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Music

Paul McCartney, back in style

By CHRISTOPHER AVE
Published June 5, 2007


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No one has a past like Paul McCartney's. The highest-earning musical performer in history has released 20 solo albums, been knighted by the queen of England and written some of the most enduring pop songs.

Oh, and he played bass in a little club band out of Liverpool you may have heard of.

In his 21st solo album, released today, McCartney delves into that storied past, musically and lyrically. What he comes back with is his freshest, most infectious record in at least 20 years.

Memory Almost Full, a title referring to the notice McCartney gets when his cell phone has too many messages, finds its composer reflecting on his life. The exercise seems to enliven him.

Beatles fans will naturally gravitate toward the medley of five songs that makes up most of the CD's second half we used to call it Side Two, laddie.

The section begins with Vintage Clothes, in which the composer cleverly compares himself to aging outfits ("a little worn, a little torn, check the rack, what went out is coming back"). It features one of those soaring McCartney melodies (think Penny Lane).

The next number, That Was Me, is the album's most overt exercise in nostalgia. Neither sappy nor boastful, the song is a simple celebration of McCartney's youth. Yup, that was him, "on the river, Merseybeatin' with the band." And he ain't talking about Wings.

The album's penultimate song finds its composer thinking about his own demise. The End of the End asserts, in typical McCartneyian optimism, that the afterlife "would have to be special" to top the present. "On the day that I die, " he tells his imagined mourners, "I'd like jokes to be told/And stories of old/To be rolled out like carpets/That children have played on/And laid on while listening /To stories of old."

To hear the almost-65-year-old McCartney sing those lines is moving, rather than maudlin.

Outside the medley, the song Gratitude includes a great McCartney vocal reminiscent of Oh Darling, from 1969's Abbey Road. And the Wings-like Your Sunshine features some of Sir Paul's tastiest bass-playing.

Not everything on the album is nostalgic or personal. Though John Lennon once dissed his former songwriting partner for writing about "boring people doing boring things, " one of McCartney's strengths is narratives, such as Eleanor Rigby.

A couple of tracks on Memory Almost Full fall into this category, and one is the album's strongest song.

Only Mama Knows tells the story of an abandoned son, from the child's perspective. The offbeat story is propelled by McCartney's best rock arrangement in decades. Playing with his crack touring band, McCartney belts out the lead vocal in classic Birthday/Helter Skelter/Junior's Farm form. It's the obvious choice for a single.

Except that it's not, at least not yet. McCartney has chosen to release two of the album's simplest tracks as singles. Dance Tonight is pleasant enough, and it's the first McCartney song ever to feature mandolin, a new instrument for him. But as catchy as the melody is, the lyrics go nowhere and the arrangement never strays far from its mandolin-and-kick-drum beginning.

Ever Present Past is more interesting, and perhaps more representative of the album. "I've got too much on my plate, " he sings in his double-tracked lead vocal, "don't have no time to be a decent lover." Well that, at least, will keep anyone busy who's looking for clues about McCartney's bitter divorce.

Either number would be a standout on many of McCartney's solo albums, which have been uneven. The fact that this one includes several stronger tracks shows the strength of Memory Almost Full.

The album is McCartney's first to be released on the Hear Music label, owned by Starbucks. If you drop by for a caffeine fix today you, along with a projected 6-million other java junkies, will hear the disc in a worldwide "listening party."

Unlike a number of McCartney's releases over the years, this one is well worth a second cup.

Chris Ave may be reached at (727) 893-8643 or cave@sptimes.com.

Review

Memory Almost Full

Paul McCartney (Hear Now). Grade: A

[Last modified June 5, 2007, 07:09:50]


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