McCartney’s terrific “New”

Paul McCartney at Frank Sinatra School of Performing Arts Just turn your ear for a moment to the buzz attending Paul McCartney’s latest album. His first collection of originals in six years, titled simply, New, came with the predictable oohs and ahhs. Oh, the Beatle-esqueness of it all. The warmth and steel of his 71-year-old pipes. The grace of his melodies and the unexpected shrieks, whirs and purposeful murk in its electronic japery. But in the absence of the work itself all those promises are at best meaningless — McCartney is a living legend, a hero to generations. Journalists WANT him to succeed, and frankly so do we. Particularly if it means 45-plus minutes of lovely new Paul McCartney music.

So how terrific that New is pretty much exactly that. From the album-opening rocker “Save Us,” the songs are tautly constructed, melodic and – I swear I’m not kidding – lyrically compelling. The intellectual laziness that defines so many of McCartney’s solo songs is nowhere to be found.

(for in-depth McCartney’s life and career with and without the Beatles you might want to check out my 2009 biography, Paul McCartney: A Life)

Instead, we get the engaging obscurities in “Alligator” and, better yet, the prosaic revelations described in the sweet, mid-tempo “On My Way to Work.”   Like for instance, and I just love this for some reason:

“On my work to work I bought a magazine/Inside a pretty girl, liked to waterski/She came from Chichester to study history/She had removed her clothes for the likes of me.”

It’s that bit about waterskiing that knocks me backwards (what a weird detail, and yet exactly what dirty magazines make a point of noting). Next, a brief guitar break turns dark and driving, leading to a final verse where the ka-chunk of the office time clock brings a small vision:

“I could see everything, how we came to be/People come and go, smoking cigarettes/I pick the packets up when the people leave.

Wherein lies one of McCartney’s most valuable traits — his eye for the magic of everyday life and motion. We fancy folk don’t often turn to janitors and nudie magazines for existential philosophy, but this artist sees more than we do. The real payoff, however, comes in the choruses that reveal the narrator’s passing fascinations as a symptom of the intimacy he never found in his own life:

“How could a soul search everywhere/Without knowing what to do?”

So okay, “Everybody Out There” falls a bit short in the lyric department, but the next tune is “Hosanna,” which pits a dark melody and pulsing bass against layers of electronic drone and tape loop shriekery unheard on a Paul song since “The White Album.”

And so it goes pretty much song for song, all with their own intrigue (OMG, the texture of his aged voice when singing, a touch bitterly, about the young Beatles on “Early Days”) and delight. Those perfect melodic fillips; the layers of joy in his stacked harmonies; the irresistible sweetness in the bouncy title track, which is as heavy as helium and as lovely as a summer morning.

Does that make it (yet) another silly love song? Not even. If only for the startling assertion McCartney makes a song earlier in “Early Days”:

“They can’t take it from me if they tried/I lived through those early days/So many times I had to change the pain to laughter/Just to keep from getting crazed.”

It ain’t easy. So float away on “New” right now; consider the expressions on the faces you see and imagine what waits for them when their feet crunch back into the dirt below.

Why the Wombats are the new Beatles

 They come from Liverpool. They attended the Liverpool Institute, where Paul McCartney and George Harrison went to high school. Only now that school is called the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, due in large part to McCartney’s cash and vision. And when the nascent Wombats — Matt Murphy, Dan Haggis and Tord Overland-Knudson — performed for McCartney at the end of their LIPA career he took immediate and overwhelming notice.

This perhaps because the co-chief Beatle instantly recognized how much the bands have in common: The instantly memorable melodies; top-notch harmony singing; the juxtaposition of upbeat songs with lyrics that are as silly as they are smart; as personal as they are universal; as piercingly insightful as they are funny.

“I don’t do much producing now, but I’d be tempted (to work with the Wombats),” McCartney said.

Over the next five days I’m going to try to convince you, my average reader, in all your smart, indie-leaning, old school-rock-loving, perpetual puzzlement for all things dance-y, clubby and youth-y to realize that there’s at least one new train headed exactly where you want to go. It’s called the Wombats. Let’s climb onboard

We’ll start  with “Anti-D,”  from the Wombats’ latest (2011) album, “The Wombats Proudly Present…the Modern Glitch.” Here, main songwriter/singer Murphy (who goes by Murph), twists a plea for love into a precisely etched portrait of the downside of a chemically-enhanced consciousness. The images are as direct as they are vivid: “We kick back and let the pills do the talking/People hear a distinct rattle when we’re walking…” The chorus as sweet as it is confused and confusing: “Please allow me to be your anti-depressant,” and the concluding bridge/musical digression stirring, sweet and vaguely doomed: “…so I threw away my Citalopram/I need it more than what was in those 40 milligrams/So cast away with the doctor’s plans and please allow me…”

Sweet, sad and just brilliantly performed, “Anti-D” is one of the best new songs I’ve heard this year. I’m particularly fond of this acoustic performance:

Also, here’s the original album take, as set to the official video for the song:


Paul McCartney at 70: Listen to what the man said – the amazing climax!

Another 20 years of great Paul McCartney songs, and thus the line-up for my imaginary second disc in the Paul solo box set. Think we’ve got another 20 years of new songs ahead of us? I wouldn’t bet against it.

DISC 2 – 1990-2010 

 1. Hope of Deliverance – A sort of ecumenical prayer for peace and understanding…and as such it might be insufferable were it not for the tautly-strummed acoustic guitars, the easy tumble of the chords and another one of those melodies that seem so elegant and perfect it could only tumble out of the sky and right into the fingertips. “we live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.” Well, of course. But when you sing it with that melody it sounds as sweet and pure as a warm breeze.

2. Little Willow – An acoustic ballad from 1997 sung to the children of Ringo Starr, whose mother, Maureen, had just died of cancer. “Life, as it happens/Nobody warns you/Willow, hang on tight,” he sings, surely delving into the memory of his own mother’s breast cancer death when he was a tender 14. And, perhaps, with the dread of someone whose own wife was struggling with the same disease.

3. Great Day – The get-the-kids-out-of-bed song from the McCartney household, meant to learn the smaller McC’s into their clothes, down to breakfast and out into the world. Linda pipes in on the harmonies, and it’s a small vision of family heaven, with the grown-up world just beyond the gates. “…and it won’t be long, no, no, won’t be long/It won’t be long…” 

4. Blue Jean Bop – And then Linda died. After trundling through his own vision of hell for an excruciating year, McCartney pulled together a small, Cavern Club-like combo of all-stars (e.g., David Gilmour on lead guitar), strapped on his bass, counted to four and hurled himself back into the world. The resulting album, ‘Run Devil Run’ starts here, and the dreamy intro into ‘Blue Jean’ is alone worth the price of admission (just hear the deliverance in his voice when he sings, “…can’t keep still, so baby let’s dance!”, the drums come in and the whole thing jets skyward. One of the most purely autobiography-of-the-soul moments in his entire catalogue.

5. Shake a Hand – There is precisely one man on earth who can out-Little Richard Little Richard. And if you thought he needed the lungs and throat of a 22-year-old to do it, guess again. At 57 McCartney — his back against the wall, his fingernails scraping for purchase — screams like anunhinged banshee, blasting the weight of the world into powder. 

6. She’s Given Up Talking – Back in the world, McCartney met Heather Mills, fell in love and launched into what would be the most publicly disastrous relationship he would ever have. The less said the better on that one, but it’s still worth looking back for the hotspots on 2001’s ‘Driving Rain,’ the album that recorded (sort of) the story of their falling in love. Get past the lame songs and embarrassingly bad stretches of lyrics (“one, two, three, four, five/Let’s go for a drive!” and etc.), and look for gems like this dark portrait of a curiously misanthropic school girl who has, for some unexplained reason, taking a vow of public silence. That’s weird enough, but married to the boom of the drums, the zoom of the bass and the sonic distortion around the lead guitar and vocal, it’s five minutes of dark secrets, grim allusions and who knows what all.

7. Rinse the Raindrops – Included for surprise value — hey, it’s a free-form 10:13 live jam with his hot-handed touring group! Check out how the drumsticks audibly shatter at one point, and the drummer reloads instantly, and follows the count into a completely different rhythm/take on the song. Repeat. Let the energy expand into something like chaos. Turn it up first, though. Then, quick!, turn the record OFF before it gets to that dismal ‘Freedom’ song. 

8. Friends to Go – In which Paul claims the misanthropic persona for himself, and tips a bit of his hand as the much-older husband to a young fashionista whose friends — now gathered in the living room — are far too much for the man to handle. So he takes refuge in his room, counting the seconds until the dismal crowd skitters out to the clubs or wherever. Does this signal some looming unpleasantness in the marriage itself? Hmm. “I’ve been sliding down a slippy slope/I’ve climbing up a slowly burning rope…” I dunno. What do you think?

9, Kicked Around No More – A b-side from the ‘Hope of Deliverance’ cd-single in 1993 (apologies again to chronologueists), this synth-based ballad follows a gentle r&b-influenced, two-chord vamp through a jilted lover’s various plaints. Simplicity is a virtue here, due in part to the gauzy layers of background oohs and ahs that hearken back to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Right up until it pivots lightly into the bridge whose melody rides the up and downdrafts of rising, then tumbling chords following the lyrics’ drift back to a more honest admission of who did what to whom: “My life could be so sweet/I can’t remember when I started running/the water underneath the bridge can’t keep the secret/She’s still running home.” Lovely all around.

10. Mr. Bellamy – From the wonderfully named ‘Memory Almost Full’ album of 2007, as well as the same school of ‘She’s Given Up Talking.’ This piano-led tune plays out like a minimalist short story in which the narrator, for unexplained reasons, makes a dramatic break from mainstream society. Here, the titular Bellamy climbs up onto some high purchase (a rooftop? a ledge?) and revels in his sense of liberation. “I’m not coming down, no matter what you do/I like it up here, without you.” The music fusses, shakes its head and seems much more comfortable with McC’s low-voiced, monotonic counter-melody, which seems to come from sinister protectors/persecutors: “Sit tight, Mr. Bellamy,” they murmur. “This shouldn’t take long.” Of course Bellamy wants no such help, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

11. Vintage Clothes – More from ‘Memory Almost Full.’ The album ends (save for a throwaway encore at the very end) with a five-song autobiographical suite which varies widely in tone, sound and effectiveness from song to song. This one’s a stand-out — a positively Beatle-esque reflection of life as a series of fashion as a symbol for both the endless pace of cultural change, and also the circular nature of life’s patterns. “Check the rack/What went out is coming back,” he sings, and you don’t have to be 65 to know how right he is.

12. The End of the End – A sweet and yet clear-eyed examination of the inevitability of death, with no regrets and no tears. Instead, this softspoken piano-and-strings ballad settles for poetic, with verses with all the circular rhythm and logic of the tides: “On the day that I die I’d like bells to be rung/And songs that were sung to be hung out like blankets/That lovers had played on, and laid on while listening to songs that were sung.” Elegant, stirring, sad and uplifting, all at the same time.

13. Two Magpies – At which point we encounter the Fireman — an experimental music duo he formed with the British dj Youth — and “Electric Arguments,” the first album of non-electronica songs. They began the project with a concept. They’d come to the studio with nothing prepared, and by the time they left they had to have a completely finished track. So what happens when Paul writes off the top of his head minus his usual editing/second-guessing/polishing processes? The listener gets drawn deep into the man’s teeming consciousness. Which bears a compelling resemblence to the “White Album.” Consider this slightly off-kilter acoustic guitar song, which spins a traditional bit of English doggerel (the magpie bit) into a tale of loneliness, fear and love. The stand-up bass rumbles and creaks, digitized scraps of vocal/effects whisper and crackle. “Face down fear,” he sings to himself. It’s kind of magical.

14. Sing the Changes – More from ‘Electric.’ A chiming, glowing track based around three chords, a soaring melody and awe for the transcendent natures of music and art: “”Every ladder leads to heaven,” he declares. “Everywhere the sound of childlike wonder.” He may also be describing his own joy at plucking this song out of empty space and then spinning it into a small, sparkling jewel.

15. Sun is Shining – A  transcendentalist at heart, McCartney headed into the ‘Electric’ sessions this day flush with the memory of that very morning, and all other mornings that have, and will, be just like it: “Every morning, I get up/Sun is shining, I get up…” But there’s more, too. A delicious bass riff pulsing off the high end of the neck, a kind of ethereal ringing on the end of the track and layers of Paul’s clear, joyous voice. As with virtually all of the songs on the album, ‘Sun is Shining’ is a rudimentary composition. And yet, I think it’s lovely, and touched by exactly the same spirit that animates his most intricately composed songs.

Okay, admission time: I haven’t given a fair listen to the “Kisses on the Bottom” cd, so I can’t comment on those tunes one way or another. But here are some earlier songs that nearly, and maybe should have, made the list:

16. Here Today – From 1982’s “Tug of War,” Paul’s nose-to-nose tribute to Lennon, in which he acknowledges as much confusion, hurt feelings and angst as the admiration and love that never stopped (and apparently never will) affecting his sense of himself, his work and his existence on earth.

17. Matchbox – From ‘Tripping the Live Fantastic,’ an ass-kicking cover of the Carl Perkins song the Beatles first covered in 1963. Performed here as a duet with Hamish Stewart, with Robbie McIntosh making the slide guitar scream, it rolls past like a frieight train.

18. Picasso’s Last Words – Back to ‘Band on the Run,’ and a one-song suite that begins with a folksy tribute to the late Spanish painter, then pivots into a kind of cubist portrait of the entire album, with the various melodies, choruses, vocal lines and textures weaving into a climactic revisiting of the ‘Band on the Run’ title track chorus. Sounds heavy-handed and maybe even pretentious, you say? It isn’t. And when the bass takes up the ‘Picasso’ chorus’s melody at one point it sends tingles down to my toes.

19. Junk – A haunting little ballad rejected for the White Album, but revived (two times over) on ‘McCartney.’ Dark, brooding and unbelievably lovely. Some critics call it the best, most naturally flowing melody McCartney ever wrote. Which says a lot.

20.  Band on the Run – Authority, anxiety, imprisonment. Then comes the bolt into the blue; the escape to the far side of the clouds. And what made that possible? And who does he have around him? Music and musicians. The band on the run. It’s Paul’s vision of heaven on earth. Which is maybe why the title track to his (arguably) best non-Beatles album is as heavenly as it is.

Greetings from Asbury Park, and other journeys

Okay, so it’s been a while. But what fun we’ve been having! And tomorrow’s Halloween, which means the usual neighborhood walk becomes a profit-making excursion. Is it wrong for a father to order the kids to trick-or-treat another block, or possibly three, and both sides of the street, goddammit, until they’re actually weeping and begging to go home? Probably, so I stop just short of that. But what part of free candy doesn’t this generation understand?

I’ve been in New York an New Jersey this past week, working on the new Springsteen bio, and it’s been a lot of fun. All the meetings and interviews you can imagine, plus also a cool few hours in the Monmouth County Historical Association library, a few beers at the VFW in Highlands, NJ and a long, fun evening in a basement in Long Branch, playing music (badly, on my part) with Vini Lopez, Tinker West and a few of their very, very patient, and far more musically accomplished than I friends.

Steel Mill fans will remember the Middletown police scrape in the summer of 1970. . . seems that Tinker ran into the retired chief of police at some social gathering a while back and went up for a cheerful hello. Greeted him by name, in fact, which took the ex-cop’s friends by surprise. “Do you know the chief?” they asked. “Of course I know him!” Tinker brayed. “He’s the fuckin’ asshole who started a police riot at my concert!” Chief McCarthy (am I remembering that correctly just now?) is in a wheelchair now, seemingly infirm in a variety of age-related ways. “But of course he got all fuckin’ riled up,” Tinker says, laughing. Nothing ever really ends, now, does it?

Meanwhile, in “Paul McCartney: A Life” news. I’m doing a variety of radio interviews to herald the paperback publication. And the Wall Street Journal takes a look right here, tossing in a bunch of observations, my favorite being: “…a riveting re-creation of a pivotal time in rock-music history.” That’s nice, isn’t it?

More soonish. For even more, even sooner, do check out my Oregonian blog:

Retrofit Guide: Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run"

I’ve been listening to this album consistently for the last week, 10 days, and there’s no getting around it: “Band on the Run” is simply a great rock ‘n’ roll record, a serious contender for anyone’s Greatest Ex-Beatles albums, and nothing short of a joy to listen to, repeatedly, on even the most grim and lifeless days. Because it’s bursting with life, and inventiveness. To say nothing of sex, restlessness, seething ambition, and more. Let’s take it song-by-song:

Band on the Run: LIsten and think hard about how inventive this 5 minute-plus rock suite really is. The modular structure; the abrupt shifts in tempo and sound; the way it’s all constructed to fit a kind of impressionistic narrative about the joys, complications and endless opportunities for transcendence that go along with music and — more than anything — being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Section by section, now: Stuck inside these four walls….lord, it’s every dead-end room you’ve ever inhabited, at home, in school, at some crappy job you thought you’d never escape, and just when you least expect it, even at the height of fame. If I ever get out of here…. the guitars turn crunchy, the percussion cracks like a pistol shot as the dead-end becomes fame itself; e.g., straight-up memories of the Beatlemania days, the endless hours of being cooped up in dressing rooms while the world surged madly at their door. Then….that breathttaking symphonic leap up to the central verse and chorus of the song and the point where…The rain exploded with a mighty crash/as we fell into the sun…. and the band is back on the run, soaring above the clouds and far from the grasp of any number of antagonists: the sherrif, the county judge (who held a grudge), even the undertaker. The music soars. The voices call out ecstatically (Yeeeeah!) Four minutes in, and the album is way above the clouds.

Jet: Someone is clearly pissed off at an ex-girlfriend, and though he keeps the lyrical details pretty abstract (I thought the Major was a lady sufragette!) the wicked horns-and-guitar riff that kicks it off, the growling bari sax throughout and the hard edge to his voice makes it all extraordinarily clear. When I hear this song I always imagine he’s having another go at Jane Asher (see also: “I”m Looking Through You”), recalling the middle-class gentility of the Asher family (Dr. Asher = the Major; Mrs. Asher = Mater, and so on) and cursing his own enchantment/intimidation in their presence. After all, it turned out he was the one who really had it going on, didn’t it? Climb on my back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky…. “Jet” rocks mercilessly.

Follow the jump to see who dies, what comes back and who is going to shake it, and yet not break it…

Bluebird: One of the better love ballads in the ouevre, and another PM vision of life in the land of the winged ones. (see also: “Blackbird,” “Single Pigeon,” “Two Magpies,” and more) Ignore the lyrics and focus on the tropical feel of the track – the ratling percussion; the lovely harmonies he shares with Linda on the single-word chorus. Then comes Howie Casey’s langorous sax solo, and romantic ballads don’t come any more painless.

Mrs. Vanderbilt: It’s all about the bass: an energetic ping-pong pattern that underscores the restless shuffle in the rhythm and the fussiness the singer is so intent on escaping, as seen in the person of the titular Mrs. V, who grumbles bitterly about money, the mass transit system, and being so very late as she charges from one pointless task to the next. What’s the use of worrying? What’s the use of hurrying? No use! The tune speeds up as it goes, dashing off into a jungle full of shrieking animals, pounding drums and wild tribal dances. Did I mention tha they recorded the album in Africa? True story. A difficult few weeks, as it turned out. But difficulty suits Paul’s muse, as we learn again on….

Let Me Roll It: I can’t tell you how I feel/My heart is like a wheel/Let me roll it… ya. This is the shit, right here: The most simple bass line; stripped-down drums; a seething two-part guitar riff; and a guy so desperately in love/lust that he’s gone totally primal. In its moment the song seemed like a blistering answer to John Lennon’s great primal scream tunes and indeed, Paul has borrowed the sound and feel of “Plastic Ono Band” – right down to the funereal thump of the drums. He’s got the Arthur Janov blues, you can hear it in the primal wail that brings the thing to its thumping, tooth-gnashing, seething fade. A rip at John? Not even – call it a tribute. And you know who dug the tune, and the album, more than anyone? That would be J. Lennon. He knew brilliance when he heard it, you know.

Mamunia: Did he write it in Africa? No telling, but it sure has that sweet tropical feel, both in the bongo/conga rhythm and the ecstatic message in the lyric, which transplants the Beatles’ lysergic musings on “Rain” into a low-key jungle-funk tune about the beauty of rain and the magic of nature. The music tumbles just like a jungle stream, the chords descending cheerfully over rocks and around corners, modulating from key to key, and yet always finding its way back to the source. Toward the end, when the synthesizer leaps to the fore, there’s a lovely moment where we can hear Paul talking in the background: “Everywhere I go is a single sound!” he cries. “I like it!” Is he talking about the electronic howl of the synth or the similarities among world cultures, music, and voices? The obvious answer: Yes.

No Words: A tiny masterpiece of colliding voices, musical ideas and (as it turned out) song fragments that just happened to work well together. Denny Laine had a fragment, see, and so Paul snapped one or two of his own on, and suddenly they had another abstract plaint addressed to a love gone wrong. The lyrics suggest more than they tell, but the full-band harmonies, plus the ascending guitar riffs and abrupt shifts in musical ideas make it magical.

Helen Wheels: Another road ode, this one a road-level celebration of the touring life, and the joys of going wherever your heart, and/or tour schedule, takes you. More blistering guitar leads, although they’re mixed lower than on the other tunes, more clever use of electronic sounds, and lyrics that catapult grade school rhymes into a kind of ecstatic verse: Spend the day on the motorway where the carbuerators blast/slow down driver, wanna stay alive, wanna make this journey last….Amazingly, this tune was an after-thought, patched onto the U.S. version of the album by a Capitol exec who knew a #1 smash when he heard it. (Al Coury?) He was righter than he thought, because while the tune did eventually top the charts, it also adds to the narrative of the entire album. See, record execs aren’t all bad.

Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me): Another masterpiece, on a wild array of levels. For what starts as a simple ballad to a recently-deceased artist (composed at the behest of Dustin Hoffman, who just wanted to see how easy it was for Paul to write a song) creates a realm of its own as a pile up of sounds (including the sound of PIcasso’s own voice), instruments and then reprisals of nearly all the defining songs of the abum come together to form a kind of musical cubism: everything you’ve seen/heard before now comes back from a dozen different angles, sung in different ways, set to different instruments, the melodies coming together, clashing, disappearing, only to come back again. For me the breathtaking moment comes when
the thing veers back to the “Picasso” bridge, an irresistible descent into the relative minors of the verse chords, only this time the melody comes straight from Paul’s bass, which he plays with a softness and fluidity emphasized by a counter-melody (played by strings) and his own Fender Rhodes, its lower-end jacked up to give the keys a throaty, late-era Billie Holiday sound. Three o’clock in the morning, we’re getting ready for bed/it came without a warning, but I’ll be waiting for you baby, I’ll be waiting for you there… That’s what the bass is saying. Extremely clearly.

1985: I’d nearly say this built-in encore doesn’t work. The tune feels unfinished, the lyrics veer toward the non-grammatical, none of the verses parse. But then there’s that killer piano riff, the swells of churchly organ, the part where Paul urges his lover to shake it, but not break it. Then a brief lull, then back to the unadorned piano riff, and finally a symphonic climax and… more time… on the run, band on the run….And did you know he dusted this one off, nearly 40 years later, to play on his live show this spring? Interesting choice.