Monday, February 6, 2012

Paul McCartney On Love - Kisses on the Bottom

Easy listening was never intended to be a derisive term. Much like, 'easy on the eyes,' was meant to describe a lovely woman, the phrase simply meant that the music was easy on the ears - asking little of the listener except to enjoy. Paul McCartney's new album of old songs, Kisses on the Bottom, is easy listening in the best sense.

I first heard the album's first single, My Valentine, some time ago, and found it to be a remarkable summation of every love song the man had written, and he's written more than a few. Coming after perfect pop creations such as Here, There, and Everywhere, I Will, My Love, and Maybe I'm Amazed, Paul's latest silly love song is the best song on an album of tunes written by such masters as Billy Rose, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. The melody is gentle and lilting, his phrasing is superb, and the lyrics sound like the words of a man in love. Accompanied by Diana Krall's band, McCartney's heart on his sleeve performance is aided by a tremendous bit of lyrical guitar playing courtesy of Eric Clapton, who, as always, does his best work when working alongside a musician of his equal.

This album is definitely not for everyone. If you expect Paul to sound like Beatle Paul at 69, you may well be disappointed. This is the first record of his life in which McCartney's only function is to supply the singing, and while his range isn't what it once was, it is no less wonderful. This is like aged wine in the very best sense. My Very Good Friend the Milkman sounds like it could have been cut from the same cloth as The Beatles classic, When I'm Sixty-Four, in fact, this being one of the songs Paul sang at home as a child, it may well have been the template for the Sgt. Pepper toe tapper. That it's being sung now only makes it sweeter and mellowed more by time. Who says love doesn't last forever?

Producer Tommy LiPuma, and Krall's band are both near perfect throughout the record. Forgive them for possibly not quite having the instrumental, or arranging chops that Paul has bandied about for the last 50 years - the accompaniment is quite wonderful and unobtrusive throughout. The arrangements are sophisticated, and jazzy smooth, especially Krall's excellent piano playing. LiPuma's production is masterfully executed, and it truly sounds like a fifty year old recording. The stand up bass is always in the foreground, the brushes can be heard brushing the cymbals, and the strings are sumptuously sitting in the background, adorning and garnishing the entree, McCartney's great vocal stylings. Pro Tools? No, this is pros with tools.

I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter contains the album's title, and as the album's opening track, it sets the stage appropriately. Krall's piano solo is as playful as any to have spilled off the fingertips of the writer of Martha My Dear. This tune wouldn't have sounded out of place at all back in 1973, when Paul was shaking off his band's traumatic ending, he was focusing on the lovely Linda, and getting his Wings.

Bucky and John Pizzarelli are a father and son who both happen to be jazz guitar legends, and they do a lovely job of jazzing up what could be a George Harrison and McCartney acoustic opening to It's Only a Paper Moon. They are joined by Andy Stein's lovely bit of gypsy violin playing, and the trio of instrumentalists find their way to Paris for the hot club informed solo section. McCartney's vocal is exceptionally playful on this one, and he proves himself to be quite adept at singing someone else's lyrics, something he has done very infrequently over the last fifty years. This number is a joy from beginning to end, and will even find approval from the staunchest of Beatles fans.

The Inch Worm is a children's tune originally performed by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film Hans Christian Anderson. It's a rather sophisticated little tune, utilizing a two part invention of the chorus being sung repeatedly in counterpoint to the later verses' melody. We're so used to listening to McCartney's musical genius that we can almost miss the incredible craft when coming from the pen of another. The vocal arrangement is amazing and it contains the only voices besides Paul's to grace the album. Once again, Tommy LiPuma does a great job of not overwhelming the lyrics and melody with instrumentation, and Krall's band is restrained and wonderfully tasteful in their interpretation, with an especially nice guitar part supplied by Anthony Wilson. This tune could well have been in Paul's head as he penned such Wings classics as Little Lamb Dragonfly. 

Stevie Wonder makes the album's second big name cameo appearance on the album's closing track, the McCartney penned Only Our Hearts, a tune that makes me think he still thinks of Linda a great deal. Wonder supplies a very appropriate harmonica solo. Paul works, and works, and works. Why? I think that quite possibly he's keeping himself busy, and waiting for a reunion that will only come after he's gone from this life.

Kisses on the Bottom is a great record. Not the greatest record McCartney has ever made, but hell, he's recorded 35 records since he left The Beatles all those years ago. The album could not have come at a better time. What it may be is the best Valentine's Day record ever. I couldn't imagine a more charming, romantic piece of music to share with a loved one on the day of all lovers - the most romantic record ever made by the maker of the best romantic music ever written.

Its timing is perfect for me as well. I am currently working on a book about Sir Paul - a tome that will not deal with lawsuits, band breakups, or personal proclivities, but instead looks at what matters most - the fact that James Paul McCartney may well be the most well rounded musician that ever lived. This long player is the perfect end cap, and gives me a great bit of perspective as I look at the musical life of an amazing man.

Come to this record knowing that it is a love letter to love, performed by a man sixty-nine years old, who has grown old gracefully and with tremendous dignity. You can't ask for more from an artist - he's remained true to his trade, his music, and his heart. Thanks, Paul.