Review: McCartney’s Kisses
Hugs by Krall, Clapton, & Co.
Of all the pop stars who have issued tribute albums to American pop standards, Paul McCartney is in some ways the least likely to wind his way down the nostalgia lane. In other ways, you might wonder why it took him so long. After all, he was the Beatle who sprinkled the group’s later records with his takes on very old-school arrangements, “When I’m 64″ being probably the best known. Somehow his music-hall inspired ditties (“Honey Pie,” “Your Mother Should Know”) seemed to fit right in with psychedelic-era Beatles experimentation, particularly in contrast to the bombastic Vegas-style production numbers that dominated mid-sixties TV variety shows and helped drive a cultural wedge between young baby-boomers and their parents.
Those songs were, of course, a miniscule element of McCartney’s 50-year songwriting and recording output, which has continued despite personal tragedies and setbacks (the loss of one spouse and bitter divorce from another after 30 years of domestic tranquility) and the inevitable effects of aging. For much of his 60′s, McCartney, who turns 70 in June, has been astoundingly like his 1960′s self, sill able to blast through rockers like “Drive My Car,” “Let Me Roll It,” even “Helter Skelter,” in concert while contemporaries like Roger Daltrey bid adieu to formerly athletic and supple voices.
But time doesn’t stop, and the classic American songbook reveals vocal imperfections unexposed by fast-moving romps like “I Saw Her Standing There.” The first thing one must accept about Paul McCartney, the 2012 crooner, is that the choirboy tones of “And I Love Her,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and “My Love” are long gone. That voice is not just pining for the fjords, to quote Monty Python, but bleeding demised, an ex-voice.
This is a bad thing only if one disavows the appeal of the character and weathering that can imbue an aging male voice in tackling pop classics. McCartney’s “ballad voice” is now deeper, full of quavers, and lacking in control and sustain, conditions that barely affect the seemingly indestructible Tony Bennett, born 16 years earlier. But Bennett underwent the typical training of serious singers raised in the traditions of live theater and performance unassisted by electronics. McCartney helped revolutionize music in part by avoiding those traditions, often seen as constraints by successful musicians in the rock era. Like Willie Nelson, McCartney’s approach to standards is consistent with his natural command of music, and his septuagenarian vocal character is as much enhancement as distraction on his new album.
What gives Kisses on the Bottom enormous appeal is its good taste. McCartney’s sometimes tenuous readings are supported by great song selection and the foundational heft provided by Tommy LiPuma and Diana Krall. The songs lean toward the lighthearted, with chestnuts like Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” and “My Very Good Friend The Milkman,” Nat Cole’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (also recorded by countless others), and the Ink Spots’ “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me).”
But the Cute One also tackles some of the more introspective Songbook standards (while staying firmly in the neighborhood closest to Tin Pan Alley), like Irving Berlin’s “Always,” with its seldom heard and comparatively dark verse preceding the familiar refrain, “Home (When Shadows Fall),” and “My One and Only Love,” the youngest song on the album (other than McCartney’s own compositions) and the closest he gets to a modern “jazz standard.” It is to these ballads that McCartney’s aging voice sounds best suited, and its craggy, truncated hesitancy gets wrapped in a blanket woven by Krall’s rhythm section, John Pizzarelli’s and dad Bucky’s guitar playing, and Alan Broadbent’s string arrangements.
McCartney’s own contributions, “My Valentine” and “Only Our Hearts” fit right in, aided by guitar and harmonica solos from Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. Both songs are distinctly contemporary, but clearly in the melodic pop tradition at which McCartney has always been adept, making these songs among the most tuneful he has come up with in decades of trying to make his music appeal to ever-changing modern-rock audiences. If you’re looking for a song that brings back the vibe Macca created with his Beatles music-hall excursions, it may be his composition, “Baby’s Request,” an uptempo lounge number that brings back the playful improv of “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number).”
But McCartney comes closest to his classic self with the bluesy “Get Yourself Another Fool,” aided by Clapton in B.B. King mode. Frank Loesser’s “Inch Worm” also approaches a Beatlesque treatment with its harmonized acoustic guitars and counterpoint background vocals. McCartney also covers Loesser’s “More I Cannot Wish You,” a ballad from Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” that didn’t make the movie version. (It should be noted that McCartney’s MPL Communications owns the rights to Loesser’s shows.) Here, McCartney again fittingly brings his weathered voice to a song that puts him in the role of mentor to a person “full of the bloom of youth.” McCartney has finally attained the role played by Wilfred Brambell in A Hard Day’s Night — the loyal grandfather, not Brambell’s “king mixer,” but still “very clean.”
Yet anyone who has seen one of McCartney’s recent concerts or his Grammy telecast appearance knows that he is not becoming a “lonely old man from Liverpool,” as Ringo refers to Grandfather in AHDN. And Kisses on the Bottom may turn out to be as ephemeral and relevant as the ones on the letter in “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down.” But as an exercise in class, taste, and devotion, it stacks up as one of McCartney’s most noble efforts in a long career that has less than nothing to prove.