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.