Review: ‘McCartney III,’ A Homespun Gem

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I have a recurring nightmare where I’m a student again. In this frightening dream, I walk into a classroom and am presented with a blank sheet of paper and asked to write an essay about the topics covered in the class over the course of the year. The only problem I have is that I haven’t been in this dreamworld class, ever. I haven’t been a student in many, many years. I’m doomed to fail which apparently means I have to repeat that grade, a deep-seated fear instilled in me by my father. He used to say if I flunked a grade I’d have to live in the backyard. It’d be pretty embarrassing for a man of my age to have to repeat fifth grade. I wouldn’t be able to fit in the desks. I usually awake screaming, terrifying the Rock Chick and pulling her from what’s usually a peaceful sleep. It’s not even my worst nightmare, I have many others. What can I say, for me, Sleep Is Hell. I think the root of this particular nightmare is that lingering memory of returning to grade school after each summer break and on Day 1 the teachers (who apparently were colluding) would all ask us to write an essay entitled “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.”

I’m not sure what fascinating things those teachers thought we children were up to. It’s pretty hard to stretch “played baseball” and “went to the swimming pool” to two whole pages. And, as long time readers know, I can ramble with the best of them. Thinking about all of this, in my imagination, I wondered what it would be like if we all had to write an essay, “What I Did In Lockdown.” This whole lockdown thing has kind of been like a summer break – much of our lives have been put on hold. Sure, I’ve done a lot of writing on B&V, I’ve read some books, binge watched a lot of Netflix. I’ve certainly eaten more than I should and just destroyed a lot of bourbon. I have friends who have landscaped or gardened. I have one friend who is restoring an old MG convertible. His midlife crisis is apparently going to be dangerous. Obviously, the people I’m talking about here are the ones lucky enough to still have a job and who are still able to feed their families. My heart goes out to the folks who are struggling out there… I don’t care what any of you out there have done, I don’t think anybody has “won” this Lockdown, or as he calls it Rockdown, in more a convincing fashion than Paul McCartney. He set his “essay” to music. Last Friday he delivered the homespun gem McCartney III to a world in need of his sunny melodies.

McCartney III is seen as a sequel to two other, similarly named albums that McCartney had previously released. In 1970 during the breakup of the Beatles, McCartney was in a deep depression. He retreated to his farm in Scotland and at the urging of his wife Linda began to record an album, which he finished at his home in London. McCartney wrote all the songs and played all the instruments on the resulting album, his solo debut, 1970’s McCartney. It’s release was fraught with Beatles’ politics and the backlash on announcing their breakup caused critics at the time to savage it. McCartney was also a homespun gem and in retrospect Paul is given credit for inventing lo-fi, indie rock. No one had ever locked themselves in a room alone at home, not in a studio, and recorded an entire album. McCartney has two of my favorite Paul songs on it, “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Every Night.” It also had some instrumentals and goofy stuff. It was clear Paul was finding joy in his sadness over the Beatles in simply creating music. It’s a true classic.

In 1980, after Wings broke up – the band he’d formed in the 70s – McCartney locked himself in a home studio in London and once again wrote and performed alone as a one man band for McCartney II. McCartney II was Paul at his most experimental. He was enjoying playing with the latest synthesizer technology. I liked the first single, the live version of “Coming Up.” Unfortunately that track wasn’t on the album, the LP featured the studio version which didn’t have the same energy. I remember my brother bought that album and they’d hurriedly placed a single in its own sleeve on the outside of the album inside the shrink-wrap so when you bought it you’d get the live version of “Coming Up” too. Listening to the studio version of “Coming Up” all these years later, it wasn’t a bad tune it was just overshadowed. Likewise, the murder of John Lennon 5 months after McCartney II likely overshadowed this album. I have never been a huge fan of II. Critics rave about “Temporary Secretary” but I just can’t connect with that song, I find it annoying. But listening to that album in my brother’s room, I can remember really liking “Waterfalls.” It’s a trippy ballad. “On The Way” and “One of These Days” are also good tracks. It was overall much more polished and “out there” than McCartney.

A few of the things I’ve read about this new album, McCartney III, hype it as a sequel to records “made 50 and 40 years ago.” Yes, its McCartney once again alone, writing all the songs and playing all the instruments but to me it’s a piece with the music he’s been making late in his career. After a mid-career slump that started in the early 80s – and I’ve always insisted that was because he was deeply, spiritually upset about the loss of John Lennon – McCartney hit his stride again starting with 1997’s Flaming Pie. Since then, he’s put out some killer records like Chaos And Creation In the Backyard, Memory Almost Full (which also featured only Paul playing instruments) and New. I thought his 2018 album Egypt Station was the album of that year, LP Review: Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ – All Aboard For The Album Of the YearTypically we’ve waited four or five years between new McCartney albums but this time we only had to wait 2 years. There was no band breakup to spur this truly solo LP like the last two “McCarney” albums.

The first thing that jumped out at me on McCartney III is that McCartney is playing all “natural” instruments. Like McCartney this album is all acoustic & electric guitar, piano, bass and drums. There’s none of that synth stuff like McCartney II. The record starts off with great acoustic guitar riff on “Long Tailed Winter Bird.” It’s mostly an instrumental track with McCartney singing “Do you miss me” over and over at the end. My  mind keeps coming back to that riff. I said early this year that Fiona Apple had recorded the ultimate lockdown album (Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed) but I think McCartney may have surpassed her on the track “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes” which lists all the things around the house we all do to keep ourselves busy these days with nowhere to go. It’s a pretty track. “Pretty Boys” is another acoustic driven mid tempo/ballad that is just super. Nobody records tracks like this anymore – unpolished, unvarnished. Even McCartney’s voice has some rough edges to it that frankly I just love. Like McCartney, this is no “grand statement” album, it’s just a genius practicing his craft. “Woman And Wives” is a piano ballad where McCartney’s voice drops lower and rougher than I’ve ever heard. It’s a stately, somber ballad.

McCartney III isn’t all mellow ballads though. There are some nice feisty rockers on here. “Find My Way” is a pop-fuel rock tune that sounds like a hit to me. “Lavatroy Lil” – yes, ridiculous title – is a great rocker with a great, dirty guitar riff and an insistent drum beat. “Slidin'” is another big rocker. I don’t know how one guy gets this kind of sound. “Slidin'” is just a nasty rocker. Much can be said about the lyrics being simplistic but if you listen carefully, like on “Slidin'” you hear a plea to be free of our current situation. While you won’t find the experimentation of McCartney II,  “Deep Deep Feeling” starts with just drums and voice and builds to over 8-minutes. It’s probably the closest to II you’ll find here. “Deep Down” almost has a funky feel and is another favorite here. “Seize The Day” starts with electric piano turns into a nice mid tempo rocker and seems to be a plea for us all to do good.

McCartney has dropped a wonderful Christmas gift to all of us. McCartney III is an absolute gem of a record and a fine addition to Paul’s catalog. It’s the perfect ending to an otherwise miserable year. I highly recommend this one for all fans of rock and roll, Paul or the Beatles. It’s a real return to the roots of McCartney and should rank amongst his most beloved works.

Have a safe Christmas everybody out there. Social distance. And if you can’t do that, hit the egg nog, maybe that’ll help. The year is gonna end in a pretty dark and weird fashion, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers!

LP Review: Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ – All Aboard For The Album Of the Year

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Well, it took all the way to September, but I think finally – spoiler alert! – we have the B&V Album of the year in Paul McCartney’s epic new record Egypt Station. I reserve the right to change my mind should something stunning come out between now and New Year’s Eve… but I highly doubt anything like this will. We have to remember people, when the former Beatle puts an album out, it’s a pretty big fucking deal. McCartney’s late career renaissance continues. I’m still recovering from my Florida trip, but I have to say, this album really grabbed me. I’ve been thinking a lot since seeing Robert Plant on Monday night about artists who have to grapple with past glories but remain creative today (Concert Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, KC 9/10/18). While Plant has headed off in different directions from Zeppelin, McCartney just continues to hone his gifts and create new melodic pop/rock.

The world was such a different place when the Beatles broke up. The world was devastated and as usual in break ups, everyone was looking for someone to blame. Many blamed Yoko, which is bullshit, we always seem to blame the girlfriend. Since McCartney was the one who announced it, he was widely blamed especially in the rock press. He quietly just released a series of great albums, which at the time were only moderately appreciated by critics, but are now widely lauded. From McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run through the mellow London Town McCartney remained popular with the fans. He was a hit-single machine. No wonder he has so many Greatest Hits packages. You have to wonder if Lennon and McCartney’s rivalry in those days might have been like Hemingway and Fitzgerald – Hemingway always admired Fitzgerald’s writing style and Fitzgerald always envied Hemingway’s sales numbers. I’ll let you guess who is who in that analogy… but I’m off on a tangent.

Things had already started to cool off for McCartney when in 1980 John Lennon was tragically assassinated. I remember walking into a record store in ’82 and the clerk had slipped Tug Of War on the turntable. I wasn’t there to buy that record, but I ended up doing so. That was such a brilliant album, well except for those Stevie Wonder duets. Many of those tracks were directly about John. After that McCartney’s career started to stall. The magic seemed to be gone. He’d have a great song every now and then like “No More Lonely Nights” or “Spies Like Us” but his music became more convoluted and impenetrable. I always wondered if Lennon’s absence unmoored him a bit. They always brought out the best in each other – McCartney sweetened Lennon and Lennon toughened up McCartney. Even though they weren’t working together anymore you wonder if the loss shook McCartney more than even he realized. People play up the feud, but at the heart of that relationship was friendship.

I had written McCartney off in terms of buying his records, but I always kept one eye, or perhaps more correctly, one ear on what he was doing. I even bought Press To Play, which in retrospect was ill advised. There was always an interesting single that would pierce my indifference. Then in 1995-1996 McCartney immersed himself in the wonderful Beatles Anthology series of albums and documentary. By returning to that early music I think he rediscovered the magic of simplicity and melody.

When he re-emerged from the Anthology thing with 1997’s Flaming Pie it was a comeback as seismic as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind comeback.To prep for this I listened to that record again and it’s one of his best ever. Thus began the McCartney renaissance. If you’ve been ignoring him, it’s at your own peril. His late career albums are the type of records this blog is built on. Run Devil Run recorded and released a year after he tragically lost his wife Linda, was a return to the music of McCartney’s youth, namely, old school rock and roll. It was joyful and cathartic. From there he’s been on fire – Driving Rain (a more experimental but great McCartney album), Chaos and Creation (a mellow grower of a record) were both great records. As great as all of those records are, they were each very distinctive, ie, the songs on those albums were all of the same sound. Flaming was built on acoustic guitars. Devil was straight up rock  (kudos to David Gilmour on guitar). Driving Rain was trippy. They each had a coherency and showed off a singular strength of McCartney, of which there are many.

By 2005, I think McCartney decided, to hell with it, I do a lot of things well and I’m going to do it all on each record. His melody writing and penchant for hooks have not diminished over the years. Memory Almost Full was brilliant. It even had a mini-suit of songs toward the end that hark back to side two of Abbey Road. He followed that up with New that saw McCartney stretching out even farther. Ballads, rockers and “Queenie Eye” a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields” single… If you like the Beatles New is the record for you.

A few months ago on social media I began seeing McCartney posting black and white photos of instruments. A guitar leaning on an amp. Piano keys… Something was afoot. Indeed it was. He has returned after a five year absence with Egypt Station, a record he’s described as a “concept album.” I think that’s a conceit, as the concept is the listener boards a musical train at “Egypt Station” and each song is a stop along the line. It’s an odd concept, but it works in that it allows McCartney to go in any direction his creativity and melodies take him. There are ballads, rockers, even political songs on this album. Despite the variety of the material on the record, it hangs together very well. It was produced by Greg Kurstin who has worked with, gasp, Adele. Don’t let that scare you, this isn’t a mellow record. Kurstin puts a modern sheen on McCartney’s classic style. The record sounds current and yet timeless at the same time.The best moments on this album evoke past glories without wallowing in any nostalgia.

The first single, “Come On To Me” was a great crunchy rocker about sex. It’s catchy as hell. “Who Cares” starts with guitar feedback and deals with haters, “who cares what the idiots say?” “Caesar Rocks” (read that She’s a Rock) is another randy song about sex. For a guy 76 years old, this cat is horny still. We should all be so lucky. The only rocker that left me cold was the vulgar “Fuh You” (read Fuck You). It’s not the vulgarity, hell I cuss all the time, it’s that it’s a great riff and song but the lyric is kinda stupid.

There are great ballads in here as well. “I Don’t Know” starts the record with a beautiful, melancholy piano. It may still be my favorite song on the record (Paul McCartney: Two New Songs From The Upcoming ‘Egypt Station’). McCartney has a reputation as being Mr. Sunshine, but there are sadder elements just under the surface here. “Do It Now” is another sweet, but slightly sad ballad where someone seems to be saying goodbye. “Happy With You” is a stunning acoustic guitar driven song about the joys of domestic bliss. McCartney sings, “I liked to get wasted, but these days I don’t, ’cause I’m happy with you.” Somehow, with a name like BourbonAndVinyl, I can relate to that. The Rock Chick saved my life, but that’s another blog post. “Hand In Hand” is another piano driven track that’s just straight up about love. The one song that also jumped out at me from the mellower end of things was “Confidante.” I don’t know if he’s singing to an ex-lover, John Lennon, or both. It’s a great track. There are so many layers to this music.

I was glad to see McCartney, an old hippy, take up the topic of politics. “People Want Peace” is a big anthem of a track. You wonder if McCartney has been hanging with Ringo, Mr. Peace & Love. It’s a short track but effective. “Dominoes” is another catchy rocker with distorted guitars and nice drums and seems to be a call for unity when he sings, “Soon we’ll see that you and me, we’re really friends.” “Come Together” people… right now! The heart of this record for me, was the brilliant political allegory, “Despite Repeated Warnings,” about a ship being piloted by a crazy captain. The line, “how can we stop him, grab the keys and lock him up,” tells you all you need to know. At almost seven minutes long, it’s pretty epic.

The only track that lost me here was “Back In Brazil.” Even a genius can throw a curve ball at you. The chorus of “Ichi Ban” being repeated over and over made me think somebody should have pushed back on that one… The album ends with an old-style Red Rose Speedway medley, “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link.” The “Hunt You Down” portion rocks. “C-Link” is some tasty guitar solo’ing.

Egypt Station finds McCartney in fine voice. His instrument has not diminished at all. I think he plays all the musical instruments too. It’s a sprawling epic McCartney’s been doing since the “White Album,” although, it’s only one guy so that comparison may be hyperbolic on my part. This is a highly recommended album to all fans of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and great rock everywhere. It’s a shame music like this can’t find a place on modern radio…

Enjoy this one, it’s a treasure!