Friday, September 19, 2014

Mix CD: "The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years-1980-1993"

Paul McCartney, promo image for "Tug of War," 1982.

Poster for "Give My Regards to Broad Street" movie and album, 1984. Was a picture of Paul in "futuristic panda" garb really going to sell people on the movie?

Paul McCartney, mid-1980's. He's making his standard "I'm Paul McCartney and I'm cutely posing for a photo" face.

Promo for Paul's tour of Japan, 1990.
While there have been several greatest hits compilations covering Paul McCartney’s 1970’s work, there hasn’t been a compilation dedicated to the music he’s made since Wings broke up in 1980. The excellent 2-disc set “Wingspan,” from 2001, does cover some solo McCartney tracks, but it only covers the period from 1970-1984. With that in mind, I created my own 2-disc “The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years,” covering Paul’s work since “McCartney II” was released in 1980. Paul has created a lot of great music since 1980, so it was a difficult task to narrow it down to two discs. I decided to leave off Paul’s duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, so there’s no “Ebony and Ivory,” “Say Say Say,” or “The Girl is Mine.” Sorry to disappoint anyone. 

Here are the songs I put on disc one of “The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years,” which covers 1980 to 1993.

1. Waterfalls
2. Tug of War
3. Take It Away
4. Here Today
5. The Pound is Sinking
6. Pipes of Peace
7. The Other Me
8. No More Lonely Nights (playout version)
9. Spies Like Us
10. Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun
11. Press
12. My Brave Face
13. Distractions
14. This One
15. Off the Ground
16. Hope of Deliverance

Here are some comments about the songs:

“Waterfalls,” from “McCartney II,” 1980: A hauntingly beautiful song that features only Paul’s vocals and synthesizers. One of his most underrated songs, it was a hit in the UK, peaking at number 9, but in the US it stalled at 106. And yes, TLC stole the chorus for their 1995 hit “Waterfalls.” I didn’t choose “Coming Up” because I don’t really like the synthesized studio version on “McCartney II.” I much prefer the live version, but that was actually cut with Wings in 1979, which would break my rule of including only solo McCartney songs.

“Tug of War,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: “Tug of War” is one of Paul’s strongest solo albums, with terrific songs and production from George Martin. The song “Tug of War” starts off as an acoustic song, with strings eventually joining in as the arrangement builds. The song has an insistent melody, and George Martin’s arrangement works well. 

“Take It Away,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: “Tug of War” fades directly into “Take It Away,” a superbly catchy song with several different hooks and a groovy bass line. It’s a bit of a throwback to McCartney’s 70’s songs like “Band on the Run” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” that had many different sections. 

“Here Today,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: Paul’s moving song about John Lennon is simple, and one of his best. George Martin’s string arrangement is a perfect accompaniment. Paul’s been playing it regularly in concert since 2002. I don’t know how he gets through it every night without breaking down. The most moving lyric might be at the end when Paul sings, “And if I say I really loved you and was glad you came along/if you were here today/for you were in my song.”

“The Pound is Sinking,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: And we move from the serious and touching to the silly. This is a goofy song, as Macca sings about the various financial states of world currency, but it’s so damn catchy! Sample lyric: “The pound is sinking/the peso’s falling/the lira’s reeling/and feeling quite appalling.” At the very least, “The Pound is Sinking” is a useful primer on the old European currency that was replaced by the Euro. My favorite part is the bridge, as Paul sings in an upper-class accent, “Well I feel my dear/that it’s imminently clear/that you can’t see the trees for the forest/your father was an extraordinary man/but you don’t seem to have inherited many of his mannerisms.” I don’t know how that fits into the rest of the song, but it’s still awesome.

“Pipes of Peace,” from “Pipes of Peace,” 1983: A companion piece to “Tug of War.” In my opinion, “Pipes of Peace” is a weaker album than “Tug of War,” but this is still a great song, as Paul makes a plea for world peace. 

“The Other Me,” from “Pipes of Peace,” 1983: This song has a little bit of a different flavor, as it uses a drum machine. Paul sings as someone who has done his girl wrong, and he tries to smooth things out, saying that he wants to find “the other me,” the better version of himself: “I want to be/the kind of me that doesn’t let you down/as a rule.”

“No More Lonely Nights,” (playout version) from “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” 1984: Critics hated Macca’s self-indulgent 1984 film “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” but if you’re a Paul fan there’s a lot to like about it. The plot of the movie is so thin as to be non-existent, so you get to see a lot of Paul singing and playing some of his greatest songs. Paul only wrote a couple of new songs for the movie, but one of them was this great tune. There are actually two versions of “No More Lonely Nights,” a ballad version and the up-tempo “playout version.” I like them both, but I chose the “playout version” for this CD. 

“Spies Like Us,” single, 1985: This daft song, the theme song for the Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd movie of the same name, is Paul’s most recent Top Ten single in the US, peaking at number 7 in early 1986. Oddly enough, it’s something of a rarity, as it was never issued on a McCartney album or any of his greatest hits compilations. It is a bonus track on some editions of “Press to Play.” It’s not a great song, but it is catchy, and it shows Paul momentarily giving in to the mid-80’s huge drum sound. In terms of production values, it’s one of his most dated songs. I thought twice about including this song, but the fact that it was a hit led me to include it. 

“Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun,” from “Press to Play,” 1986: Paul’s 1986 album “Press to Play” was a commercial disappointment, peaking at just number 30 in the US. In the UK it fared better, peaking at number 8, but it slipped off the charts quickly. However, like every McCartney record, there are good things to be found on it. McCartney collaborated with 10cc guitarist Eric Stewart on most of the songs on “Press to Play.” “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun” is a medley that starts off with a chorus chanting “good times coming/good times coming in,” then it turns into summery pop song about a “golden summer.” “Good Times Coming” then fades into the “Feel the Sun” section, which shares a similar summery vibe. 

“Press,” from “Press to Play,” 1986: “Press” was the lead single off of “Press to Play,” and it’s a catchy piece of mid-80’s pop. The lyrics are rather sexy, as Macca sings to his girlfriend, “When you want me to love you/just tell me to press/right there/that’s it, yeah.” Paul also sings, “Oklahoma was never like this.” What does that mean? Maybe it was a joke between him and Linda.

“My Brave Face,” from “Flowers in the Dirt,” 1989: “Flowers in the Dirt” was seen as a comeback album for Paul after the relative failure of “Press to Play,” and “Flowers” topped the charts in the UK. The album saw Paul co-writing some songs with Elvis Costello. It’s one of the few times in Paul’s solo career that he’s worked with a co-writer. (Another was the aforementioned Eric Stewart on “Press to Play.”) Paul and Elvis obviously hit it off, as they wrote about a dozen songs together that trickled out over the next few years, including Costello’s hit “Veronica.” There are obvious similarities between Costello and Paul’s most famous collaborator, John Lennon. Lennon and Costello have some of the most recognizable glasses in all of rock and roll. (Apologies to Elton John.) Like Lennon, Costello’s songs could be full of hatred and spite, with very personal lyrics. Lyrically, “My Brave Face” tells the tale of a newly single man who can’t always keep it together. It’s different terrain for McCartney, who doesn’t have that many songs about breakups. The part of the song that is the most Costello-like is the bridge leading into the chorus, as Paul quickly sings, “Ever since you went away I’ve had this sentimental inclination/not to change a single thing/as I pull the sheets back on the bed I want to go bury my head in your pillow.” In my head, I can hear Costello’s distinctive voice singing those words. It’s too bad that Elvis and Paul haven’t written together since that time, it would be interesting to hear what songs they would come up with now.  

“Distractions,” from “Flowers in the Dirt,” 1989: A nice, jazzy tune about life’s complications. “Distractions” has lovely strings, and it’s one of my favorite songs from “Flowers in the Dirt.” 

“This One,” from “Flowers in the Dirt,” 1989: A super catchy chorus anchors this song. It shares a lyrical theme of regret with “My Brave Face” and “Distractions,” as Paul tells his girlfriend that if he didn’t do something nice, “I was only waiting for a better moment that didn’t come/there never could be a better moment than this one.” Features a great vocal from Paul as he sings in his rock falsetto during parts of it. 

“Off the Ground,” from “Off the Ground,” 1993: McCartney launched a world tour in 1989 in support of “Flowers in the Dirt,” his first world tour since 1976. The success of his 1989-90 tour led him to record his follow up album with his touring band and embark on another tour in 1993. “Off the Ground,” the first song from the album, is a catchy pop tune, featuring a “la-la-la” chorus and handclaps. 

“Hope of Deliverance,” from “Off the Ground,” 1993: An uplifting song with a South American feel to it, this was the lead single from “Off the Ground.” It was successful in the UK, peaking at number 18, but flopped in the US, peaking at just 83. It was a number 1 in Spain, though. I love the part towards the end where Paul sings, “Hope of deliverance, hope de doobie doobie.” 

That’s it for volume 1. The post on volume 2, covering 1997 to 2013, will be coming soon.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Concert Review: Paul Weller at the Varsity Theater

Paul Weller at the Varsity, September 10, 2014. Note the Magical Mystery Tour inspired bass drum head. (Photo by Pondie Nicholson Taylor.)

I was this close to Paul Weller! It was awesome. (Photo by Pondie Nicholson Taylor.)
I saw Paul Weller tonight at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. He put on an amazing show! I’m a huge fan of Paul Weller’s music, from The Jam to The Style Council to his amazing solo work. He’s one of the major singer-songwriters of the last 35 years, but since he hardly ever tours in the United States, I didn’t have high hopes of ever seeing him live. But for whatever reason, he decided to make Minneapolis one of the 6 North American stops on his tour this year. I’m very glad he did, because it was a terrific show. Weller is an extremely energetic performer, often jumping up and down during the count-in for songs. He’s fun to watch on stage, and he really puts a lot of energy into his songs. 

Weller’s band is excellent, featuring the amazing Steve Cradock on lead guitar. Cradock’s solos were beautifully constructed, and fun to listen to without becoming self-indulgent. Weller was also supported by Andy Lewis on bass, Ben Gordelier on percussion, Steve Pilgrim on drums, and Andy Crofts on keyboards. They all provided able support for Weller’s fantastic songs. You could tell that Weller really enjoys the musicians he plays with, as he traded glances with Cradock throughout the show. Sometimes Weller would get a look on his face like a pleased papa when other members soloed. Weller switched between several different guitars during the concert, using an acoustic, two different Gibsons, and two different Telecasters. He also played the keyboards for some songs, like “You Do Something To Me.” 

The set list was mainly made up of songs from Weller’s solo albums from the last 20 years. I was rather proud that a lot of the songs he played are on my “Best of Paul Weller” mix CD’s. (You can find those posts here and here.) He sang just one song from the Style Council years, “My Ever Changing Moods,” and just two songs from The Jam, “Start!” and “Town Called Malice,” which closed the show. It was clear from the audience reaction that he could have played many more songs from those bands. But, as Weller said, in one of the few times he spoke to the audience, “Some of these songs you’ll know, some of them you won’t.” Some of the highlights of the show for me were the first few songs, which are some of my favorite Weller songs. Hearing him start off with killer tracks like “Sunflower,” “From the Floorboards Up,” “Wake Up the Nation,” and “Come On/Let’s Go,” I knew this would be a memorable show. It’s fun to hear a veteran artist like Weller still take such a delight in rocking out. Other highlights for me were “Above the Clouds,” “Going Places,” and of course the two Jam songs, the excellent “Start!” and the effervescent “Town Called Malice.” Weller seemed really thrilled by the overwhelming audience response to his music, and he said something towards the end of the show about not waiting so long to come back here again. I can only hope that’s true, I would go see Paul Weller again any day.

Set list:
From the Floorboards Up
Wake Up the Nation
Fast Cars/Slow Traffic
Come On/Let’s Go
Sea Spray
My Ever Changing Moods
Above the Clouds
Foot of the Mountain
Going Places
Friday Street
7 & 3 is the Striker’s Name
The Attic
You Do Something to Me
Broken Stones
Porcelain Gods
Peacock Suit

Out of the Sinking
Be Happy Children

2nd encore:
The Changingman
Town Called Malice

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Album Review: Robyn Hitchcock, "The Man Upstairs" (2014)

Robyn Hitchcock, "The Man Upstairs," 2014. Cover painting by Gillian Welch.

The one and only Robyn Hitchcock.
Robyn Hitchcock’s recently released 2014 album, “The Man Upstairs,” is a unique album for him, as it mixes 5 cover songs with 5 Hitchcock originals. This is quite a departure, as cover songs on Robyn Hitchcock albums are few and far between. Hitchcock sometimes mixes in cover songs during his concerts, and his only album of all covers is a 2-disc live album of Bob Dylan songs released in 2002 entitled “Robyn Sings.” For another songwriter, the appearance of a half covers/half originals album might be a signal that their creative muse is waning. However, since Robyn Hitchcock’s fecund mind keeps churning out roughly an album a year, I’m not worried that he has writer’s block. 

“The Man Upstairs” holds together very well, and it feels like a very cohesive album. Much of the credit for this can go to producer Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake’s first two albums, among many others. “The Man Upstairs” is a subtle, intimate album. The first two times I listened to the album I was in my car, and while I liked certain songs, others didn’t do much for me. I wasn’t quite sure if I liked the album as a whole. But then I listened to it on headphones, and it changed the way I heard the whole album. I could now hear all of the sonic details that Hitchcock and Boyd have put on the album, and I like it a great deal more. 

The instrumentation on “The Man Upstairs” is quite sparse, as it features Robyn on guitars, the marvelous Jenny Adejayan on cello, Charlie Francis on piano, and Norwegian singer-songwriter Anne Lise Frokedal, from the band I Was a King, on harmony vocals. Jenny Adejayan has played on the last couple of Robyn’s albums, and her cello playing brings a different sonic texture to Hitchcock’s songs that greatly enhances them. Anne Lise Frokedal’s lovely harmony vocals also bring a different feel to Hitchcock’s music, and their voices blend very well together. 

Here are the songs on “The Man Upstairs” and brief comments on them:

 “The Ghost in You”-A Psychedelic Furs cover. It’s a good, catchy opener with great cello playing.

“San Francisco Patrol”-An original. It’s quite pretty, with the refrain, “Can’t take my eyes off of you.” (It’s hard not to think of Frankie Valli when you hear that phrase.) No surrealism in this one. I wonder if there might be a veiled reference to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in this song, as Robyn sings, “Who are we staking out?” Anything that references San Francisco and the police makes me think of Dirty Harry, and Hitchcock has written songs about the Dirty Harry movies before. His terrific 2006 song “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs,” is inspired by the Dirty Harry movie “Magnum Force.” 

 “To Turn You On”-Roxy Music cover. It’s fun to hear a Roxy Music song with Bryan Ferry’s seductive croon replaced by Robyn’s distinctive voice. Whereas Ferry’s original sounds like the smooth pick-up line of a confident lover-man, Robyn sounds like an earnest suitor, offering a sincere token of his love. I’m a big Roxy Music fan, and this was one of the highlights of the album for me. Robyn is obviously a Roxy Music aficionado, as he previously covered “More Than This” on the “Madonna of the Wasps” CD-single. Back in the days when CD-singles existed. 

“Trouble in Your Blood”-A brooding original, with something of a droning feel to it. Excellent backing vocals.

“Somebody to Break Your Heart”-A very catchy bluesy original. The lyrics mention skeletons twice. Good harmonica blowing by Robyn. One of my favorites on the album. 

“Don’t Look Down”-Grant-Lee Phillips cover. This song doesn’t do much for me. It’s too slow and long, and it’s not sequenced in a good place on the album, as it’s in between two faster, catchier songs.

“Ferries”-cover of Norwegian band I Was a King. Anne Lise Frokedal co-wrote the song, and she adds terrific backing vocals here. The song appears on I Was a King’s 2012 album, “You Love It Here,” which was co-produced by Robyn. It’s an upbeat, poppy song that celebrates a mode of transportation-right up Robyn’s alley. 

“Comme Tojours”-original. An earlier version of this song was released in 2010 or 2011 as a Phantom 45 on Robyn’s website. The title is French for “as usual, as ever.” The cello playing is exquisite, and goes perfectly with the song. Robyn’s note about this song on his website says, “Originally conceived for Bryan Ferry as Humphrey Bogart, a man alone consoling himself with a cigarette.” The version on “The Man Upstairs” is not very different from the original one, but the addition of Anne Lise on harmony vocals is most welcome. 

“The Crystal Ship”-The Doors cover. It’s really cool to hear Robyn sing The Doors, and “The Crystal Ship” fits Robyn’s style very well. As usual, the cello playing is great and adds a different flavor. One of my favorites on the album.

“Recalling the Truth”-original. It’s a nice song that isn’t terribly exciting. Robyn’s original songs on this album have more straightforward lyrics. There’s less surrealism than usual. 

“The Man Upstairs” is an excellent album, autumnal in feel and spirit. I enjoyed the different instrumental approaches on this album, and the stirring way that Jenny Adejayan’s cello and Anne Lise Frokedal’s harmony vocals interacted with Robyn’s voice. If you’re a fan of Robyn’s, give “The Man Upstairs” a listen. Just don’t forget to bring your headphones.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: But Enough About You, by Christopher Buckley (2014)

Cover of But Enough About You, by Christopher Buckley, 2014.

Christopher Buckley
Christopher Buckley’s most recent book is But Enough About You, a collection of essays he has written for various publications over the last 15 years. Buckley is one of my favorite writers, and I devoured But Enough About You with delight. The pieces collected in But Enough About You are a true grab-bag, running the gamut from humorous to serious. However, the essays collected here work well together, even though they span a decade and a half. As a writer, Buckley is consistently funny, witty, and smart. His prose entertains and informs, as he sprinkles witty bon mots throughout. 

But Enough About You also includes more serious pieces, and for me these were some of the highlights of the book. Buckley’s essay about visiting Auschwitz with his father was quite moving, as was his tribute to his late friend Christopher Hitchens. There is an excellent essay on Buckley’s relationship with President George H.W. Bush. Buckley was a speechwriter for then-Vice President Bush from 1981 until 1983, and his admiration for Bush is clear. Another fascinating personal essay was “Dear Joe,” about Buckley’s correspondence and friendship with Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. My only criticism of “Dear Joe” is that while Heller’s letters to Buckley are quoted, Buckley’s letters to Heller are not. Buckley may have thought that his letters would not be of interest, but he sells himself short, as his authorial gifts are many. 

I was particularly fascinated by Buckley’s 2012 essay on the death of Gore Vidal. Here a little historical backstory is required. Back in 1968, Vidal and William F. Buckley, leading light of the conservative movement and Christopher’s father, squared off in a series of televised debates during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During one debate, Buckley and Vidal got into a rather heated exchange, with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley responding in kind by calling Vidal a “queer.” The following year, both men wrote articles for Esquire magazine about the event. Vidal’s article had some rather nasty things to say about Buckley, who ended up suing Vidal and Esquire for libel. Buckley won the case, and with it the eternal enmity of Gore Vidal. While Buckley refrained from criticizing Vidal in print, Vidal never missed a chance to lay into Buckley.  In keeping with his cranky nature, Vidal had only nasty things to say upon Buckley’s death in 2008. Adding insult to injury, as was his wont, Vidal also insulted Christopher Buckley, calling him “creepy” and “brain dead.” Christopher Buckley has every right to hate Gore Vidal and say nasty things about him when he died in 2012. But Buckley doesn’t, and instead crafted an intelligent essay that acknowledged both Vidal’s strengths as a writer and his faults as a human being. As a fan of both William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, I can safely say that while politically I agree much more with Vidal, William F. Buckley was twice the man Gore Vidal was. 

Ironically, But Enough About You doesn’t include what might be Christopher Buckley’s most famous, or notorious, short essay, “Sorry Dad, I’m Voting for Obama,” which was published on The Daily Beast website in October, 2008. Buckley hated the title of the piece, and he demanded that the editors change it. (They didn’t.) In the essay, Buckley explained the reasons why he was voting for Barack Obama rather than John McCain in the 2008 election. Buckley’s reasons were quite rational, as he wrote, “Obama has in him…the potential to be a good, perhaps even great leader. He is, it seems clear enough, what the historical moment seems to be calling for.” So as to not unduly antagonize the right wing, Buckley purposely did not publish the piece in the pages of National Review, the magazine his father started, and for whom he had recently begun writing a column. Nevertheless, the piece caused the right wing to virulently turn against Buckley, and it forced him to resign from National Review. The kerfuffle over Buckley’s piece is a good example of how the Republican party has purged itself of any dissenting voices. In the essay Buckley quotes his father as saying, “You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.” Well, now it’s the Tea Party and their kooks separating the Right from anyone with half a brain. 

If you’re a fan of Christopher Buckley’s satirical novels, you will surely enjoy But Enough About You, and the humor of essays like “The Origin and Development of the Lobster Bib-Volume II: Rome to the Present Era,” and “How to Write Witty E-Mail (Hint: Pretend They’re Telegrams),” a 1998 essay that was the first piece I ever read by Christopher Buckley.