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).

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