B&V’s Favorite MTV “Unplugged” LPs

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As a kid growing up, my parents didn’t even have basic cable. All the TVs at the house had the old rabbit-ear type antenna. When there were multiple football games being broadcast on New Year’s Day, my dad would bring three TVs down to the living room and watch all three major networks (yes, only three) to catch every game. If one of the TV’s screens was out of wack, I’d often have to stand in the corner, one hand on the TV set, one hand in the air, just to make the picture clear. I was the Human Antenna. Thankfully in those days I wasn’t facing the New Year’s Day hangover… that didn’t come until later.

Eventually, shamed by other parents, my parents got basic cable so we kiddos could watch Sesame Street to build our young minds. We had the most bare-bones cable package you could get. My father, who closely modulated the thermostat to save cash, wasn’t about to “piss away money” on cable TV. There was no HBO or Showtime at the house. If I wanted to see any R-rated stuff, I had to do it the old fashion way, sneak into a theater (thank you Bo Derek for 10). The neighbors had HBO and on a sleepover I once saw Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman, in a biker movie and she was topless. It was like “discovering plutonium” as they say on Seinfeld. I couldn’t help but think, at that tender age, “fuck yes, I’m getting HBO when I’m on my own…I’ll never leave the house.”

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I discovered there was something called MTV, short for Music Television. My buddy Matthew and I went up to Kansas State to visit some older friends of ours who were already up at University. As I was wandering around the labyrinth of the dorm filled with hallways and separate rooms (it was like walking in a human-sized ant farm), I came upon a room with like 5 guys crammed around a TV. They invited me in and lo and behold, they were watching MTV. Back then MTV was like radio with videos, one after another… Mostly the videos were crude concert footage with low grade effects, but I thought it was really cool.

Eventually, much to everyone’s surprise I graduated from high school and was accepted to a state university. Where I lived, they had the opposite philosophy as my father and bought the most expensive cable package available. We had every channel on the planet, save for pornography, on the TV in the common room. Invariably, late at night on weekends, I’d end up in the basement in front of the TV with a few of the other drunken, lonely heart’s club types and we’d watch MTV videos until the sun came up. The crowd down there got thicker during finals week… we all needed something mindless after exams so after drinking we’d end up watching countless videos. Of course, there were great videos and then crappy, pop music type videos. I can always remember thinking, “Ok, if the next video sucks, I’m going to bed…” Invariably one more decent video would come on and I’d be stuck for another thirty minutes. It was so relaxing it could be described as mind erasing.

When I moved into exile in Arkansas, there was literally no rock and roll radio. MTV, who had begun to schedule some regular broadcast shows into their programming was still predominantly playing videos. Nowadays you’re more likely to see a music video n the weather channel… MTV got me through the tough years down there. MTV is where I discovered Guns N Roses, the Black Crowes and many other bands. They certainly weren’t playing that music on the radio in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. It was around that time, I believe in 1989, that MTV began what may be their greatest legacy, the ‘Unplugged’ series. I’d always heard they were inspired by a video awards show where Jon Bon Jovi, looking coke-addled (he always looked that way to me) and Richie Sambora got on stage with only two acoustic guitars and played “Wanted, Dead Or Alive.” That was cool, lets do a show like that… The concept was simple, put a band on stage, give them acoustic guitars and let them play stripped-down versions of their tunes.

They started the series with some minor to semi-big bands. I think Squeeze was on once. But it wasn’t until 1991 when Paul McCartney performed on ‘Unplugged’ that the show took on some “next-level” kind of rock and roll credibility. McCartney took the next step and actually released his performance as an album (well, as a CD), the first artist to do so. It was a limited edition of only 500,000 copies and I had one in my hand in a record store in Warrensburg, Mo but didn’t have the cash and passed up buying it, which I obviously regret to this day. After that it was Katie-bar-the-door. Everybody was on ‘MTV Unplugged’ after that. Strangely though, not all the artists released the results on an album/CD.

There were all manner of performances on ‘MTV Unplugged’ from the sublime to the questionable. It got to the point where ‘MTV Unplugged’ became “appointment television” for me and my friends. If there was a band we really loved, we’d make sure we were together, beer iced down, in front of the television ready to watch. I remember I was flying back from St. Thomas the night Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did their Unledded episode of the show but I got stuck in a hotel in Atlanta and missed the show. I was in the only hotel on the planet without MTV. I was pissed.

Thinking about those ‘Unplugged’ shows I decided to compile a list of the B&V favorite ‘Unplugged’ albums. This is not a list of the best performances from the show – many acts chose not to release an album after being on ‘Unplugged.’ But, for the ones who did, and there were many, these are the 10 albums I find myself going back to after all this time. Again, we’re only talking about actual LPs here, not performances on MTV. Yeah, they’re a little mellow, but who cares, a good acoustic evening is just what the doctor orders sometimes.

Honorable Mention

  1. Pearl Jam – Eddie Vedder was simply unhinged on this performance. He writes “Pro-Life” on his arm in magic marker while teetering on a very unstable bar stool. They put a blu-ray disc of the performance in the rerelease of Ten, but have yet to release it as an album. I wish they would.
  2. Aerosmith – I have a bootleg of this performance and it’s awesome. They were still bluesy and sounding like the old 70s Aerosmith at this point. Huge mistake not to release this one.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Stripped – The Stones never deigned to be on MTV’s ‘Unplugged,’ but they went ahead and recorded their own, predominantly acoustic album and it’s one of their better live documents.

The BourbonAndVinyl Top 10 ‘Unplugged’ Albums

  1. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York – This is simply the best MTV Unplugged ever. This was a sublime performance. Stripped of the sturm und drang, Cobain’s brilliance as a songwriter and dare I say, writer of melodies rises to the fore. This is not only a great acoustic concert it’s just a great concert. Bittersweet as it was released after Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.
  2. Alice In Chains, MTV Unplugged – I love AIC when they’re heavy, like on “Man In A Box” but I always loved the acoustic based Jar of Flies. This performance was a perfect extension of that. While I’m the first to admit nobody probably needed an acoustic version of “Frogs” there are some great versions of “Killer Is Me,” and “Over Now” just to name a few. It would be Layne Staley’s last concert.
  3. Paul McCartney, Unplugged – I love McCartney in this stripped down show. Like his recently released Amoeba Gig (Live) album (LP Review: Paul McCartney, ‘Amoeba Gig (Live)’ – His Best Live Album?), playing in front of a small audience brings out the best of him. Beatles tunes, solo hits, and rare covers make this a special performance.
  4. R.E.M., Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions – This album only got released in 2014 and I’m hoping it serves as an example to all those bands who held back on releasing their performances. R.E.M. was a very strumming/acoustic based band to start with… They’re perfect for the ‘Unplugged’ setting. I probably lean more toward the 1991 session, which was when they were touring for Out of Time. However, the 2001 set, when they were touring behind Reveal has some beautiful and melancholy moments that are irresistible. Obviously, I’d play one disc at a time.
  5. Rod Stewart, Unplugged…And Seated – Rod has always had that perfect melding of acoustic and electric, folky and rocker. The thing I love about this album is he brings back Ronnie Wood, his erstwhile band mate in the Faces and they return to Rod’s best period, when he was on the Mercury label, and tear it up! I believe there was a lot of drink involved.
  6. Eric Clapton, Unplugged – McCartney may have given ‘Unplugged’ it’s credibility, but Clapton showed that these albums could be a commercial juggernaut. This thing sold a ka-jillion copies. At the time we all loved the acoustic version of “Layla,” done here as a shuffle… It kind of got worn out. I like the older blues covers he throws in here. Chuck Leavell who plays with the Stones now is on piano and he has a fabulous solo in the song, “Old Love.”
  7. Page/Plant, No Quarter (aka Unledded) – These guys turned the whole concept of ‘Unplugged’ on its head. Some tracks are live, electric versions of their old Zeppelin tunes. Some are straight up acoustic and some are just great experiments, fucking with their sound, i.e. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The spirt of experimentation ran through three new tracks released on this album, the first Page/Plant collaborations since Zeppelin broke up. It would have been nice to see John Paul Jones here too, but that’d have upped the pressure.
  8. Eagles, Hell Freezes Over – I may be fudging a little here… this started off as an ‘Unplugged,’ but there is really only one acoustic take on a classic, on a sublime version of “Hotel California.” This was the first time in 14 years the Eagles got together, if they want to plug the electric guitars in and go for it, why not… It’s certainly what Springsteen did on his ‘Unplugged’ with much less spectacular results.
  9. Bob Dylan, MTV Unplugged – People will scoff at this entry. Dylan was coming off two great, unappreciated folk/acoustic records when he did this ‘Unplugged.’ He’s engaged and playing faithful versions of classics here. It was, for me, the beginning of his recording come back. It seemed like he cared for the first time in a long time. There are great versions of “Shooting Star” and “Dignity” on this record too.
  10. 10,000 Maniacs, MTV Unplugged – I’m like most guys from this era. I don’t have any 10,000 Maniacs, I never liked the 10,000 Maniacs, I never bought their albums. However, almost every woman I dated, and there were a few, had this or some of their other albums. After  hearing a few times… because I was a bit of a man about town in those days, I realized Natalie Merchant’s vocal performance makes this the only 10,000 Manaics album you need. I love the cover of “Because the Night” written by Springsteen but made famous by Patti Smith.

Cheers!

 

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LP Review: Paul McCartney, ‘Amoeba Gig (Live)’ – His Best Live Album?

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Some of us out here just love live albums. The first live album I ever got was Frampton Comes Alive. Admittedly, my Sainted Grandmother bought it for me… My friend Drummer Blake on several occasions has cited Humble Pie’s Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore as a favorite. Dr. Rock once told me that the J. Geils Band’s Blow Your Face Out was essential listening (he was, as usual, correct). Now, I realize that not everybody feels that way. Here at B&V, the Rock Chick does not like live albums and usually says something like, “Something sounds wrong with this song,” when I play a live track. Matrimony, sigh. Tom Petty once famously drawled, “Live albums are just your greatest hits played faster,” which was a pretty snarky thing to say from a performer whose live music is just phenomenal.

Naysayers aside, there are a lot of us who used to huddle around the radio if the local station was broadcasting a concert. There were some of us who stayed up late on Sunday night (at least here in KC), to listen to the King Biscuit Flower Hour to hear our favorite bands live. I remember hearing April Wine one night. I think every band was on that show at some point. I didn’t have money for concert tickets, hell, let’s listen to a live broadcast. Although I will admit, hearing those concerts on the radio usually had me so jacked up I was a wreck on Monday morning from lack of sleep. The sacrifices we make for rock and roll.

Every great band can bring it live. Every great band usually has a great live album. The Who have Live At Leeds, The Stones have Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, and the Allman Brothers Band has Live At the Fillmore East. When playing live, bands can stretch out, jam a little bit. It’s always fun to hear a great energetic crowd and how the band feeds off of that – I can’t help but cite B.B. King’s Live At the Regal here as an example. Sometimes it’s just hard for a band to capture the energy of their live performances in a studio. A song that may have been a dud in its studio incarnation becomes an international hit, like say, “Turn The Page” from Bob Seger’s Live Bullet. This post is for all of you who are like me who love a good live album.

I consider Paul McCartney to be one of the greatest artists in rock and roll, ever. Some might say that he’s never really put out a great live album. I would argue that point. McCartney (& Wings, no less) released a 3-LP live album in 1976 from their tour in support of Wings At the Speed of Sound, entitled Wings Over America that I would argue is a great live album. It’s often dismissed as his stab at “arena rock” or a “concert souvenir”… and I say, what’s wrong with that? Arena rock, yes please. I think there was still critical backlash for McCartney with the rock press because he was the one who announced the Beatles had broken up. Move on, people. Anyway, Wings Over America is a sprawling trip through his solo hits, Beatles tracks, and a few odd covers. He even lets other band members sing a few tracks. He even does an acoustic set that takes up one whole side of the album. Very cool, indeed.

Since then, though, the story isn’t as great. Other than his fabulous Unplugged album – which I had in my hands back in 1991 in a record store in Warrensburg and didn’t buy (it was a limited release and I blew it) – his live albums have been spotty. The Stones are in the habit of releasing a live album after every tour. There are some of those live albums I’ve enjoyed but they feel like contract obligations after a while. McCartney of late has followed the same album, tour, live album cycle. Live LPs like Tripping The Live Fantastic or Paul Is Live weren’t great examples of what Paul could do live. Good Evening New York was a little better but none of these improved on Wings Over America. 

A short while ago, Paul finally released the full length recording of a show he did in a record store, Amoeba Records in Los Angeles, CA. He’d released Amoeba Secret a 4-song EP excerpt from the show back in 2007 when they recorded the show, I believe as a Record Store Day special. I don’t know why they sat on the entire recording for over a decade, but Rock Stars, what are you going to do? I can’t believe this performance wasn’t more widely bootlegged… The new release is entitled Amoeba Gig (Live) and despite my low expectations it’s a very pleasant surprise.

McCartney was on tour for his then current LP, Memory Almost Full, which is probably my favorite of his late period albums. I’ll be the first to admit that McCartney hit a creative lull in the 80s and early 90s. I have to wonder if the death of John Lennon in 1980 didn’t affect Paul more deeply than anybody realized. It wasn’t until 1997’s Flaming Pie that Paul found his groove again. Every record he’s put out since then has been compelling. Chaos and Creation In the Backyard was a bit downbeat and took a few listens to get into, but even it is a brilliant record. Memory Almost Full is chock full of great songs. As part of the promotion, McCartney and his backing band set up in this big record store and played for a small crowd. Even Ringo showed up for it. Although this must be a pretty big record store, it sounds like a bigger crowd than I’d have expected.

Playing in such an intimate setting, which McCartney describes as “the most surreal gig,” seems to really ignite McCartney and his backing band. I like to call his backing band, the Haircuts, mostly because of Rusty Anderson (lead guitar) and Brian Ray (guitar/bass). Those guys use more product in their hair than Motley Crue. They look like hot soccer moms from my old neighborhood. Although that moniker, the Haircuts is probably unfair as drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr is bald. David Arch on keyboards rounds out the outfit. McCartney plays bass, guitar, keyboards, and I think, ukulele.

McCartney and the backing band tear through a bunch of Beatles tracks and solo hits. They open up with one of my all time favorite Beatles’ tracks, a rollicking “Drive My Car.” What I like about this performance so much is they play a broad selection of songs from Memory Almost Full, including “Dance Tonight,” “Nod  Your Head,” “Only Mama Knows,” and “That Was Me.” The then-new material really stands up well. He also digs a little deeper into his solo catalog for this show. He plays “Calico Skies” a deep track from Flaming Pie. McCartney chokes up during “Here Today” from Tug of War, a song he wrote for John, and dedicates it to him, George and Linda. Its rare you see that kind of emotion from a rock star on stage. It’s a beautiful moment. He does the reggae-tinged “C-Moon” which I just loved.

What translates most here was that on this day in L.A., McCartney was having a great time performing. When the Stones play a big arena or stadium, Keith always wants to dig deeper into the catalog and Mick wants to play the well-known tracks as he feels people expect it. Personally, I prefer the deep tracks… McCartney, I think, gets stuck in that Mick-style thinking too. It’s great to hear him kind of play what he wants to.

That said there are great Beatles tracks here. He plays “The Long and Winding Road.” That songs lead to “I’ll Follow The Sun” which was always kind of a sad song, but so exuberant is McCartney it almost sounds happy here. The song I was most thrilled too see on the track list was “I’ve Got A Feeling,” although I’ll be the first to admit you really miss Lennon’s vocal part, taken by the Haircuts here. He does a rocking version of the Carl Perkins’ tune “Matchbox” that almost sounds punky, except for the horns. The show ends on a great version of “I Saw Her Standing There.”

Call me crazy, but the intimate setting, the great album he was touring on, and the excitement in that room all combine to make this a great live album. Its certainly easy to say this is his best live album since Wings Over America. Well, except maybe that Unplugged album, which was also a smaller show in an intimate setting. In these small shows, it’s clear he feels less pressure to please and more freedom to do “his thing,” which paradoxically pleases the crowd more. If you dig McCartney and you like live stuff, this is definitely worth your while to check out.

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!

Paul McCartney: Two New Songs From The Upcoming ‘Egypt Station’

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It’s been a tough year… for rock and roll and for pretty much everything else. Personally, I’ve been in a bit of funk of late. Work hassles and other mounting issues occasionally feel like they’re going to overwhelm me. The loss of Anthony Bourdain continues to puzzle and bum me out. Being a Kansas City native, even the loss of Kate Spade has touched me. Her father died the morning of her funeral, two hours prior, apparently from despair. It’s a dark time in all of our lives.  It’s in the dark times, for me at least, that I’ve always turned to music for solace and lets be honest, escape.

However, music this year has been, well, not great. Nineties stalwart’s the Dave Matthews Band and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong have put out strong albums this year but that’s about it. Jack White’s album was wildly disappointing, although I still think he’s a genius. Too bad Meg White went into witness protection (come back Meg, we miss you). It was nice to hear David Byrne come out with an album that was accessible in a very Talking Heads’ way. Those few examples of great albums in 2018 aside, I was beginning to despair that no great music was going to come out this year. Most the stuff I’ve liked this year have been vault releases or re-releases.

It was a couple of weeks ago I started to see legend, former Beatle and kick ass bass-player Paul McCartney began to tease new music on what the kids call, “the social media.” On both Twitter and Instagram, McCartney started posting black and white pictures of himself in the studio. Or he’d post a picture of his guitar, or the keyboard of a piano, and in one post the knobs on his amp.

It’s been since 2013 that McCartney put out a proper album, the great New. I can’t believe it’s been five years. Prior to that you have to go all the way back to 2007’s exceptional Memory Almost Full for a McCartney album. Two proper records in over a decade, I’d say Paul was overdue. For many of us, it’s a big fucking deal when a Beatle puts out an album. For McCartney, it’s a doubly big deal since after a rocky period during the 80s and the early 90s, a period where many of us stopped listening to him, he found his footing again with the comeback album, Flaming Pie. After collaborating with the remaining Beatles on the Anthology series, McCartney said he’d rediscovered his approach to making music. I don’t know what happened, but every album he’s put out since then has been sensational. Unfortunately terrestrial radio doesn’t play artists like McCartney any more… but that’s another post.

This Friday, McCartney put out two new songs from the impending album Egypt Station (release date: September 7th). Based on these first two new tracks, “Come On To Me” and “I Don’t Know,” I needn’t worry that some superb music will be released this year. I think Egypt Station might be another in a string of great, late period McCartney albums. McCartney’s hot streak, From Flaming Pie to Chaos And Creation In The Backyard to New are the type of albums that inspired BourbonAndVinyl in the first place…

The first track I heard was “Come On To Me.” It’s a bouncy rocker. Even the Rock Chick, who doesn’t dig the Beatles, (like me she’s more of a Stones’ person) said, “That’s really good…” Obviously I haven’t seen the liner notes, but I suspect that McCartney played all the instruments on this album. Many guitarists have an instantly recognizable sound or tone on their instrument. McCartney has a very distinguishable drum sound, so that’s got to be him behind the kit…and I love the drumming that drives this song. “Come On To Me,” in my mind, shows how McCartney has re-discovered his inner “Beatles-ness.” There are guitar parts that almost sound like a sitar and every now and then a big horn section comes in. This song is big and bold and I love it. Paul throws everything into this song. Towards the end, McCartney growls, “Yes, I will, yes I will, now…” and you can tell he’s having a blast.

The other track, “I Don’t Know” is a classic McCartney ballad. The man should be known as the Magician of Melody. The song starts off with a beautiful, meditative solo piano. I love that McCartney has long abandoned synthesizers and gone back to real instruments like piano and acoustic guitar. This song really affected me. The lines, “What am I doing wrong? I don’t know,” just seem to fit for me right now. I’m always a sucker for a great ballad… I had an ex who once said, “You only like the sad songs…” and at first “I Don’t Know” almost grabbed me harder than “Come On To Me.” It’s a truly beautiful song. I would tell Paul, you’re not doing anything wrong. Both of these songs are among the best stuff I’ve heard this year.

Let’s hope the rest of the album is this strong. I could really use a great Paul McCartney album about now. I bet you could too.

Cheers!

 

Review: Paul McCartney’s LP ‘Flowers In The Dirt: Special Edition’

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Paul McCartney has been on such a great roll since 1997’s superb LP ‘Flaming Pie,’ all the way through 2013’s ‘New’ really, it’s sometimes easy to forget what a bad decade the 1980’s were for the former Beatle. I am a big Paul fan, but having purchased the abysmal 1986 LP, ‘Press To Play’ even I lost faith. I still shudder when I think about his ill conceived movie project ‘Give My Regards To Broadstreet.’

The decade had started for McCartney with such promise. His 1982 LP, ‘Tug of War’ which was partially a response to the senseless murder of John Lennon was such an amazing record. The title track remains one of my favorite McCartney tracks. “Here Today” was one of the most touching of the many, many tribute songs for John Lennon by any artist. I will admit the two Stevie Wonder collaborations on the album were utter cheeseball, especially the song “Ebony And Ivory,” which still makes me jump to the fast forward button when it comes on the stereo.

His follow up to ‘Tug of War,’ 1983’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ has aged better than we received it back in 1983. It was almost a carbon copy of the formula that had produced ‘Tug of War’ and I think it sold reasonably well. I wasn’t a big fan of that record, nor was anybody I knew. That LP seemed to signal the beginning of a downturn for Paul. After that, man, McCartney hit the skids. He released some awful records. Looking at it from a macro view, 1983 to really, 1997 was an awful patch for McCartney. I will admit there were some exceptions, I loved his ‘Unplugged’ album.

It’s hard to understand what went wrong with McCartney. One has to wonder if he was more deeply affected by the lost of his old comrade and later frenemy, John Lennon. In the second half of the 70s Lennon had withdrawn to self imposed exile to become a house husband/father. In that void, McCartney recorded some of his best, and best selling records. It’s always been my theory, as an armchair bourbon psychologist, if subconsciously McCartney was recording for the broader audience on one level in the late 70s, but down deep was really trying to impress Lennon. Maybe Lennon was a psychological governor in his head, preventing bad ideas and choking off some of Paul’s “cheesier” instincts. With Lennon gone, maybe McCartney became a tad unmoored from a creative standpoint.

One of the exceptions from this fallow period for McCartney was 1989’s decade ending, ‘Flowers In the Dirt.’ It was a good McCartney album, although I’d say not a great McCartney album. It was certainly seen as somewhat of a comeback at the time, although not the big comeback that was hoped for. “My Brave Face” was the first single, which was ok. If you delve into the album a little deeper there are some great deep tracks on this album. “Figure of Eight,” “Rough Ride,” “Put It There” and “This One” are all really strong tracks.

What the LP was also noted for, besides being a bit of a “return to form” for McCartney, was it marked a collaboration with Elvis Costello. The two wrote a number of songs together that ended up on both McCartney’s records and others on Costello’s albums. I have to admit, it was an inspired pairing. Elvis was another guy from Liverpool, who was kind of prickly, who seemed to click musically with McCartney and even wore glasses… remind you of anybody? I don’t know if Costello pushed McCartney or vice versa but it was a great musical collaboration. The song “Veronica” the two wrote together was even a hit for Costello. And, naturally, some of the better tracks the two wrote together ended up on ‘Flowers In The Dirt.’ One highlight was the great duet, “You Want Her Too.” “That Day Is Done” and “Don’t Be Careless Love” were also great collaborations by the duo.

Fast forward to now, and McCartney has given “Flowers In The Dirt” the deluxe/special edition treatment. I was sort of “meh” about the whole thing until I recently put the bonus tracks on. Typically bonus tracks can be a mixed bag. Sometimes their great songs that just didn’t fit on an album. At their worst they’re “remixes” which I loath. A lot of times bonus tracks are just the tossed off, rough demo’s and aren’t worth listening to.

Not so here! On “Flowers In The Dirt” there are nine demos of just McCartney and Costello working through songs with a piano, acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies. I have to tell you, I like these demos better than the actual album that was released. Costello wasn’t likely trying to imitate John Lennon but his vocals paired with McCartney have that same vibe if not the same magical harmonies. These demos, half of which were released in more produced/polished, finished versions on the album, half of which were not, are a revelation. It’s great to hear McCartney singing so passionately. It’s like hearing a couple of guys get up in a bar and bash out a quick acoustic set. I had the same feeling I had when I listened to the Beatles ‘Anthology’ discs when I listened to these demos.

I have to wonder what happens to a McCartney song between it’s rough hewn inception, like we hear on these demos, and the actual produced, released product. The guy is one of the greatest rock and rollers of all time, he might take a cue from these demos and stop polishing off these great rough edges.

Is ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ worth purchasing, or repurchasing just for these bonus tracks? Well, if you don’t have ‘Flowers’ in your collection I’d say definitely. If you already own the record, I’ll leave it up to you as to whether it’s worth a re-buy, but these demos are awfully sweet. Paul and Elvis might want to consider collaborating again… it’s that good.

Cheers!