Paul McCartney - Kisses on the Bottom
Kick off your shoes, pour a glass of wine or tea, light a fire. If allowed, the light, romantic mood of Kisses on the Bottom can sweep you away into a past you quite possibly never lived.
For this record Paul McCartney stepped out of his role as multi-instrumentalist and into the vocal booth. Diana Krall and her jazz band handled the arrangements, with input from Sir Paul and producer Tommy LiPuma. Most are tunes Paul was reared on that influenced his songwriting immensely. Thrown in for good measure are two new McCartney-penned “standards” that fit seamlessly into the style.
(Of course fans will not be surprised, knowing his catalogue includes such rock ‘n’ roll departures as Honey Pie, When I’m Sixty-Four, and You Gave Me the Answer.)
The fun had during the making of the album comes through – an airy, relaxed vibe that translates into an enjoyable listening experience. The emotion channeled is also apparent, especially on More I Cannot Wish You and the way he digs into the words of Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.
His own My Valentine proves how well-rounded McCartney is as a crafter of progressions and melodies, as the others do for him as a singer. Eric Clapton’s acoustic accents are pure joy to the ear; his presence again unmistakable on Get Yourself Another Fool.
The only misstep is a slightly out of place harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder on the otherwise flawlessly executed original Only Our Hearts.
Overall Kisses on the Bottom exudes an effortless elegance difficult to resist surrendering to.
Ringo Starr - Ringo 2012
Starting off with two familiar sounding snare hits that immediately conjure The Beatles’ Glass Onion, Ringo 2012 is –as is his wont– a joyous celebration of a life documented by the making of music.
At age 71, Ringo Starr is still preaching the message of his youth: “This is an anthem of peace and love,” he declares in the opening track. And “Y not?” No fingers will be pointed, but there are far worse ideals to be spread. If the drummer of the most renowned band in the world wants to record some tunes with his pals (oh, you know, Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart, Don Was, the list goes on) and continue doing what he loves, who could complain?
We all know by now (17 solo albums on) Serious Art is not Ringo’s style. What you will find on his latest, however, are nine feel-good pop tracks to bring a smile to your face and buoyancy to your steps. The musicianship is solid as expected, and coupled with catchy guitar licks is an infectious sense of fun. (Plus a small side of cheese. Your tastes may vary.)
He has a knack for nodding to life’s difficulties while embracing positivity, as apparent in Samba’s “never give up” sentiment and the re-recorded Step Lightly. With his trademark steady backbeat, these are the stand out cuts of the record.
After such a rich and incredible life (drumming, singing, acting, drinking, burying comrades), let’s cherish that Ringo is still here and in the game. As he says himself in a love song to wife Barbara Bach, “The worst it ever was was wonderful.” This is a view we could all aspire to.
Snow Patrol - Fallen Empires
Without growth from one album to the next, younger bands can wither. Snow Patrol is pushing 15, though they didn’t fully break until 2006’s massive hit Chasing Cars. For this reason their continued development might still be crucial.
Fallen Empires, released last month in North America, while not fully pushing the envelope is some of the group’s strongest material. Singer Gary Lightbody seems to be growing out of his tendency toward stretching syllables into strange shapes, leaning into more natural phrasing without losing originality.
The fourteen tracks strike the usual balance of pop songs and ballads, but with the incorporation of a few more dance elements and disco beats. Folk artist Lissie contributes gorgeous backing vocals.
The weaker tunes, like Lifening (not a great lyric, sorry Gary), are redeemed by the sprinkling of interesting themes throughout the rest. Ask for help, he implores. Ask for what you want. Ideas simple but true. “In the end, there’s nothing more to life than love, is there?”
There are the obvious singles, Called Out in the Dark and This Isn’t Everything You Are (plus I’ll Never Let Go, which should be one), but the heart-wrenching New York steals the show. Ditto the unexpected (but aptly titled) The Symphony, which delivers the finest moment of all: an uplifting, ringing guitar over a gradual layering of instruments with a spectacularly joyful break.
If you’re looking for something mind-bending and soul-alteringly fresh, maybe don’t take your hat off here. But if what you’re after is genuine heart and a bit of dancing, by all means, settle in.
Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas is a record that from its first whispers demands silence and stillness, demands your ear. This is the type of album that changes the atmosphere and temperature of a room, that sparks contemplation and reflection.
It’s no news to anyone Leonard Cohen is a master of his craft. But as he divides himself into façade and self, body and brain, into mortal and immortal, in the opening track Going Home, one must wonder about the process of acquiring this level of skill for manipulating concept into poetry. Does genius always require such torment?
“Show me the place where the suffering began,” he pleads, with a rumble steeped in the truest of emotions. Later he seems to offer up an answer: “I caught the darkness / Drinking from your cup / I said, ‘Is this contagious?’ / You said, ‘Just drink it up.’”
To spin simple words with multiple complex interpretations has always been Cohen’s gift, and Old Ideas is no exception. The sparse arrangements lend themselves to the purity of spirit. There is nothing but a direct line between listener and intent. Assisting in this of course is Javier Mas, a subtle star on Spanish guitar.
It’s not all tortured. Banjo and Different Sides are at least musically lighthearted. Old Leonard, sportsman and shepherd, does as well have some ideas lying around about hope and redemption.
O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart
Van Halen - A Different Kind of Truth
A Different Kind of Truth, the first Van Halen featuring David Lee Roth since 1984, isn’t quite the lame-duck embarrassment that it should have been. Despite getting off to a rough start with the lackluster Tattoo, the other twelve tracks on the record more than pick up the slack.
Rather than appear fatigued and motivated mainly by monetary gain, as their 2007 reunion tour was, A Different Kind of Truth presents a revitalized band: somehow, they were able to create a new album that is anything but trite and depressing (traits that tend to plague new records by decades-old bands).
She’s the Woman, a re-worked demo dating back to 1976, is easily one of the highlights, led by a snarling Eddie Van Halen riff and classic DLR vocal hook.
Throughout the album, Eddie plays to his status as a guitar god – frantic, noodly solos pepper just about every song, and his straightforward chunky riffs give each tune a propulsive, explosive energy that will please longtime fans.
Other highlights – China Town (with its machine-gun riffage and breakneck pace), Blood and Fire (featuring Roth’s requisite sing-talking and a killer guitar solo), As Is (more noodly guitars), Honeybabysweetiedoll (rollercoaster rhythm and abrasive shredding), Stay Frosty (and its nonsensical storytelling), and Big River.
Sure, David Lee Roth’s voice shows his age and there doesn’t really NEED to be a new Van Halen record, but who cares? This is a lot of fun.
Whatever the true motives for their latest reunion, A Different Kind of Truth can stand alongside classic VH albums, and for that, it definitely earns high marks.
Gotye - Making Mirrors
With its simple approach, infectious vocal hook and undeniable melody, Belgian-Australian songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know has become one of the biggest pop hits in recent memory. Until recently, the album that features the track was only available overseas, but Making Mirrors hit US shores on January 31st.
Many Americans taken by the song’s sudden arrival may be surprised to hear this is his third solo record…and a damn good one, at that.
At 31, Gotye (or Wouter “Wally” De Backer) has an accomplished and eclectic style, showing a myriad of influences; he incorporates them all into his own budding brand of intellectually stimulating electronic/dance rock.
The album is a seamless blend of styles, flavors, cultures and sounds reflective of all the hats he wears – Easy Way Out calls to mind the works of Beck, Eyes Wide Open has Sting and Peter Gabriel-esque harmonies and grandiosity, Smoke and Mirrors dabbles in melancholy as much as it does rhythm, and I Feel Better is a throwback to old-time soul music.
But there’s more – handclaps and a Queen-like sparkle illuminate the relentlessly upbeat In Your Light, State of the Art comments on the digitalism of modern music while being a stellar electronic song in its own right, and the album wraps up with a trio of soothing compositions that ease the listener into dreamland.
Making Mirrors is a fantastic, versatile album, seamlessly blending gorgeous melodies with a reflective sense of melancholy; it’s the kind of record that will hopefully ensure Gotye continued success well after Somebody That I Used to Know fades away.
Nada Surf - The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy
Nada Surf’s seventh studio record, The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, finds the band in a transitory mood – opener Clear Eye Clouded Mind features a catchy refrain of All I feel is transition/When do we get home? set to a peppy, 1990s-flavored alterna-rock background. It’s a stellar introduction to an excellent, career-defining album.
Yes, Nada Surf penned the 1996 high-school-themed hit Popular, but sixteen years later they’re very different. Since their Ric Ocasek-produced debut High/Low, they have released six studio records, experimenting with indie-rock and branching out into territory marked with slower, more varied tempos and rhythms.
The Stars…, however, with its bounty of hooks and glorious melodies, is a solid return to the vintage 1990s sound displayed on High/Low, but with a professionalism reflective of their endurance and longevity.
Vocalist/guitarist Matthew Caws’ voice is slightly higher-pitched now, and his register gives songs like Waiting for Something an added energy, as do the keyboards and Beach Boys-vocal harmonies.
The standout on the record is When I Was Young, a self-reflective number that gradually builds to a powerful chorus geared to hit home with twentysomethings everywhere – When I was young, I didn’t know if I was better off with sleep or up/ Now I’ve grown up, I wonder what was that world I was dreaming of?
As for the rest of the songs, picking “highlights” wouldn’t do them justice; this is a nearly-flawless collection of high-quality indie/alternative rock, delivered by a band that has flown under the radar of mainstream success for far too long.
If you’ve ever dug their music, give this a chance, as it’s a rarity – consistently impressive, all the way through.
Rodrigo y Gabriela - Area 52
Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela’s new record, Area 52, isn’t a proper follow-up to 2009’s 11:11. Rather, it’s a collaborative affair with C.U.B.A. (Collective Universal Band Association), an orchestra of Cuban musicians that give the album’s nine tracks – re-imaginings of older Rodrigo y Gabriela songs – a rich, culturally authentic sound that makes this one of the more enjoyable releases of the year thus far.
But that’s not all that’s unique about Area 52: in addition to the 13-piece orchestra, Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero laid down their tracks with special guest musicians including Anoushka Shankar, Carles Benavent, drummer John Tempesta, Le Trio Joubran, and Samuel Formell Alfonso.
The album’s re-creations of older gems like Hanuman, Ixtapa, 11:11 and Tamacun (one of the duo’s most well-known songs) are vastly different from their original versions. Sure, Gabriela’s otherworldly guitar picking is on display, but the added flourishes of horns, percussion, violas, strings, pianos, boas, flutes, and other orchestral touches transform the songs into basically entirely new compositions.
Much of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s appeal lies in their simplistic, two-person approach, and that’s obviously gone with Area 52. Instead, they’re fronting a supremely gifted backing band, re-interpreting some of their back catalog, and, most importantly, having fun.
The album’s unrelenting energy makes it impossible to sit back and resist becoming totally immersed in its shimmery rhythms, insane guitar-playing and undeniable enthusiasm. Area 52 is a great stopgap before their next proper two-piece record, but most importantly it’s just a great record, period.