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Music reviews: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr

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Paul McCartney, "Kisses on the Bottom" (Hear/Concord) 2 and a half stars

maccakisses.jpgThe idea sounded perilous -- Paul McCartney, one of the most revered writers in pop music, shifting gears into interpretive mode for an entire album of standards from the '30s and '40s. John Lennon used to knock's McCartney's "granny music" in the Beatles (specifically deriding "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"), and now here's McCartney at age 69, a grandfather himself, cooing through Johnny Mercer and Fats Waller? Should we expect a double bill at casinos this summer with Michael Buble?

McCartney, though, has been a nostalgic old fuddy-duddy since he was a teenager. "Yesterday" wasn't his only misty-eyed glance backward, and he was especially reflective on his last album of original pop, 2007's "Memory Almost Full." which found him examining his "Ever Present Past" as well as singing, "Don't live in the past" ("Vintage Clothes"). Never one to take his own lyrical advice, McCartney told Rolling Stone last year he's wanted to do an album of standards "since the Beatle days" and delayed it further with good reason: "But then Rod [Stewart] went mad on it. I thought, 'I have to wait so it doesn't look like I'm trying to do a Rod.'"

Blessedly, McCartney does not pull a Rod. "Kisses on the Bottom" is a trifle, for sure, but a largely pleasant one.

The cheeky title, so to speak, comes from the second verse of the album's first song, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," referring to the X's and O's with which the narrator plans to amend his signature. This album is its own love letter, a heap of sentiment collected for McCartney's late father, Jim, who played these songs at the piano for his family in a Liverpool suburb. The production and arrangement throughout is just that intimate, in fact, which is what makes the whole thing so instantly comfy. McCartney's aim isn't as broad as Linda Ronstadt's recordings with Nelson Riddle, nor do these "Kisses" smack with the retro gimmickry of Stewart and countless others who've used the "songbook" to substitute a lack of ideas. This is a very quiet, delicate set that fulfills McCartney's simple, stated mission: "This is an album you listen to at home after work, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea."

"Kisses on the Bottom," in that respect and others, greatly resembles "As Time Goes By," Bryan Ferry's 1999 album drawing from a similar era. Like McCartney here, Ferry had no delusions of being a jazz singer, but he surrounded himself with fine players, kept a leash on everyone including himself, and came out the other end with a nifty café record. McCartney is backed by several astute jazz players, including Diana Krall and her band, who don't play their instruments as much as they pet them, stroke them, sigh into them. The jazz guitar in "Always," the wistful piccolo in "Only Our Hearts" (one of two songs McCartney wrote for this occasion), Krall's fleet, feathery piano throughout -- it's all so light sometimes it barely holds together. McCartney's voice spends much of the time in an unusually high register, cooing and sighing, only coming down to recognizable Macca for "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," which is about as punchy as this album gets, and his other original tune, "My Valentine" (a sample of which can be heard in the video below).

The two original compositions are graced by some extra guests -- Eric Clapton's guitar on "My Valentine," Stevie Wonder's harmonica on "Only Our Hearts" (the first time they've recorded together since "Ebony and Ivory"). Both songs slide easily into the oeuvre. McCartney's Beatles tunes became standards themselves, later parroted by Ella and Sinatra. Neither of these new tunes leaps out as an enormous accomplishment, but either could enjoy long life snugly in the songbook with the other oldies.

It's warm, it's cozy, it's whimsical. (In fact, the only time the record really nose-dives is when the whimsy overtakes it, as in the odd selection of "The Inch Worm" or the cutesy way McCartney sings "My Very Good Friend the Milkman.") It's utterly unnecessary, only a paper moon. But McCartney presents more conviction and heart here than he has on many of his more rocking solo albums. "More I Cannot Wish You," indeed.


Ringo Starr, "Ringo 2012" (Hip-O) 1 and a halfstars

Meanwhile, the other living Beatle, good ol' Ringo, returned last week with yet another perfectly competent, terribly quaint record. Named for today, Starr's 17th solo record is really all about yesterday. (Ringo's even more nostalgic than Paul -- and he actually beat Paul to the standards punch by a long mile, releasing "Sentimental Journey" the year the Beatles split.) This album's title actually is a nod back to "Ringo," the drummer's 1973 solo outing featuring each of his former bandmates; he even pulls back and retreads "Step Lightly" from that album. Starr, 71, pays tribute to Buddy Holly ("Think It Over") and dredges up "Rock Island Line" for a monotone run-through. None of this feels like an attempt to modernize or even reflect, even though the production is flawless and the instrumental performances are so professional they slide right off the ear. It's more like stubborn nostalgia, a typical Vaudevillian romp from the Beatles' lil' scamp. Living out his own cliché, Starr refuses to get by without his friends, and this album features another wild assemblage around him: jazz bassist Charlie Haden, blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Van Dyke Parks, Benmont Tench, Don Was, brother-in-law Joe Walsh and the now-omnipresent svengali Dave Stewart, to name only a few. Like McCartney's throwback, Starr's record is a fine trifle -- but McCartney's sounds much more committed and inspired.


Roberta Flack, "Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings the Beatles" (429/Sony) 3 stars

It's Beatles week! Also available on Tuesday is this set of a dozen Beatles classics sung by one of pop's finest vocalists, Grammy-winning contemporary Roberta Flack. Far from mere covers, these arrangements are lively new takes driven largely by bright acoustic guitars and just the right amount of occasional programmed beats. "Oh Darling" is delivered as a sweet blues, and "If I Fell" is smooth as spider silk. The album closes with a powerful performance of "Here, There & Everywhere" at Carnegie Hall from 1972.


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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