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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

McCartney

Ok, here's the thing: I was planning on just writing up a short little review of the recently released remaster of Paul McCartney's first solo album but apparently I haven't figured out how to do short reviews about my favourite albums. The next one will be shorter, I promise! Well, OK, if not promise then at least hope...



The History

For so unassuming an album, Paul McCartney's first proper solo work sure came with a lot of baggage. Rush released to hit stores to compete with Let It Be, The Beatles final album, the initial pressings of McCartney came with a press release in which McCartney effectively publicly announced the end of the band - apparently without the knowledge of his former bandmates. It was, in fact, John Lennon who ended the Beatles partnership months prior to the release of either McCartney or Let It Be but the group had decided to keep it on the down low until Let It Be and its accompanying film were released.

McCartney's seemingly careless spilling of the beans not only enraged Lennon but led to the world at large assuming that it was Paul who broke up the Beatles. Between this and the fact that the lo-fi, homegrown McCartney was such a tremendous departure from the meticulous perfection of Macca's work with The Beatles (though not, ironically enough, from the "back to basics" approach of Let It Be) that it was met with hostile reviews and, though it did well commercially, was seen for years as subpar work for someone of McCartney's stature and talent.

The years, however, have been kind to the album, especially as its uncommercial, stripped down sound struck a chord with countless indie artists whose music bares more than a passing resemblance to the DIY rock, funky instrumentals and ultra-melodic folk of McCartney. It landed up being far more influential than even its creator probably ever expected.

This newly remastered and expanded release of the album is, therefor, a perfect opportunity to once again evaluate the album - this time free of its historical baggage and free even of its later influence.



The Album.


It has been said - most notably by Ian McDonald in his brilliant book, Revolution In The Head - that the main difference between Macca and his former songwriting partner is that while Lennon used music as a means towards the end of expressing his innermost thoughts and feelings, McCartney was always much more interested in music for music's sake. Never has that been more clear than on the first solo records the two released (not counting McCartney's The Family Way soundtrack and Lennon's avant garde experiments) independent of The Beatles. While they both were clearly trying to deal with the end of the group that had so defined them, Lennon's Plastic Ono Band was an exercise in the catharsis, tackling, with some help from Primal Scream Therapy, his need to escape from the shadow of The Beatles ("I don't believe in Beatles"), before directing his ire towards everyone and everything from hippies to England's class system. McCartney, however, expressed his independance purely through his music.

Not only does McCartney have its creator abandoning, albeit temporarily, the slick and professional production techniques with which his music has always been associated, it  was a demonstration of just how little he needed anyone's help to make the music he wanted to make. After working with a co-writer (or at least songwriting-collaborator) and three other band members, as well as various session men, engineers and a particularly influential producer over much of the previous decade, McCartney is a solo album in the truest sense of the term. Every song is a McCartney original and Paul is solely responsible for every instrument played, the entirety of the album's production and, save for the odd backing vocal from Linda, all of the singing. It's not for nothing that the album is called what it is.        


Opening with a song that perfectly sets the scene for the next forty-odd minutes, The Lovely Linda doesn't just encapsulate the DIY nature of the album, it distills the essence of Paul McCartney's seemingly effortless melodic gifts into a very brief 42 seconds. A simple declaration of love to his wife, it matches an uncomplicated message with a melody that is every bit as beautiful as its arrangement is starkly minimalistic. That it's immediately unforgettable, despite its almost non-existent running time, is pure McCartney.

The rest of the album is largely divided into three camps, each represented by one of the album's three major masterpieces.  

The oddest of these, of course, are the album's five instrumentals. Paul McCartney is not someone known for indulging himself on long instrumentals so, even if these pieces were intended to become "normal" songs, they are nothing if not interesting oddities in Sir Paul's pop catalogue, as they point their way towards both his classical and techno side-projects. Valentine Day with its searingly primitive electric guitar licks and typically brilliant bass lines over acoustic plucking and ill-disciplined drums is a very fun bit of funk-gone-wrong, while Hot As Sun/ Glasses is a mini medley that starts off as a repetitive, if melodic throwaway that suddenly warps into what is basically Macca coming up with a bit of ambient weirdness by playing around with the old "spooky wineglasses" trick before segueing into a few bars of of Suicide, a jaunty little demo that is included in full on this remasters second disc. Momma Miss America is simply a terrific piano-lead bit of rocking funk that was put to particularly good use by Cameron Crowe in Jerry Maguire but is equally fantastic on its own. Kreen-Akrore, meanwhile, is a particularly strange way to end the album as it is easily the most experimental piece here that, though rather interesting in its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach doesn't particularly work as a coda.   

The other two camps of songs on display here are generally closer to what people think of as McCartney-ish but the stripped-down approach adds a certain novelty to these songs. Paul has always prided himself on being a rock and roller at heart and along with a couple of those fore-mentioned instrumentals, Oo You is a rip-roaring bit of rock and roll that is, once again, far funkier than most of his more rocking numbers are and it's a pretty spectacular display of both Macca's singing but also just how adept he is at using his non-virtuoso skills on any instrument besides bass guitar to his advantage. All in all, it's a pretty great response to anyone that suggests that the man is incapable of delivering terrifically primal garage rock.

This rawness is also a tremendous boon when it comes to the quieter, folky numbers as they achieve a level of intimacy that his more polished ballads fail to reach. As unfinished as the almost demo-like That Would Be Something may seem, that only adds to its quirky charm, while Beatles-outtake Teddy Boy's rather inane lyrics are made far more tolerable by the messiness of the sound. And then there is the charmingly dopey country singalong Man We Was Lonely that is all but impossible not to love. These songs may be slight but with melodies this good, it's really hard to care.

Finally, we have the three dyed-in-the-wool masterpieces on which the rest of the album rests. While I have found no end to the amount of pleasure that can be derived from the smaller, quirkier numbers that I have brought up so far, there's no doubt that it is these three songs that bring the album up to total classic status. Junk/ Singalong Junk are technically two songs but Singalong Junk is just a reprise of (and, oddly, a definite improvement) on Junk, a song that matches nonsensical lyrics with an unspeakably gorgeous melody that easily ranks among McCartney's finest moments. At twice its length and without the irrelevant lyrics, the instrumental Singalong Junk is clearly the definite version of the song, though.

Every Night, on the other hand, is perfect as is. The lyrics are simple but effective and musically, it's as good a folk-ballad as any that McCartney has ever written. The true star of the album, though, must be Maybe I'm Amazed. Here we have a poignantly direct love song that shifts effortlessly between being the hardest rocking song here and the most beautiful but its quiet/loud dichotomy is never as consciously formulaic as that of Nirvana and their much less talented followers. Everything you could want from a Paul McCartney song can be found in Maybe I'm Amazed's three minutes and fifty seconds: soulful singing, primitive but effective guitar work,  an unconventional song structure, peerless bass playing and enough melodic brilliance to fill entire albums of many a pop artiste. And, yet, the live version recorded by Paul with Wings a few years later is somehow even better!

McCartney is simply a phenomenally enjoyable album that happens to catch one of pop music's greatest talents at his most direct and vulnerable. A true classic.

The Remaster

You wouldn't think that so raw an album would benefit much from a new remaster but you would be wrong. The sound on this new remaster is nothing less than a revelation after the perfectly good edition that was issued in 1993 as part of the Paul McCartney Collection. Everything is clearer but what benefits most are the guitars - acoustic guitars are brighter, while electric guitars are crunchier - and, most importantly, the bass guitar, which is brought front and center.

The version I have also comes with a second disc of very solid live versions of certain tracks as they were played by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1979; the One Hand Clapping version of Maybe I'm Amazed which we already saw on the Band on the Run bonus DVD and some inessential but interesting demos that are even rawer than the final product. Still, it's definitely the remastered sound that is the biggest draw here but, either way, this is the definitive version to pick up - unless, of course, you have loads of cash and you can splurge of the Super Deluxe edition that comes with a hardback book and a bonus DVD as well!


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