All Access Review: B+
In sharp contrast to the full-blown, star-studded spectacle that was his grandiose performance of the medley “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” at the 2012 Grammys, Paul McCartney’s new album of re-imagined standards – plus a couple of new tracks from the former Beatle – is tastefully understated and quietly elegant. Apparently feeling nostalgic for the vintage music that made his parents’ generation swoon, McCartney, ever the romantic, got the itch to lovingly record a set of soft, jazzy renditions of forgotten classics from the mythical Great American Songbook for Kisses on the Bottom – the title a line from the opening track on the record, the Fred Ahlert/Joseph Young composition “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Somewhere, mum and dad McCartney are dancing cheek to cheek to their boy’s musical valentine to them.
Trading in his grand piano and his Rickenbacker bass for Diana Krall and a host of top-notch jazz session players – plus contributors Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder – McCartney went to the right place to make Kisses on the Bottom. Setting up shop in Capital A Studio in the famed Capitol Records building in Hollywood, McCartney sang his vocals into what turned out to be the mic Nat King Cole once used, as he relates in the fascinating Q&A included in the album’s liner notes. Everybody from Cole and Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin and Gene Vincent recorded there, and the ghosts that haunt the room surely paid a visit during the Kisses on the Bottom sessions to see what McCartney and his producer, Tommy LiPuma, was up to. Though he admits to being a little intimidated by the atmosphere, McCartney rises to the occasion.
Warm and wryly romantic, McCartney’s nuanced singing – he does not play an instrument on Kisses on the Bottom – sinks in the downy comforts of Krall’s gentle piano sketches, and on occasion, almost disappears into the candlelit glow of pieces like “Home (When Shadows Fall)” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Nevertheless, both tracks are carefully and beautifully arranged, with the dewy “It’s Only a Paper Moon” a country-tinged firefly of light guitar and shuffling rhythms dancing around a light, back-porch melody. Better still is the aching “More I Cannot Wish You,” a song from “Guys and Dolls” that was cut from the movie. Tender and moving, the song is treated with the sweetest string accompaniment imaginable and the kind of subtle playing that pricks hearts, with McCartney adopting the role of the grandparent sharing a lifetime of wisdom with a little girl that comprises the track’s narrative. It’s an affecting moment, one that listeners won’t soon forget.
Turning ever more playful, McCartney trips the light fantastic when turning on the neon cocktail jazz lights of “The Glory of Love,” “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” – all three songs sung with his trademark humor and an easygoing outlook on life’s joys and sorrows. Although the mood shifts into a dreamier state of consciousness on the slumbering “Always” by Irving Berlin, McCartney and company narrowly avoid falling into a deep sleep, as “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” tiptoes slyly about with mischievous intentions and the bluesy twilight of “Get Yourself another Fool” seems to be swept along by a lonely, heartbroken janitor – or the London Symphony Orchestra to be precise – remembering a particularly satisfying kiss-off given to some thoughtless lover.
Of course, it’s the two McCartney originals that created the most buzz for Kisses on the Bottom, and “My Valentine,” the first single, comes closest to revisiting the breathtaking pop beauty of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” or “Here, There and Everywhere.” Despite some lovely guitar picking by Clapton, Krall’s touching piano and string arrangements that enhance the sense of longing in McCartney’s voice rather than overwhelm it – as say Phil Spector might be tempted to do – “My Valentine” doesn’t quite have the sparkle of those diamonds. McCartney’s “Only Our Hearts” closes out Kisses on the Bottom, and like the black rose that is “My Valentine,” it is imbued with sadness that comes from the idea of missing someone that feels like a part of you.
It’s a little surprising that McCartney sounds so depressed on “My Valentine” and “Only Our Hearts,” given his fairly recent tidings of good news where his own heart is concerned. Still, McCartney has experienced his share of disappointments, and he wrings out every emotion that love can elicit on Kisses on the Bottom, from unabashed joy to regret-filled feelings of loss and pain. While his vocals aren’t always as strong or as full of character as one would like, McCartney does his best to honor the material, much of which is similar to those beloved old standards he used to sing with his family on occasions like New Year’s Eve – the significance of which is explained by McCartney in the liner notes. As inspired as he was by Elvis and other rock ‘n’ roll originators, it’s evident from Kisses on the Bottom – where the instrumentation is rich and complex, and so are the glorious arrangements – that McCartney’s songwriting was influenced just as much by Gershwin and Cole Porter. A labor of love for him, Kisses on the Bottom is a touching tribute to the craft of songwriting, the kind that many would find schmaltzy these days but that which, in a less vulgar age, made couples dance close and stare into each other’s eyes until they forgot everything else around them. And, it just might make you fall in love with McCartney all over again.
- Peter Lindblad
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