Memory Almost Full
2.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
For many years after the break up of the Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison tried to bury the group’s legacy in an attempt to establish their own. (Ringo may have played the fool but he wasn’t one. He embraced being a member of the world’s greatest group from the beginning to the end.) Until the day he died, George Harrison pretended the Beatle elephant was never in the room. John Lennon condemned the Beatles, then mellowed in his semi-retirement, and was coming to grips with his past when his future was snuffed out. As usual, Paul McCartney tried to out do Lennon, painting only the rosiest of images in his songs about his life in the band. McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” recalls some of those carefree Macca mop top moments, and comes to grips with whether we’ll need him and whether we’ll still feed him now that he’s 64.
McCartney is the eternal optimist, a “glass half full” type, as opposed to John Lennon’s pessimistic “glass half empty” view of life. Their diametrically opposed personalities made them a great pair creatively, but eventually turned their working relationship into a bee’s nest. Divorced from each other, Lennon was allowed to delve into his self-appointed role as a misunderstood, angry revolutionary, while the prolific, ain’t-life-grand McCartney wrote silly love songs. Personally, I always preferred Lennon’s tell it like it is poet persona to McCartney’s itinerant musician act, because Paulie spit out meaningless songs as if he was working an assembly line at a Ford factory and getting paid by the note. Lennon’s material fed the mind, while McCartney’s fed the feet, and neither approach was airtight. Lennon seemed to run out of music after “Walls and Bridges” (ever notice how “How Do You Sleep” and “Steel and Glass” sound alike?) and he let Yoko have waaaaay too much sway artistically (“Somewhere in New York” anyone?). Not to be bested by Lennon, McCartney let Linda have waaaaaay too much face time with the mike in Wings, and released too many twee songs with lyrics that would embarrass a pre-schooler. (Let’s sit down and listen to the inner meaning of Paul’s recording of “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” What, they’re isn’t one? No? Then how about the enlightening wisdom of “Ebony and Ivory?” or “Bip Bop?”). Macca has been trying to re-write Beatles history since Lennon was ventilated, releasing “Let It Be…Naked,” a vanity project supposedly remastered the way it was intended to be, without the strings on “The Long and Winding Road.” It was also noticeably without John’s needling of Paul’s songs, such as his sarcastic introduction to the title track…”That was ‘Can you Dig It’ by Georgie Wood, and now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Angels Come.” Ringo is the only one around who can still around to contradict Paul, and Ringo always went along with whoever had center stage in order to keep the peace. (Ringo is so easy going, when he found out that George had slept with his wife Maureen, he shrugged it off and toddled off to Apple Studios with Harrison.)
Cute, infinitely talented as a musician, but also shameless and self-centered, Paulie has spent most of his solo career competing against his mates in an effort to be top Beatle. “Memory Almost Full” falls short of his best work -- he may never top “McCartney,” “Ram,” or even “Wildlife” in terms of creativity, or “Band On the Run” for sales -- but this is one of Macca’s better recent efforts…within memory.
“Dance Tonight” represents everything that’s either right or wrong about Macca’s talent as a songwriter. It’s a catchy, foot stomping, mandolin based sing-a-long that Mr. Rodgers would have liked to call his own. “Dance Tonight” has its roots in “Ram On,” the ukulele dominated title tune from McCartney’s 1971 “Ram” album. “Ram On”’s Rudy Vallee production simultaneously recalled speakeasies and foamy Hawaiian beachheads; “Dance Tonight” is pure English pub music. Its silly simplicity will win you over. Wolf down a warm pint and stamp yer feet.
“Nod Your Head” ends the CD on a high note. It’s everything the other rockers on the album aren’t – straight forward and enjoyable. Paul “Wix” Wickens synthesizer work is a nod to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and Paulie pushes his vocal chords until they’re raw, which fits right in with the song’s rebel rouser theme. “Nod Your Head” comes on with a strong dose of attitude. Paulie’s always been seen as too cute to be tough (something else John could do that he envied), so every so often he tries to prove there’s a tincture of punk in him. I still don’t believe it. Hopefully, the ridiculous lyrics (“nod it up, nod it down, side to side, all around”) won’t stop you from nodding your head in agreement that this is one of Paulie’s better songs.
What’s Almost Full…
“Ever Present Past” is perky, infused with a touch of Paul Weller’s “My Ever Changing Moods.” It’s damaged a bit by a typically mawkish Macca chorus: “The things I think I did, I D.I., D.I. did. The things I think I did, when I was a kid.” Except for the insipid chorus, this synthed-up piece of pop is engaging, with Macca in fine voice for someone who’s been singing since dinosaurs roamed the earth.
“What we are is what we are. And what we wear is vintage clothes,” McCartney sings cryptically in “Vintage Clothes,” a modern-day look back at the 60s mod scene the Beatles practically created, complete with the whistled interlude from “Winchester Cathedral” and bits of the mellotron section borrowed from “Strawberry Fields.” Breezy, full of psychedelic gimmicks, it’s another song that says nothing, but does so in a pleasing manner.
For “That Was Me,” Macca adopts the guise of a 50s greaser, recalling “Mersey beatin’ with the band…” “That was me in the party, sweating cobwebs in the cellar.” Try not to fixate on the annoying dentist drill pounding on the piano and enjoy Macca’s skill on walking bass and the scratchy Gene Vincent guitar.
“Only Mama Knows” starts off with dramatic string section and a lone violin topping off an arrangement so overdone it would bankrupt a big budget movie. Then it goes into self-destruct mode, stumbling into a driving rock treatment reminiscent of “Back Into the U.S.S.R” or “Helen Wheels.” Never cared for McCartney’s faster tunes, and this one suffers from percussion that sloshes along like windshield wiper’s tossing aside road kill. The overdependence on reverb in the vocal doesn’t hide an obvious fact – the cute Beatle’s voice is a bit rough here. Yes, Paulie, sometimes you are too old to rock and roll.
“Mr. Bellamy” is another one of those quirky parlor songs that McCartney loves to dabble in (listen to “Dear Boy,” “Martha My Dear,” “Your Mother Should Know,” or “Arrow Through Me”). But this mister is undermined by a choppy, zombie-jerk Addams Family arrangement – the only thing missing on the harpsichord is Lurch. The spastic arrangement steadies itself near the song’s conclusion with a dramatic calm-after-the-storm passage that further substantiates McCartney’s ability to create beautiful music, but it’s a case of too little too late.
Macca goes James Brown in “Gratitude.” Unfortunately, “I wanna show my gratitude” is repeated with the force and bad intent of a hammer pounding Martin Luther’s feces to the door of the church door at Wittenberg. (Yes, I know it was theses, but I think you understand what I’m getting at.) To top off this wide-ranging train wreck, the layered Disney-like back up vocals are in direct opposition to the Little Richard jump and shout vocal approach McCartney used in “Oh Darling.”
“Feet in the Clouds” is another sonic mess. Paulie can’t decide if it’s pop, psyche or rock, so he tries a bit of everything and comes up with nothing. Get yer head out of the clouds, Paulie.
“House of Wax” is a house of cards that crumbles under Macca’s melodramatics. He works in an edgy guitar solo that gets negated by an odious piano, crashing cymbals and screechy vocals that’ll melt the wax in your ears. And this guy really needs a lyricist.
If McCartney plays “The End Of The End” at his funeral, his mourners will laugh and Heather Mills will beat him with her spare peg. “On the day that I die, I‘d like jokes to be told, and stories of old, to be rode on like carpets that children have played on, and laid on while listening to stories of old.” I repeat Paulie, you need a lyricist. When all else fails, you can always resort to whistling. But for cripes sakes, Paulie, get up off your divorce settlement fund and talk with Keith Reid, Peter Brown or Jim Capaldi’s widow Aninha. Maybe they’ve got some spare lyrics you can borrow.
The bonus memories are a trio of interesting but not necessarily memorable tunes. The instrument “In Private” begins with the running bongos trick used in Andy Pratt’s “Avenging Annie,” only at a slower pace. Paulie shows off his acoustic chops, bringing to mind “Classical Gas” with an Indian flair. “Why So Blue” is a mature (for McCartney) ballad with swirling strings. No oompah music here, just a Beatle finally taking off his mask. They should have left some room on the CD for this one and closed “The House of Wax.” “222” (not the 60s TV show) borrows the piano riff from “Take Five” as Macca scats like Michael Jackson on speed. This is much more experimental than anything else Macca has attempted recently. As always, it works musically, but is a lyrical Death Valley. If you’re going to repeat “Look at her walking” ad nauseum, why bother?
The Videos…A Big Mac Extra Value Meal
The deluxe edition comes with a heaping helping of Macca and friends at a concert shot in London earlier this year. The band, (Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray on guitars, Macca on bass, “Wix” Wickens on keyboards and beefy Abe Laboriel on drums) is in full throttle and on target. Paulie reclaims “Drive My Car” from the Beatles – Okay Paul, we get it…The songs you sang were the ones you wrote and John sang the songs he wrote. No, wait, you wrote them all! There’s a second version of “Dance Tonight” which is still a stamp-yer-foot crowd pleaser, plus three other tunes from the album, “Only Mama Knows,” “House of Wax,” and “Nod Your Head.” When Paulie says “Nod yer head,” the crowd eagerly complies, proving that even 40 years later a Beatle can still hypnotize a crowd into doing anything he wants. Due to an abundance of thrashing and feedback, “Nod Your Head” comes off harsh and noisy in concert, but the crowd seemed to love it, so perhaps you will too. (I’ll take the studio version.)
The DVD also contains promotional videos for “Dance Tonight” (making its third appearance) and “Ever Present Past.” The surprise here is that the “Dance Tonight” video is not the same promo you may have seen with a tie-dye colored Paulie skipping down Penny Lane with his mandolin. (Too bad it’s not included.) This version has a plot, although it’s a paper thin one. A grumbly postman goes out of his way to deliver a package to Sir Paul. Paulie ordered a cricket mallet, but gets an enchanted mandolin instead. When he begins to play it, he conjures up all manner of playful, party-minded spirits. It’s a pleasant, take-yer-mind-off-yer-troubles piece of cinema and infinitely more watchable than the video for “Ever Present Past,” which features Paulie dancing in a museum with some pasty models badly in need of a sandwich. It’s nice to see that he can lift his leg unaided by a cane – It means there may be hope for us all. And it doesn’t matter if Paulie dyes his hair – at least he’s still got hair to dye.
When “Memory Almost Full” works, it’s because Paulie’s got his voice, his impish lyrics and melodies all in line. When it’s almost full, (as it is most of the time), it’s because Macca’s voice strains and his lyrics sound as if his baby daughter Beatrice. And when his “Memory” is empty, you can blame McCartney for trying to better the Beatles. Good luck with that one, Paul.
You may not listen to this when you’re 64, but Paulie’s latest has enough musicianship in it that given time, maybe it’ll turn into a pleasant memory.