While it's hard to imagine any artist in rock history who's won more praise, prizes or financial rewards for his accomplishments, it's long been a thorn in Sir Paul McCartney's side that his old mate John Lennon was the Beatle acknowledged as "the avant-garde one," while of course Macca was merely "the pop guy." In addition to griping about this in many interviews, McCartney's tried to correct this impression throughout his solo career by dabbling in odd underground side projects--among them "Liverpool Sound Collage" with the Super Furry Animals in 2000 and two discs of ambient electronica under the name the Fireman in 1993 and 1998--in between the steady stream of, you know, mere pop albums (the last of which, "Memory Almost Full," was released last year on Starbucks' now-defunct Hear Music label).
All of these detours have had some engaging moments, but the fact is, none have matched the experimental genius of Lennon at his most far-out--say, "Tomorrow Never Knows" from "Revolver." Yet still Paul keeps trying, and now, on the heels of recent statements that he'd really like to release "Carnival of Light," a legendary "lost" Beatles track from the acid-drenched year of 1967 which preceded John's tape-collage experiments with "Revolution 9" by more than two years, McCartney has reunited with Fireman collaborator Youth, a former member of Killing Joke turned techno DJ, to craft "Electric Arguments," singing for the first time in this guise, and intentionally recording in quick-'n'-dirty punk-rock fashion, writing, playing all the instruments and finishing each of the 13 recordings in its own 24-hour period.
Clearly, McCartney works best when he forces himself to stretch via this kind of challenge: The last time the 66-year-old legend sounded this excited, inspired and energized was on "Run Devil Run" in 1999, when he was just covering some of his most loved '50s rock songs with a bunch of his pals. But the same major flaw that has plagued much of his solo output is still a problem here: The results are wildly inconsistent. There are some great tunes (the furious blues-rock of the opening "Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight" and the lovely freak-folk of "Is This Love?"), some horrible tunes (the slight skiffle ballad "Two Magpies" and the bombastic pop tune "Sing the Changes") and some tunes that fall somewhere in between (most of them on the last third of the disc, where the spacey sounds most resemble the trance-out drones of the earlier Fireman discs).
It's nice to hear McCartney having fun, and it's easier to forgive his failures when he's so obviously trying new things; I'll take this Paul over the "official solo album Paul" any day. But it's hard to resist nothing that Lennon never worried about separating pop John from experimental John--and that's why he'll always be the more avant-garde one.