It's funny the way nostalgia works. When a veteran rocker decides to delve into some pop style that went out of fashion years before he was born, critics get excited because a dying tradition is being kept alive.
Let that same star return to the sounds of his youth, on the other hand, and the same reviewers cluck their tongues disappointedly. Why, they wonder, is this aging rocker so obsessed with the old days?
No doubt there will be those who see Paul McCartney's latest album, the rockabilly-based "Run Devil Run" (Capitol 7243 5 22351, arriving in stores today), as just such a retreat into the past.
Even though it's his first album since the death of his wife, Linda, last April, his own tragedy is barely even addressed (the almost impersonal "Try Not To Cry" is as close as the album comes to dealing with grief). Apart from three vintage-style originals, McCartney sticks to cover songs, filling the album with oldies associated with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent.
But before dismissing the album as superstar self-indulgence, pull up a speaker and listen to what McCartney does with these songs. "Run Devil Run" is less an oldies album than a reminder of just how little the basics of rock and roll have changed.
Rather than remake these songs in hopes of mimicking the magic McCartney heard on the records of his youth (as fellow Brit-rocker Jeff Beck did on his 1993 rockabilly tribute album, "Crazy Legs"), McCartney did it his way, ripping through the songs with little regard to the specifics of the original arrangements.
So when he goes back to "Honey Hush," the guitars are well-cranked (think Cheap Trick, not Johnny Burnette), while his version of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" trades the chugging rockabilly of Buddy Holly's arrangement for a rollicking zydeco-flavored approach.
According to the production notes, the freshness of McCartney's take on these songs stems in part from the fact that he took such a fast-and-dirty approach to the album. Recorded in just a week, the album was cut without rehearsal, allowing McCartney and his backing band to bash 'em out with unaffected glee.
It didn't hurt, of course, that he was working with some of Britain's best rockers, a crew that included Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, guitarist Mick Green of the Pirates, Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and veteran session keyboardist Pete Wingfield. (McCartney handles the bass playing.) Yet for all the talent on hand, there's never a sense of needless virtuosity in the playing, as the band seems more interested in generating excitement than in showing off.
So when it's time for Green and Gilmour to swap guitar solos on Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop," they never quite upstage the lean, swinging pulse McCartney and Paice have been maintaining. Some of the solos, in fact, are simply extended riffs, reinforcing the melody on "No Other Baby" and pumping up the energy in "All Shook Up." Imagine if the Dave Edmunds/Nick Lowe new wave band Rockpile had a Beatle out front, and you'll have a sense of how wonderful the playing on this album is.
McCartney, by the way, is in stunning voice, singing with such youthful vigor that you half expect to hear John Lennon joining in on the chorus. From the soulful abandon of "She Said Yeah" to the Fats Domino croon of "Coquette," the vocal performances on "Run Devil Run" remind us of how little difference there is between the sound of the '60s McCartney and the current version.
McCartney's look back may amount to nostalgia, but it's worth remembering that there's a reason those oldies became goodies in the first place.
"Run Devil Run"
(Capitol 7243 5 22351)
Sun score: * * *
"Breakdown" (Island 314 546 518)
Rock and roll has long cherished its flair for the dramatic. Indeed, the style's most ambitious songwriters, from Bob Seger to Bruce Springsteen to Jim Steinman, have tried to bring an almost cinematic sensibility to the music, going for the aural equivalent of a wide-screen epic.
In truth, though, most rock and roll operates more on the level of soap opera, opting for the visceral impact of melodrama over the emotional complexities of great cinema. Not that there's anything wrong with that; after all, hokey, overstated passion was precisely what attracted listeners to such classic love-and-death sagas as "Teen Angel," "Tell Laura I Love Her" and the recently revived "Last Kiss."
There's nothing quite so extreme on Melissa Etheridge's new album, "Breakdown" (Island 314 546 518, arriving in stores today), but it wouldn't be surprising to learn that she, too, was a big fan of those early '60s teen weepers. How else to explain the distinctly soapy cast of her big, frustrated-love numbers?
"Angels Would Fall" is a case in point. Lyrically, it's a sort of pop-song equivalent to "The Thorn Birds," in which Etheridge's protagonist burns with forbidden passion for some unnamed priest or nun. It's full of clever lines, like the one in the chorus suggesting that if angels met her beloved, "Then one by one the angels/Angels would fall."
But what keeps that chorus from turning corny is the surging intensity of the arrangement, combined with the minor-key passion of Etheridge's melody. Because the sound is so big and dramatic, we accept the verbal hyperbole without question. It may not make a lot of sense, but it feels right.
If only Etheridge were able to pull that trick off with every song. Unfortunately, "Breakdown" breaks more often than it soars, as the tepid, mid-tempo rock of tunes such as "Truth of the Heart" or "My Lover" makes it impossible to overlook the lameness of her semi-aphoristic lyrics.
Then there are those songs which go for The Big Message but stumble on the way to delivering it. "Scarecrow," which is dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was beaten and left to die in Wyoming, is perhaps the most disappointing of these, because it tries so hard to be deep and insightful but manages only to be trite and obvious. Even if the music itself were more anthemic, Etheridge's lack of lyrical fire would keep the song from burning brightly.
By contrast, Etheridge's growing-up-lesbian number, "Mama, I'm Strange," makes no attempts at profundity and yet winds up profoundly entertaining, conveying her sense of being not-quite-normal with such charm, wit and musical grace that even straight listeners will feel like singing along.
* * 1/2
Pub Date: 10/05/99