Strawberry Fields Forever - Nothing is real

Monday, June 04, 2007

I am an American aquarium drinker...

Memory Almost Full may be the album I was most looking forward to this year, it wasn't the only one. Thanks to my friend Matteen - Wilco has been on my radar (or is it sonar) for the last several years. He first introduced me to (likely) their most well known album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - which was likely a mistake. Don't get me wrong, it's a good album - and certainly a lot more interesting and adventurous than most albums of their contemporaries or even a lot of the bands I truly love - but it's not really the album I would try to introduce Wilco with. For that purpose, I would likely go with Being There or (my favorite album of theirs) Summerteeth. Yankee though has more than its share of incredible moments - especially the aching beauty of "Radio Cure".
While I may have a few small "Reservations" (yeah, the pun is intended) about the LP, the film made of the making of the album is really quite remarkable. Of course, I'm referring to "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", and I highly recommend it for anyone who either already likes Wilco, or thinks they might want to give them a try. If you're in the former camp and (somehow) haven't seen the film yet - do so. You will like it. It's very much like watching "Let It Be" for me, but with a happier ending, and with a band that I don't quite care as much about. However, much like "Let It Be", on a musical front one is treated to alternate arrangements that usually are inferior to the final incarnations, but are always fascinating and frankly rather good on their own. For the uninitiated to Wilco, you get (rather great) live versions of their earlier works intercut throughout the film showing the band capable of "rocking out" a lot more than their records normally suggest.
However, while "Let it Be" showed a band struggling to be a band, and falling apart at the collective weight of their expectations, ambivilance and individual egos - this film is more about a struggle for a band to stay true to itself despite the overwhelming pressures of an increasingly corporatized record business, health issues for their band-leader Tweedy, and a few ego clashes. (which were shown amazingly even-handedly even though the aftermath of the album was the firing of one of the two involved in the clashes) However, much like "Let It Be", there is some really wonderful music involved in it all. There's no rooftop concert, but at the end of the this film, you know the band has won in its struggle, has released their "biggest" album up to that point, and will do quite well.

Grade for "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" - B+

(Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would probably be a B)

Now, since I referenced this at the start, I should also talk about Wilco's new album, "Sky Blue Sky" which came out recently. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this - except that I know I like the album. From the standpoint of analysis, I am not sure if they are retreating to the safer sounds of their earlier albums like U2 did with "All That You Can't Leave Behind", or if they are boldly turning a new step forward like the Rolling Stones with "Beggar's Banquet", Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" or even the Beatles' self-titled double album. Maybe in the end, all of these "retreats" towards earlier sounds are the same, and its one's own opinion of the result which colors whether we see the moves as bold or weak. In this case though, I see the move as neither.
Unless the band wanted to try to push the boundaries of popular music like Radiohead did with "Kid-A", or try for an entirely different genre, it wasn't clear where Wilco could go from "A Ghost Is Born". Instead, in terms of sound and lyrics, it seems like the bizarre offspring of "Being There" and "A Ghost Is Born" - the lyrics are almost as obtuse and ambiguous as "A Ghost Is Born", but the sound is far more organic. Also, the guitar work on several songs really is wonderful. "On And On And On" is a truly beautiful song about a son comforting his widowed father, and most of the rest of the album is good as well - but nothing else matches that emotional impact. Only "Shake It Off" really begs to be skipped.
Much like "Memory Almost Full", I have listened to this album more than enough times to feel confident in my view that the album is very good, and had "Memory Almost Full" not been in this year's releases, may have been a contender this year.

Grade: B+

Sunday, June 03, 2007

And in the end of the end...?

I honestly didn't expect 2 years after hearing Chaos and Creation in the Backyard to hear another new LP from Sir Paul. What can I say? Sometimes I really like being surprised.

Given that just about everyone has heard (and reviewed) this album even though it isn't out until this Tuesday, I will simply add my voice to the collective chorus - Paul McCartney may have lost his gift... of making frustratingly uneven albums filled with incredible melodies but truly wretched lyrics. This album marks one decade of him releasing truly great albums that I love without reservation.
I know Dylan has the recognition today for being the reformed 60s master who once again is releasing material as good as anything in his career - but really, Paul deserves the same recognition. True, as much as I love Flaming Pie (1997), Run Devil Run (1999), Driving Rain (2001), Chaos And Creation in the Backyard (2005), and now Memory Almost Full (2007) - I'll be the first to say his work with the Beatles was still superior. However, compare those 5 albums to ANY other period in his solo career, and there's no contest.
Ironically, this decade of album making has probably been his worst in terms of album sales (though I can't say that with certainty) - but he no longer seems to care all that much. His efforts from the late 70s (ie: Back To The Egg) or early to mid-80s clearly try to latch onto the latest musical fads in order to keep himself in the so-called mainstream of musical culture. After that, from Flowers In The Dirt through Off The Ground he seems to be going through the motions of trying to sound like a former Beatle. Note: I happen to love a LOT of the music created in this era, but it really sounds to me like him trying to conform to what he thinks others want him to be.
True, Flaming Pie is also quite consciously an album that celebrates his Beatles roots - yet, the album has a real feeling of joy and silliness that was largely missing on his earlier works. I really get the feeling that he is recording the album for himself, and anyone else who happens to like what he likes. At the very least, I really hope he didn't record "Really Love You" with the hope that a song with the lyric "I need you heart baby, hopping on a plate" was going to burn up the billboard charts.
Of course, Flaming Pie also had another factor which significantly distinguished it from his earlier works - a real sense of pain. Listen to "Somedays" and try not to hear his fear for losing Linda to cancer. Sometimes great art comes from chaos and pain - "Hey Jude" was written to comfort a 5-year old Julian Lennon whose parents were divorcing, and up until "Flaming Pie", Paul seemed to be living an awfully good life.
Run Devil Run was recorded in the aftermath of Linda's death - and if anyone listens to his incredible cover of "No Other Baby" you can hear how much he misses her. As much as I love his earlier solo efforts, rarely did he ever pull off that kind of emotion convincingly.
In 2001, he released Driving Rain, which wasn't as good as Flaming Pie (which I consider the high-water mark of his post-Beatles work), but the raw emotion is still there. "Lonely Road" and "Heather" especially show his still raw pain at the loss of Linda, and the excitement of his (then) new love.
Chaos and Creation In the Backyard continued these trends and he released probably the moodiest album of his catalog. The man who recorded "Silly Love Songs" could now pull off a song like "Riding To Vanity Fair"! The album grows on one a lot, but I couldn't help but feel a little bit like the album was heavily influenced by its producer who told Paul how he (Paul) should sound like. Paul's rockier, and sillier tendencies were very much in check, for better or worse.
What precedes just brings me to up to the new album, Memory Almost Full. Technically about half of the album pre-dates Chaos and Creation, but much like Beck's The Information (which mostly predated Geuro, yet was released afterwards), I can't figure out why on Earth Paul shelved the project in favor of Chaos and Creation. I love Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, but as I said above, it doesn't really feel like a full-fledged Paul McCartney album - for better or worse, Memory Almost Full does.

Silliness? Check
Attempt to recapture his Abbey Road medley mojo? Check
An attempt at at least one loud rocker? Check
At least one song extolling him not caring what anyone else says about himself? Check

This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but really, it's glorious. With only 2 exceptions, this album is magnificent. (the two being "You Tell Me" and "Gratitude" - both tracks can be skipped) His silliness is mostly related to the opening track (which should have NEVER been a single) which is basically a mood-setter for the album with simple lyrics and whistling. As an opening cut - it's wonderful.
"Ever Present Past" is much more logical as a single - with some downright interesting lyrics. (when did Paul get good at lyrics!?!?)
"See Your Sunshine" has a beautiful melody, some trademark Paul bass work, and ultimately a really sweet song for his young daughter.
Of course, the album really doesn't come alive until track 4, where "Only Mama Knows" kicks in. By that I mean it really kicks in. After a false orchestral opening the track comes roaring in with some of the most determined guitar tracks that Paul has EVER put on record. There's an anger to his vocal, and a great deal of ambiguity to what the lyrics mean (is he really angry at Linda for leaving him alive after she died??) - but man if this isn't an incredible song. The idea that Paul should avoid trying to write hard rock songs in his 60s is insane. As long as he can pull songs like this off, he should do whatever on Earth he pleases.
Of course, "You Tell Me" kicks in and is the first clunker on the album. Thankfully there are few clunkers.
Next up is the truly silly "Mr. Belamy" - and what glorious silliness it is. This is another one of the ideas that clearly wouldn't have made it past the producer on Chaos and Creation, but the idea of writing a song about a cat stuck up a tree - from the perspective of the cat somehow really works. It's quirky, with odd instrumental flourishes, but somehow Paul can manage it without it ending up being a joke on him. In a way, this song feels like a sequel to his song "Back on my Feet" - the song about an old curmudgeon who knows he will die alone and doesn't really care because he lives life on his own terms. In this case the cat is steadfast in his desire to be alone and work on his plans and doesn't need anyone else. (As some in comments have pointed out - Paul has denied that this song is in fact about a cat - despite that it's hard to heard the song any other way for me)
"Gratitude" is another song best skipped - it's not really bad, but not as good as what precedes it or what follows.
Next up is the song-cycle. It's not really a medley, since the songs basically just have no breaks between them. Saying this is a medley is like saying that The Beatles (aka "The White Album") is a medley. Of course, most of the songs are on a common theme - a rough story of Paul's life. He starts off with a spirited defense of his age - and again I can see the idea of comparing himself to old clothing being rejected on Chaos - and it's too bad. The song has a great drive to it, and a real wit to the lyrics that was largely missing from Chaos.
Then there's "That Was Me" - which starts off as a nice recap of his life with oblique references to his youth and times with the Beatles - but gets interesting in the later half when he starts screaming the lyrics ala "Oh! Darling". He's nearly 65, and his voice can still manage that!
Next up is "Feet in the Clouds" another nice song about fighting the conventions and expectations - another defense of himself. It wouldn't work all that well, except for how he somehow twists the song with an odd twist on a Brian Wilson-esque harmony with himself singing through a vocoder playing against himself. It sounds really wonderful and saves the song entirely.
Then there's "House of Wax", which truth be told, I like less than most who review the album. The song is good, the lyrics interesting, and the guitar work is inspired, but it doesn't really feel like it fits in the so-called medley. It's good - but in my view not the highlight of the album.
Then there's "The End of the End". Here's another song with Paul explicitly talking about his mortality - and him audaciously trying comparing himself to his own song "The End" with one of his most famous lyrics - "and in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take". Scarily, this new song holds up even with such expectations. This song is truly beautiful.
To cap out the album there's "Nod Your Head" - a very silly false ending to the album. I must agree that there should be a bit of a silence gap between "End of the End" and this, but I rather like this silly bit of noise. The lyrics are extremely silly, and appropriate for once.

Anyway, overall, this album doesn't quite unseat "Flaming Pie" from my position as favorite solo album by Paul, but it's a good competition. I can't imagine any other album coming out this year being this good - and yes, I will be picking up the deluxe edition on Tuesday. I want Paul to keep on making albums that remind us that the genius that was one-half of the greatest song-writing pair in history is still alive and well.

Grade: A

(note: I've listened to the album a few dozen times at this point, so I feel pretty secure in my evaluation at this point)