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The Major Lift

 

It won’t be a surprise to anyone that Paul McCartney hasn’t released an embittered divorce album in the wake of his marital meltdown with Heather Mills. This is not his Blood on the Tracks; rather, McCartney comports himself with the dignity of the knight that he is on Memory Almost Full. In the final stages of an historic career, he has bigger fish to fry and a much more expansive vision, looking back on a monolithic life from the perch of 64, an age he once mythologized in song. (We’ll forget for a moment the indignity of a digi-cartoonized Sir Paul skipping and whistling through that current iPod commercial.)

And this has to be the most reflective and wistful album of his career; in fact, much of it seems to reach back to the lost pre-Beatles bucolia of childhood. Sometimes, this seems like one “Long and Winding Road,” especially on the gentile and aching “You Tell Me” and the artful rustic hoedown “That Was Me” (which provides the rare Beatles memory that all will be listening for: “That was me/Royal Iris/On the river/Merseybeatin’/With the band/That was me”). Truth be told though, romantic and idealized memory is McCartney’s stock-in-trade: Only in his ’20s, he offered up the sepia-toned reverie “Penny Lane.”

The closer “Nod Your Head,” with its guitar grit and squeal, seems to aim too squarely at the McCartney of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” piling on some George Martinesque brass flourishes (as if we need more context). And that’s what the album seems like: a reminder of all the McCartney gestures, even an outright art-poppy Wings number (“Ever Present Past”). Then there’s the ruminative piano-and-vocal track “The End of the End,” which will garner the most ink because it’s Paul’s “death song,” though he goes after the weighty theme with a thready melody and a simplistic lyric: “It’s the start of a journey to a much better place.”

In 2007, it’s difficult to discuss a McCartney album with the full weight of his canon bearing down on the discussion, and it must be even more impossible to keep making albums under that tonnage as well. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that this is McCartney’s “stock-taking album”—with what he’s lived through, one could arguably expect something Melvillian or Shakespearean in scope.

But this is, after all, pop music (pop music released by Starbucks, no less). Maybe we should note that McCartney is not content with releasing outright bad albums like some of his peers (Rolling Stones). And let’s remember that, the rare “Helter Skelter” aside, he has never pretended to be thorny and complex like John Lennon or Bob Dylan.

A Beatles vision guided solely by McCartney would have left us with a whole lot of meter maids, hammers bouncing off of heads and blue suburban skies full of “Good Day Sunshine” (and not a shred of goo goo g’joob, revolution and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). But I always stop to think of the abandoned son, Julian Lennon, whose comfort came not from his dad but from the lifelong embrace and compassion of “Hey Jude,” a song whose inspiration wasn’t art, rebellion or revolution, but the thought of a boy’s heart breaking. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dry your eyes, though, because in a world where such beauty is possible, the jingoistic and beefy Toby Keith continues to release albums. And so the artist who once brought you the genocide-inspired Shock’n Y’all is back with Big Dog Daddy. (Choose one from the scrolling list of punch lines.) His first self-produced album isn’t as earth-shakingly bad as many will claim it is. And the dark secret is that Keith occasionally writes a pretty good track (though usually in collaboration). Here, that track is “High Maintenance Woman.” (I know, I know. Melodically it’s good though.) A small surprise as well: He covers Fred Eaglesmith’s “White Rose,” a gesture that ought to toss a few sheckles in the direction of the cranky Canadian (who has played the Ale House in Troy). Otherwise, unless you’re the type who historically buys Toby Keith albums . . . Get my drift?

The last time we heard from Linkin Park was four years ago, with the lean, feral rap-rock attack of Meteora. The wages of “maturity” have produced Minutes to Midnight, an album that sometimes apes ye olde Radiohead in its brooding electronics, with Mike Shinoda doing most of the rapping to reporters in interviews because he’s certainly not doing much lyric-slugging here. But occasionally the pings and washes of “Leave Out All the Rest” give way to the primal hard-rock scream of “Given Up.” And Shinoda’s intro rhyming spurs the majestic build of the best track here, “Bleed It Out.” This a pretty good album (helmed by studio Yoda Rick Rubin), but one gets the sense of Linkin Park searching out a new audience as their old one slips into the workforce.

Nearly two decades ago at NYU, I saw an explosive, pre-grunge-era Soundgarden concert that absolutely gutted me. (By contrast, I saw a Nirvana show two years later that left me remarkably unchanged.) So it’s with pleasure that I notice that the new Chris Cornell album, Carry On, doesn’t completely abandon the lighter touches of his first solo album (1999’s Euphoria Morning), but welds them to leviathan guitar riffs, returning him to something not far from Soundgarden. (In Audioslave, he always seemed slightly off balance against Tom Morrello’s unfeeling, staccato guitar-playing.) Most of this is Soundgarden pulled back a bit: not as dramatic, dire and sludgy, but with a whole lot of hard-rock cajones and Cornell swooping beautifully from high, unholy wail to low, sensitive purr.

The most peculiar album this month comes from Poison, a band that I now, in historical perspective, find innocuous and likeable—particularly in a world where Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco roam the earth. This is an album of covers, recorded over a span of 18 years. First, for an album that was recorded over the decades, Poison’d sounds remarkably cohesive. And there are some truly adventurous covers here, from Jim Croce to David Bowie, to Tom Petty, to the Cars. This is pure camp, but it’s also pretty enjoyable. Highlights include the sugar-metal romp through Petty’s “Need to Know,” the fitting rehash of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” and the outright clumsy but great in spirit “Suffragette City.” I just love the idea of Poison returning to life as cover band on a major label. Only in America could this happen.

OK, I lied: The most peculiar album is Bryan Ferry’s LP of Dylan covers, Dylanesque. From the toothless “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to the light and spacey “Simple Twist of Fate” (which for some reason makes me think of Bill Murray’s lounge crooner belting the Star Wars theme), this is merely Muzak with Bryan Ferry’s voice atop it. Brian Eno adds some atmospherics to a limpid “If Not for You,” and the final insult comes via a staggeringly unpowerful “Along the Watchtower.” Message to you, Rolling Stone: Three-and-half-stars, my ass.

 

 

 

 

—Erik Hage


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