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!

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