade-plus of mostly subpar Prince albums has benefited Batman. If the same album was released now, I daresay it would be hailed as a return to form.

I was among the staunchest critics upon initial release of Batman, primarily because of my die-hard admiration of Prince. My expectations were extraordinarily high. In fact, I was far more excited for the album than the movie that inspired it. But the music seemed distinctly underwhelming compared to then-recent Prince releases such as Lovesexy and Sign O' the Times. The lingering impression was that Prince had taken a big step backward after his creative innovations throughout the 1980s.

Commercially, it was a different story entirely. Buoyed by the phenomenal success of the movie, Batman became Prince's first multi-platinum chart-topper in years. Considerable debate raged over whether it was even appropriate to have Prince contribute pop songs to Burton's dark vision of Gotham City. In retrospect, such concerns seem unfounded as very few songs from the album are featured prominently in the film. Rather than a traditional soundtrack, Batman is a Prince album; a party album, featuring mostly dance music laced with sound bites of dialogue from the movie. Primarily recorded by Prince alone in a matter of weeks (though some songs already existed in various states of completion), the production seemed hasty. This obviously wasn't the meticulously crafted product that Prince's followers had come to expect.

Fast forward to 2008, Batman sounds practically like a forgotten classic when compared to the likes of 2006's 3121 or 2004's Musicology. These days Prince seems to have largely lost his ability to compose tight, coherent songs with strong hooks. Back in 1989, he was coming off what is remembered as his peak period. Consider Batman's opening track: the minimalist, spooky-sounding "The Future" - lead vocal credited to Batman (each song was assigned to a different character). The string samples manage to evoke Danny Elfman's iconic score, while the Sounds of Blackness Choir samples contribute to the uneasy atmosphere. Lyrically the song paints a bleak view of a dangerous present with an uncertain future. Reminiscent of his earlier "Dance On" (from 1988's Lovesexy) in chronicling the ills of modern society, Prince sings of drugs and street gangs. Sinewy and sparse, "The Future" rises to a level it's author rarely reaches any longer.

The same can be said for "Electric Chair," which was meant to represent the Joker's point of view. As refreshingly under-produced as the opener, "Electric Chair" is a thumping dance/rock number. "If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind/Then gimme the electric chair for all my future crimes," insists the chorus. Attributing each song to one of the movie's main characters was a nice gimmick at the time, but the quirky lyrics are all Prince. Would the Joker use a music simile such as: "You whispered something/It took my mind out/Like a G flat major with an E in the bass?" No matter, this track sizzles and features some stinging guitar work.

While the aforementioned songs both feature briefly in the movie (albeit as instrumentals), the Sheena Easton duet "The Arms of Orion" does not. Odd, because this was clearly conceived as a love theme. The vocals are credited to Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne. Though it's often written off as a syrupy, sappy ballad (which it is, quite honestly), it's also a well-structured piece of melodic pop songwriting. Exactly the type of song that Prince seldom pulls off at this point in his career. Pretty, but not particularly passionate, "The Arms of Orion" was a Top 40 single. Why it was not featured in the movie - while a lesser ballad later on the album was - remains a mystery.
"Partyman" was spotlighted in the movie, when Jack Nicholson's Joker gleefully defaces priceless works of art in a gallery. A Top 20 hit single, I always viewed this song as Prince on autopilot. My feelings haven't changed; "Partyman" serves its purpose as a theme for the Joker without having any noteworthy elements. That doesn't keep it from being fun - much more fun than most of Prince's lightweight efforts of late. "If it break when it bend/You better not put it in," another memorable line.

Easily the most overlooked track, by me at least, is "Vicki Waiting." The lyrics are a bit strange, having existed before the Batman project as "Anna Waiting," concerning Prince and his then-girlfriend Anna Garcia. Retro-fitted for Batman, vocal credited to Bruce Wayne, it mixes fiction with (presumed) autobiography. "All is well in Gotham City/The sound of terror is all you hear," is one of the most direct movie-related lyrics on the album. More intriguing is the final verse, in which Prince ponders the possibility of becoming a father. "Talk of children still frightens me/Is my character enough to be/One that deserves a copy made," subject matter that is clearly a bit more personal than the rest. Musically "Vicki Waiting" is one of most dense productions on the album, a multi-textured soundscape that invites close listening.

File "Trust" in the "Partyman" category: fun but very light dance music. "Trust" is also featured in the movie, when the Joker conducts a parade to give Gotham's citizens free money. The ending chant "Who do you trust if you can't trust God?" is credited to Prince, rather than the Joker. Rightly so, as such matters were not explored in the movie. Boisterously up-tempo, what was then nothing more than a throwaway serves now as a reminder of how effortless Prince's pop confections once were.

The party begins to run out of steam at this point. No amount of revisionism can alter that perception. "Lemon Crush," while not unlistenable, is by-rote dance/funk - boring by Prince's standards. It wasn't heard in the movie and doesn't feature any references or dialogue snippets. In other words, it's filler. "Scandalous" was featured in the movie (during the end credits) and was a Top 5 hit on the R&B charts. At over six minutes, this love ballad is Prince at his most indulgent (although the CD single went further by tripling the song length). His normally smooth, supple falsetto sounds a bit strangled here. The whole thing is overwrought, almost tipping over into self-parody.

The album is jolted back to life - and not a moment too soon - by one of the strangest chart-topping singles of all time: "Batdance." While not included in the movie, "Batdance" was inescapable on radio and music television during the summer of 1989. Containing three distinctly different sections, the song weaves together a variety of elements. There are bits reprised from other songs on the album, allusions to the '60s TV show theme, many movie dialogue soundbites, as well as the most searing guitar break on the album. It all adds up to nothing short of a pop art magnum opus; kitschy yet cutting edge, tongue in cheek yet seriously funky. For those not familiar with the song, it needs to be heard to be believed. For those who regard it as a novelty song, it deserves to be revisited.

None of this is meant to suggest that Batman is a great album. It still ranks as Prince's least essential release of the '80s. In the context of so many non-essential Prince releases in the past 15 or so years, Batman's quality becomes far more apparent. The man may have been coasting, but he was still breathing rarefied air.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

DVD Review: "Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut"


When considering the value of The Donner Cut, when compared to Superman II (Two-Disc Special Edition), two major issues arise:

Issue A: the controversial decisions behind the movie's production...i.e. the change of director, dissent among cast and crew, cutting Brando, script re-writes, etc.

Issue B: the end results of said decisions, which was initially the theatrical version but now includes this alternative...i.e. which movie tells which part of the story more effectively.

I see little sense in mixing these issues, since an objective view of the two versions (Issue B) becomes clouded when considering the facts (and speculations) of the movie's production (Issue A). In other words, I believe it is more important to look at the two movies for what they actually are, both strengths and weaknesses - NOT what anyone might claim 'could've been/should've been,' based on the differing accounts of the troubled production.

Full disclosure: I am an unapologetic fan of the theatrical release of "Superman II." I loved it as a kid, and I still consider it my favorite Superman movie to this day. Over the years, through repeat viewings, I have come to see some flaws in the storytelling but nothing that significantly altered my appreciation of the movie. Of course, I also became aware of the backstory of the making of the film and was intrigued by the personnel changes (key among them, of course, the firing of Donner).

I have to admit I was hesistant to even watch this so-called Donner Cut. There seems to be an awful lot of group-think regarding "Superman II." Many of the supposed flaws of the theatrical cut - often attributed to Richard Lester - have never made much sense to me. Along with the Salkinds, Lester has obviously become vilified as a bumbling hack by a large portion of the fanbase, while Donner has been elevated to something approaching visionary genious. An objective look at their filmographies reveals Lester as the more influential and distinguished filmmaker, while Donner is more a director-for-hire without any discernable style. Take that for what it's worth, as it doesn't necessarily make either director's vision of "Superman" more valid. I only mention it as a rebuttal for those who are under the impression that a 'great artist' was replaced by a 'talentless automaton.' If Richard Donner is, as seems to be a frequent claim, a great visionary - where in his catalog of films is this apparent (other than, arguably, "Superman: The Movie")?

Having listened to Donner's commentary on the Donner Cut, as well as the Salkind/Spengler commentary on the theatrical version, I see no reason to 'choose sides' over the change-in-directors decision. True, Donner did an excellent job with the first film and doesn't seem to be any apparent reason his sequel wouldn't have been excellent as well. True, Donner seems unwilling to admit any wrongdoing regarding his behavior and working relationships on the production. But it is just as true that the producers feel justified in the decision to replace him. The point is, we'll never know who was "right" - that type of 'truth' is usually so subjective that even the parties directly involved aren't necessarily right or wrong. Filmmaking is a collaborative business, and the money-men are going to say who continues to work on a given project and who does not. Maybe Donner was hell to work with, maybe he wasn't - we, the viewers, are not privy to what actually transpired. That is all part of the aforementioned Issue A...

...bringing me to Issue B: which version is better? The one clear benefit of the Donner Cut is the inclusion of the Brando scenes - it is stronger than the theatrical version's Susannah York scenes. I think that Kal-El interacting with Jor-El makes more sense in the context of the first film than having him talk to his mother. Seeing how Kal-El's powers are restored is better storytelling than having him simply reappear in Metropolis at full-strength, as he does in the thearical version. This is the biggest problem with the theatrical version. Of course, going back to Issue A momentarily, it should be understood that Richard Lester did not choose to remove Brando - the producers did. Why? Certainly not to sabotage Donner's work, but rather they were doing exactly what good producer's do: maximize profits. Paying Brando was going to cost millions of dollars, yet the producers realized that the movie's success was pretty much a given with or without him. But back to Issue B, finishing the Jor-El story arc makes more sense than having him MIA while Superman works things out with his mother. The strength of the Brando footage is the only clear-cut example of the Donner Cut trumping the theatrical cut.

That's largely because the Donner Cut is not a finished movie. There is a fairly considerable amount of Lester-directed footage still present, since the story couldn't be told without the inclusion of at least some of the theatrical cut. I happen to like seeing more of the villians in East Houston, Idaho - much of which has been edited out. I much prefer the Niagara Falls scenes - including Lois in the river, as well as the hand-in-the-fire reveal - to what is found in the Donner Cut. Why would I want to watch early test footage that looks like it came from an entirely different movie? Sure, there wasn't anything else available (for reasons pertaining to Issue A) but the bottom line is that it doesn't look good nor does it play well. Reeve and Kidder hadn't fully arrived at their characterizations as would be seen in the actual movie. From a visual standpoint, it is perfunctorily staged (at best) as it wasn't meant to be included in a final movie. The theatrical version, on the other hand, presents a much better realized scene. And I know I'm skipping around at this point, but losing the Eiffel Tower sequence is shows a major weakness in the original conception. Freeing the villians as a result of the bomb from the first movie isn't exciting - we're watching rehashed flashback footage from the first film as the villians are released. The theatrical version presents an entirely reimagined - and infinitely more engaging - set of circumstances that allows us to see Superman in action much earlier in the film, while providing the same reason for the villians' release.

As explained in the supplementary materials, Superman turning back time was originally planned as the ending for "Superman II." It was used, of course, as the ending of "Superman: The Movie" - so re-using it in the Donner Cut is simply a way inserting something because no ending had been conceived by Donner and Co. There's no ending to the Donner Cut because the "ending" we see would have never been used even if Donner had been allowed to finish the movie. There's no reason to even speculate how Donner's finished "Superman II" would have ended, since it has never existed. Watching the Donner Cut - even as a stand-alone movie - results in terrible disappointment, because turning back time to the very beginning of the movie renders everything we just watched meaningless. It's a variation on the old grade school creative writing cliche "it was all just a dream." In order to make Lois forget that Clark is Superman, the clock is turned back and the whole story we watched was erased. It's a cheat, and it's simply bad storytelling. It also underlines in bold-face that what we have watched is merely a collection of alternate scenes strung together with segments from an actual finished film spliced in to approximate the experience of watching a full movie. The alternate footage is interesting, but ultimately doesn't come close to supplanting the theatrical release.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

CD Review: Ringo Starr's "Liverpool 8"

Don't get me wrong - I love Ringo and have all his albums. It has been great having a new album from him every few years, and they are consistently enjoyable. But the Mark Hudson formula has really run it's course with this one. Judging by the production credits, this was essentially a Mark Hudson production like each of Ringo's previous album going back to "Vertical Man" a decade ago. Dave Stewart was brought in at a late enough stage that he is credited as "re-producing" the album, while Mark Hudson is still credited as producer of all but one track. Interestingly, I'd say that one specific track - the title song - is easily the best on the album. A Starkey/Stewart collaboration, the song "Liverpool 8" is noticably fresher sounding - lacking the rather tired cliches of Hudson's arrangements.

The thing about Mark Hudson, it seems he ran out of production/arranging/writing ideas for Ringo after "Ringo Rama." I consider him sort of a poor man's Jeff Lynne. In a way, he has served the same function for Ringo that Lynne served for George Harrison. Of course, it should go without saying that Harrison was in an entirely different artistic sphere than Ringo. Jeff Lynne helped shape a new, updated sound for George - who remained in control of his overall vision. Ringo, on the other hand, needs far more creative input from his producer - something Mark Hudson provided, and then some. Hudson is kind of a hack, really, despite numerous highlights throughout "Vertical Man," "Ringo Rama," "Choose Love," and now "Liverpool 8," the songs are generally formulaic variations on one another. There is a sameness to the arrangements - the often too-forced 'Beatlesque' backing vocals in particular - as well as the lyrical themes. I don't think any of the Hudson-produced albums match Ringo's "Time Takes Time," the 1992 album that provided the template for Hudson to base his work upon. Speaking of Jeff Lynne, he was one of several producers that worked on that earlier album.

I was intriqued by the promise posed by a new chief collaborator for Ringo. But as I mentioned earlier, I think most listeners will be hard-pressed to detect any significant differences from the earlier albums. An obvious difference is the absence of the big-name cameo appearances peppered throughout the last few albums. The title track is classic Ringo - the hook is strong, and the lyrics actually sound like Ringo wrote them. They are simple but effective. The Starkey credit is usually listed first throughout the Hudson-era albums, but generally followed by 2-4 additional names. I find it hard to believe anything in Ringo's career suggests he is capable of churning out dozens of clever (though ultimately vapid) songs. He just doesn't have the tools - which is fine. On the song "Liverpool 8," Ringo makes the most of simple four-note phrases as he looks back fondly on his storied past. It's unsophisticated and unpretentious - and it's the one track from this album that would've been great on his recent 'Best Of' release.

As usual, most of the rest here is mid-tempo pop/rock - but the energy and surprises are farther and fewer between. There are a couple of mildly interesting genre exercises; I enjoy the Harry Nilsson tribute ("Harry's Song") and the Latin lounge ballad "Pasodobles" (as overlong as it is). "Gone Are the Days" is an odd, dated-sounding attempt at a modern rocker. "R U Ready," the album closer, would've been better without the strange vocal effects that make Ringo's voice sound like it's coming through a telephone receiver. Actually, something tells me Hudson wouldn't have done it this way - and in this instance I wish he HAD been around to prevent that unfortunate production choice. The song is an otherwise nice country-stomper that contemplates death - one of the only tracks on the album that goes a bit beyond skin-deep lyrics. No song on the album is particularly embarrassing - most of it chugs along at a nice, relaxed rocking pace. But I feel like I've heard it all (or at least most) before.

I'm always glad to have a new Ringo Starr album and I hope that he has more to come. I will have to reserve judgement on Dave Stewart's contribution until he has a chance to work with Ringo from the ground up (should they continue working together).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

CD Review: Paul McCartney's "Memory Almost Full"

This is a very good effort from McCartney. Coming off what I would quite possibly deem his finest hour, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, I didn't expect another masterpiece. Since he's been averaging 4 years between releases for the past decade-plus, I was just thrilled beyond belief that he was releasing a new album less than two years later. The only real issue I had with 'Chaos' (and I have to emphasize: only a very, very slight issue) was its relative lack of variety in tempo and atmosphere. Most of the songs were fairly slow and melancholy. This is not the case with "Memory" - this is easily his most varied album since Off the Ground way back in 1993.

The songs had to grow on me, for the most part - but that shouldn't be read as a criticism. In fact, I've come to expect much more subtle hooks from McCartney at this stage of his career. He really doesn't seem to be trying for the Big Hit anymore, at least not since Flaming Pie. There were songs on Flowers in the Dirt and "Off the Ground" that seemed to purpose built for Top 40 radio, yet with the exception of "My Brave Face" in 1989, Top 40 had moved on - with little use for Paul McCartney. I can only imagine it must have been disappointing to accept this, watching so many singles crash and burn. (I'm speaking of U.S. charts, I realize that some of these singles performed better in other parts of the world.)

So this new album seems right in line with his last few, in that not much is immediately catchy and stick-in-your-mind right away. Fine by me, as this approach results in very rewarding repeat listens. There is a very nice flow to the album - and considering that about half the tracks were recorded with his touring band and the other half all on his own, it could've been a little schizo. The sound is slicker and more polished overall than on "Chaos."

Highlights for me...I'll start with my favorite two tracks from the album closing song suite: "Vintage Clothes" and "Feet In the Clouds." These are simply pure McCartney (even if Vintage's piano riff sounds borrowed from a Feetwood Mac song I can't remember at the moment). The vocal breakdown on "Feet In the Clouds" is stunning. The key line is "I know that I'm not a square/As long as they're not around" - sounds a little defensive to me, which is a nice moment of emotional vulnerability. I don't know what I'm trying to say - I just like it!

McCartney is in excellent voice - as unpopular as "Gratitude" seems to generally be, I LOVE hearing him push his voice to the very limit. He doesn't sing like this very often anymore (although I'm sure many would say that's a good thing) - it's great to hear him going for broke. Plus, without the growling vocal, I don't think there'd be all that much to the song! By the same token, "Nod Your Head" (which similarly has poloarized fans with many falling in the 'I hate it' catagory) is another case of McCartney just belting out a rock vocal - the kind we just don't hear from him these days (except in concert). It's worth noting how much better his 'rock voice' is on this album as opposed to back around the late-'80s/early-'90s when he seemed to sound hoarse all the time.

"Dance Tonight" kind of freaked me out when I first heard it - 'THIS is the advance video and single???' It seemed too simplistic and ready-made for all Paul's detractors to pounce on, i.e half-written, lazy lyrics, etc. Well, I still think it made a bizarre single choice, but I have grown to really love the song. There is a sense of sadness in McCartney's voice that adds a lot to the otherwise simple lyrics (what few of them there are). Plus, again, repeated listenings - especially through headphones - reveal all the layers of instruments built up throughout the song, which keep things interesting musically.

I like most of the other songs a lot too (if that sounds lazy, grouping the rest together like that - well, it is). I guess the biggest problem for me is "House of Wax" - I can appreciate the attempt to create a slow-burn epic, but I can't decipher the lyrics. It sounds to me like McCartney trying to be poetic and wordy, yet not really have a point. It's not nearly as bad as, say, "Spinning On an Axis" (which was an absolute embarrassment on Driving Rain). If you're going to sound like you are making a point, it's advisable to actually have one. Musically, too, I am annoyed by the song - it's a full band track, but there isn't a full drum sound from Abe Laboriel Jr. He's a great drummer, why bother with all the phoney thunder sounds - Abe should've been wailing by the end of the track.

The bonus disc has three interesting tracks - all one-man McCartney recordings - and I highly recommend springing for it. "In Private" is a short instrumental - could've come right off McCartney. "Why So Blue" is another one where I'm not sure what he intended lyrically - but I do enjoy the acoustic-driven sound. "222" is curiousity, and really the most interesting of the bonus tracks - it's a jazzy near-instrumental, with only a handful of lyrics - with a number of surprising melodic twists. The 'commentary' track isn't as informative as one might think - I listened to it once and never since (it's a single 25-minute track, making it difficult to reference what McCartney said about a specific song).

I don't know what type of packaging the upcoming '2 disc plus DVD' will have, but I don't care for the DVD-size cardboard box that the regular 2-disc edition comes in. Too many cardboard flaps; I'm not the first person to gripe about it and I probably won't be the last. More dismaying to me was the lack of track-specific instrumental credits in the liner notes. The lyrics are all there (not so with the single-disc version, so I've heard). But unlike his last several releases, there are no details about who played what - other than a basic list of which songs are Paul-only and which include his band. I like to know these things, call me obsessive if you must!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

CD Review: Prince's "Planet Earth"

Prior to "Planet Earth," the last Prince album I can say I liked (or at least kinda liked) was "Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic." The last two ("3121" and "Musicology") - though obviously both commercial comebacks - did next to nothing for me. They were just more additions to the growing list of disjointed, thrown-together sub-par works that Prince began releasing back in '94 with "Come" (though not including every album after that, just that the good ones were less and less frequent). I distinctly remember how distressing it was for an artist who was responsible for such a long line of carefully crafted albums to expect record buyers to be satisfied with willful sloppiness. Sure, with "Come" (and others) he was hurrying to get out of his Warner's contract - but all these years after the fact, what matters is the music...not his fued with the label. I continue to maintain that he hasn't released a truly great album since 1992's 'Symbol' album (and even that one was flawed, i.e. Tony M was still on board). And I still say that "The Truth" (i.e. disc 4 of "Crystal Ball") is the closest he's come to that greatness in the years since.

All that said, I'll reiterate: I like this new album. It turned out to be a nice surprise - not a major return to form, but a mostly consistently enjoyable collection of new songs. Are they all new? It's hard to say - I do have trouble believing all the musicians who are credited in the album's sparse (nearly non-existant, truth be told) liner notes turned up for recent sessions. Some of this music was quite possibly in the can for many years - the wildly varying tone, and overall sound, throughout the album supports this idea. Before delving into a song-by-song look, I'll summarize my overall feelings. The focus here seems to be tight, concise pop songwriting. Prince used to break boundaries and take chances with song form, but since those days seem long gone I'm satisfied to hear relatively straightforward songs containing strong melodies and memorable hooks. It's far preferable to the aimlessness of recent sludge like "3121" and "Musicology." I also like hearing so many guitar solos - much more than anything since "Chaos and Disorder" way back in 1996. Throughout "Planet Earth," there are lots of little musical surprises and quirks - unexpected chord changes, unpredictable melodic twists, unusual backing vocal arrangements. No, it's not "Lovesexy" revisited by any means, but it keeps the listener from being bored to tears (like the last couple of albums did).

To be more specific, take the opening - and also title - track. On a musical level, "Planet Earth" sounds very much to me like the Prince of old. The plaintive - though highly dramatic - verses that give way to swelling choruses, ultimately climaxing with a passionate guitar solo: it's a full-fledged epic Prince track (bold move to open the record with what sounds like a big finish). The piano/synth/backing-vocals section midway through sounds the vintage late-80s era. Lyrically, I'm less enthusiastic. Prince didn't used to be so literal when tackling "big issues." Here - not surprisingly, given the title - he deals mainly with the fragility of our ecosystem. Sorry, but no celebrity can escape the hypocrisy charge when lamenting the mistreatment of the atmosphere while simultaneously boasting of private jets traveling the four corners of the globe. Prince, how big is your carbon footprint? In the final verse, he sings about sending off young soldiers to fight a war, asking "If they're blessed to make it home, will they still be poor?" I'm not exactly sure what he's implying about the financial status of the armed forces. I'm also a bit confused about something: in this song, and elswhere on the album, the lyrics do get a tad bit political. I was under the impression that Jehovah's Witnesses remain strictly apolitical. How can he include this type of subject matter without violating that belief? I'm not taking any shots at his religion, I'm just genuinely curious about this seeming contradiction.

"Guitar" takes us back to the mid-90s NPG sound, "Undertaker" style. I wouldn't be surprised if that's Michael B kicking it on this rock track. Many have mentioned it - and 'I will follow' their lead (get it?) - the main riff sounds like a certain early U2 song. Once you accept that, the song is a fun rocker with some good solos and a light-hearted lyric (what a relief after the pretentions of the first song's message).

"Somewhere Here On Earth" starts off with a hokey 'scratchy record' sound, apparently signaling it's 'old school' balladry. There's also a bit of cringe-worthiness in the lyric, "In this digital age, you could just page me/I know it's the rage." Um, really? I don't know many people who still carry around pagers - but I guess "You could just text me" didn't rhyme as well. Or it could suggest this song's been in the vault for a few years. That wouldn't be a stretch, as it sounds like it could've been on just about any album from "Around the World In a Day" onward - which I mean in the best way: it's a very good falsetto ballad in the classic Prince mold. A tad overlong, though, at nearly 6 minutes, as no new ideas are introduced to justify the length.

Things get even better with "The One U Wanna C" - a straight-ahead pop tune with a subtle, yet comfortable, countryish twang. Again, this sounds so unlike anything Prince has done in years I can't help but wonder if he pulled it out of the vault. As lightweight as it is, I love everything about it - except for the line "I ain't trying to be a hater" (which is the first of several instances of Prince forcing some 'modern' slang into his lyrics). I do like that he sings "I come like thunder" and "If u wanna get creamy" because it proves that the JW's didn't shut down the innuendo completely.

Uh-oh -- Prince gets all lover-man in "Future Baby Mama" -- and there's another (obvious) example of that 'modern' slang. Building a song around the phrase "baby mama" wasn't a great idea, even if he did break out the Linn for this one (which isn't all that exciting anyway - he was trying to evoke the old days in the exact same way back on "Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic" back in '99!). Still, it ain't an entirely unpleasant sounding song, but it feels very out of place in context of the four songs that preceded it. Maybe the course will be corrected shortly... a word, no. "Mr. Goodnight" sounds like it could've been on ANY "Emancipation"-onward album. It's a sort-of rap song, and I hoped he was done with that kind of thing. Suddenly the vibe of the album has been completely altered, and necessarily in a good way. Not that I don't love the funky R&B that has been Prince's bread and butter his entire career - I most certainly do. But this generic-sounding stuff evokes "New Power Soul" more than "Sign O the Times"...or even "Diamonds & Pearls" for that matter. In fact, songs like "Come On" and "Shoo-Be-Do" from that 1998 disappointment ("New Power Soul") KILL this "Mr. Goodnight" bit of indulgence. Oh well, at least it DOES have the funniest food reference in a Prince song since the immortal "Cap'n Crunch with soy milk."

"All the Midnights In the World" - short, but oh so sweet. My favorite track, and it clocks in at just 2 minutes, 21 seconds. THIS is classic Prince pop: idiosyncratic lyrics, melodically inventive, captivating vocal performance. Can this possibly be a new song? Or is this some lost "Dream Factory"-era track? It's so fantastic I can't really explain it. Who but Prince would include a reference to Zuzu's pedals from "It's a Wonderful Life"? I love this: "Amethyst and rubies, crystals and black pearls/I'd trade them all just to spend with you/All the midnights in the world." I don't usually use words like splendiferous, but it truly applies to this gem of a song.

Nowhere to go but down, I guess, after such a natural high - but "Chelsea Rogers" is actually a pretty entertaining dance track nonetheless. It's a funky disco-style song, sung along with a husky-voiced woman (reminded me of Mavis right at the beginning). It doesn't really DO all that much in nearly 6 minutes (one of only three tracks that push past 5 minutes). It's about the same length as the title track, yet unlike that well-structured epic, it wears out it's welcome after the halfway point. I haven't really bothered to figure out if the lyrics, which apparently concern a real-life fashion model, tell a coherent story.

"Lion Of Judah" brings it back to guitar-oriented rock. It's grown on me over repeated listenings, though I'm not sure what he's getting at in the lyrics. Sure sounds like something was on his mind though. A failed relationship, it would seem - one that he didn't want to end, and felt ended in the midst of miscommunication...leaving him seeking some sort of revenge? I don't know really, but I like the guitar playing.

"Resolution" - bouncy up-tempo pop, kinda like a less corny "Graffiti Bridge." Also kinda like the opening track: I like it musically, I'm less wild about the lyrics. It's actually a good bookend - both songs tackle "big issues," albeit in a clumsy way. I really like the melody, the simple arrangement, and especially the backing vocals. But spelling out the world's problems in less than four minutes is a tough order for anyone. Actually, in the final verse ("Love is like a circle, no beginning and no end..") he has the right idea - keep it a bit vague, rather than trying to specifically explain the "main problem" with war (that no one ever wins) and with people (that they never do what they say). In fact, his reasoning is incorrect in both cases, so why bother trying to cover so much ground in one song? Anyway, the lyrics are just too dopey-hippy for me to take seriously - I still enjoy the heck out of the song on a musical/performance level.

I've been listening to the album as I write this. I really have to say: the highest praise I can offer is that every time it ends, I feel like starting it up and listening all over again. I haven't felt that way about a Prince album in far too long. Not because it stands as a truly classic Prince album, but because it's the most tuneful and entertaining album he has released in ten years. And, of course, there's that track 7 that brings joy everytime it rolls around.