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McCartney's Vintage Clothes 

Paul gets heavy on Memory Almost Full

Wednesday, Jun 20 2007
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{mosimage}There’s a new Paul McCartney album out. It’s not bad! The cutesy title, Memory Almost Full, pretty much tells you what to expect: This album might not be great, but it may be a much-needed return to that breezy-easy, possibly-cheesy McCartney we once took for granted. Ya know?

It’s weird: Memory Almost Full is a much less serious, self-consciously heavy album than its predecessor, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. (Just compare those titles.) But I am enjoying it more. For one thing, the first thing you hear on the record, a steady thump of some kind, sounds as if it’s being played inside a farmhouse — dare I say a kitchen, even. (I am partial to McCartney music that sounds like it was recorded in a farmhouse, even if it wasn’t. This would include 1970’s McCartney, ’71’s Ram and ’73’s Red Rose Speedway. It’s just my thing.)

This steady thump also sounds a bit like what you hear in your head if you plug your ears while walking at an easy clip. It is a comforting, cheerful sound of forward motion, and it’s something I’ve loved in McCartney’s music forever, without really thinking about it. It’s there in his brightest moments (“Blackbird”) and his lightest (“Ooo You,” from McCartney), and some of my fave faux-Paul moments (the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends”). In the end, that steady thump may be my favorite McCartneyism, even more precious than his fondness for sevenths and minors (and his charming knack for running one song into the next — which survives to this day!).

Then again, Paul’s bass is something to hold close for a lifetime — which is one other good little thing about Memory Almost Full (god! that title!): There are a couple solid “oh, yeah” bass moments, when you remember that this is the guy who noodled to such miraculous perfection through side two of Abbey Road. (See “Gratitude.”)

So, that pleasantly thumping first song, “Dance Tonight,” is kind of a throwaway, but it’s certainly an enjoyable mood-setter for this album: It does sound like it was recorded in a kitchen, and its lyrics — of houseguests dancing and playing songs all night long — evoke special Celtic feelings (dig that mandolin). I like the video too — which takes place largely in the kitchen of a country home (I told you) and features McCartney carousing with mischievous spirits. It’s sad and buoyant and full of ghosts, which makes it Celtic, and very Paul. Decent tossed-off solo Paul. You can imagine this song on any one of his albums. There’s always room for one of these.

The sense of a nostalgic backward gaze is the unifying theme of the album, expressed over and over, in different moods, through “Ever Present Past,” “Vintage Clothes,” “That Was Me,” “The End of the End,” et al. It’s easy to take Paul’s nostalgia and ghost-love as a sign of advancing age. (He just turned 65 on Monday.) But let’s be real: Dear Paul seems to have been born an old soul. He’s been writing wistfully of the past since he was but a pup! (I think he was about 22 when he wrote “Yesterday.”) (See also “Backwards Traveller,” from 1978’s London Town: “Hey, did you know that I’m/Always going back in time?/Rhyming slang, auld lang syne my dears/Through the years...”)

The irresistible pull of yesterday is probably something McCartney feels because he’s Irish, and because he lost his mother very early — and perhaps because as both an orphan and a Beatle, he found his youth abruptly curtailed. Or maybe he just likes old stuff. Certainly in his case, there’s a lot of beautiful stuff in the past to ponder.

Like I said, Chaos and Creation was a weightier work, somberly produced by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. But it’s a funny thing with Paul: This album, like that one (and several over the years), is being presented as a Return to Form. (Press releases last year even compared Chaos to McCartney.) So which represents the real Paul? A moody songwriter album helmed by a boutique producer (and released on a then-dying Capitol Records), or a jaunty pop album produced by Kelly Clarkson’s producer (David Kahne, who also did Paul’s ’01 effort, Driving Rain) and released through Starbucks? Dunno — but if I had to choose, I’d take this one.

I’ll admit, I may have been prejudiced by Phil Spector. On the day the album was released, I was at the Starbucks of Justice (on the Quad of Justice downtown, near the courthouses), taking a break from the Spector Trial of Terror. Sickened, my head full of bloody imagery, I was perhaps too eager to grab a cheery-looking CD by one of the only Beatles who didn’t require Spector’s production in the 1970s. I took one from the card­board display, along with a “limited edition” Paul McCartney Starbucks gift card — featuring a photo of Macca, looking cute and shy, with a “Who, me?” expression. McCartney’s ability to brand himself never ceases to impress, disappoint, confound — and, at times, seduce.

And what’s with the songs costing 30 cents more than other music on iTunes? Can anyone explain why one of the world’s richest men needs to charge extra? I know he has given us all priceless gifts of beauty, but this is getting ridiculous. Paul McCartney is so rich and owns so many companies, properties and songs (including Buddy Holly’s catalog and Guys and Dolls), he’s become something like death and taxes: From a young age, and all our lives, we are all constantly giving our money to Paul McCartney. There is no way to avoid it.

It pretty much sucks. And yet in comparison to the ghastliness of the murder trial downtown that day, Paul’s latest exercise in mercenary bad taste seemed rather harmless. (So what if I got a stupid Starbucks card for a memento? It was too weird to resist. And anyway, he also performs many good works for humanity and the animals with his riches.)

And I do find his choice to leave EMI/Capitol for a coffee chain fascinating, and proof (as if we needed it) that neither traditional record labels nor record stores can make an event of an album release anymore. It just doesn’t happen. There are too many records coming out every Tuesday, and too few record stores. (The Stripes, of course, are trying their damnedest this week, God bless ’em, taking over the old Tower Records on Sunset to promote their newest.) But that pleasure — the feeling of excitement when you’re in a shop and buy a record that’s just come out that morning, and they’re playing it in the store, and everyone’s listening to it — is something iTunes just can’t provide. In fact, as fucked up as the whole context was (a corporate coffee chain, post-peak solo McCartney album, blah blah), I had a faint glimmer-memory of that feeling there in Starbucks. The loss of that feeling in American pop culture is one of the sadder shifts music fans have witnessed in the past 15 years.

Setting all that aside, though, seriously: This album is way more fun than the last one. That was a deep-winter record; this one’s for early summer. McCartney sounds happier and more sure of his place in the world now — which suits him, whether or not it’s true. This album isn’t trying to convince the world to take him seriously. In the process, it achieves a certain casual whimsy that seems to capture the headiness of sunlight and holding hands and good love — which is one of his gifts.

There are some dark (and dreary) moments, for sure, but more notable here is the fact that McCartney is expressing his natural Beatle-ness more freely than he’s done since their breakup, with a nice helping of those warped psychedelic and classical flourishes we associate with them. My favorite part of the album, in fact, is a three-song suite in the middle that embraces his past, his age and his Beatle instincts without an ounce of shame. “Vintage Clothes” celebrates the pride of the cool old guy, using fashion as a metaphor (“a little worn/a little torn/check the rack/what went out/is coming back!”). “That Was Me” gives a joyful sense of McCartney’s life flashing before your eyes (“On the river/Merseybeatin’/with the band/that was me!”), segueing into my favorite song on the album, “Feet in the Clouds” (which is so Beatles, it may be E.L.O.). It’s wistful and bewildered (“I’ve got my feet in the clouds/Got my head on the ground . . .”), perhaps confused by the passage of time, and the shock of loss. But there’s also a freaky vocoder thrown in there, harpsichord thrills, pretty layered harmonies, and a buoyancy that, as always, suits him. I hope he never lets that go again.

This is hardly McCartney’s most towering work — and yet its best moments remind you why he’s essential, and lovable, forever. Vintage clothes, indeed. I’m glad he thinks they’re coming back and all, but I honestly don’t think these particular threads ever really went out of style.

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Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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