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Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7.5
sound:    8
released:    2007
label:    Hear Music/MPL
reviewer:    Stephen K. Peeples

ImageWhen The Beatles' LOVE collection was released in 2006, the college-age staff at a busy chain bookstore played the album on the in-store sound system nine times, back to back. I heard about this from my son, a store manager in his early 20s who grew up to share his dad’s fondness for the Fabs, their songs, and their studio innovations. Most of my son’s young staff were Beatles fans too, especially the ones working in the music department.

When Sir Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full album was released June 5, 2007, my son told me later, the bookstore staff played it only twice. They thought it sucked so badly the first time, they played the 13-song CD again just to be sure. After the second play, they unanimously ordered it banned from in-store play.

This is what McCartney has to compete with -- his ever-present past. Not always an enviable load of baggage for an artist with a perpetually restless creative soul and a constant need for a means of expression.

I didn't find out about the bookstore staff’s reaction until I'd already gone to a local Starbucks just to buy the CD, played it once, thought it was barely listenable, then played it again to make sure my first take wasn't off. When I mentioned all this to my son, he dropped the bookstore stories on me and confirmed I wasn't losing it. Yet. Regardless of what we thought -- and I'll get into my take more specifically a bit later -- by the end of that first week Memory Almost Full turned out to be McCartney's biggest-selling, highest-debuting solo album of the SoundScan era (1991 on), with first-week sales of 161,000. It hit the Billboard album chart at #3, behind albums by T-Pain and Rihanna, who appeal to audiences largely unfamiliar with McCartney's music. Memory Almost Full was riding at #3 when Sir Paul celebrated his 65th birthday in mid-June.

The album started with 75 per cent more sales than his last solo studio effort, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, released by EMI/Capitol in 2005 with initial-week sales of 92,000, enough for a chart debut at #6. McCartney also supported Chaos with a massive tour.

Memory Almost Full’s better initial sales had a lot to do with his Starbucks connection. After a 40-plus-year career mostly on EMI/Capitol (with a few years at Columbia in the middle), McCartney’s MPL organization released this album through a distribution deal with Starbucks. The chain now has 10,000 retail outlets, and reaches the McCartney-loving Boomer demographic that stopped going to brick and mortar record stores like Tower or the Wherehouse years ago (which accounts in part for the former’s demise and the latter’s downsizing).

According to Billboard's analysis, Starbucks contributed 47 per cent of the album's first-week sales, and Starbucks execs confirmed McCartney's June 5 sales were the biggest opening-day numbers for a CD in the chain's history.

The out-of-the-box McCartney had built considerable buzz for the latest album's release with a brilliantly orchestrated all-media marketing push that used traditional print ads, TV and radio spots, lots of media interviews and personal appearances, surprise mini-concerts, a goofy video for the first single "Dance Tonight" (directed by Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame and featuring Natalie Portman and Mackenzie Crook, in which Mac wears black Converses and busks down the street with his mandolin), an interactive website devoted to the album, and use of email to put Paul's personal messages about the making of the album into the inbox of every fan who signed up to receive them.

About the only thing less than consumer-friendly about the package was including lyrics to just a few songs in the CD booklet, and requiring buyers to visit McCartney’s website to get the rest. Oi, ‘scuse me, mate, but I paid retail for this CD and I want the lyrics to all the tracks printed in the bloody CD booklet. If you want me to go to the website, include some interactive link on the CD and a good reason for me to click through.

That rant aside, I thought Memory Almost Full was less brilliant than the marketing campaign, and less interesting as the story behind the project.

As Sir Paul explained in one email (and on his website), he actually started sessions for this album in 2003 with his touring band and producer David Kahne, but was half-finished when he and producer Nigel Godrich connected and got into the Chaos project. After the Chaos sessions and tour, McCartney went back to the 2003 sessions, completed existing tracks, and added a few more.

Paul played most of the parts; what he didn't play was handled by ringers from his excellent touring band, including Paul "Wix" Wickens (keyboards), Rusty Anderson (guitars), Brian Ray (bass) and Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums), who played on "Only Mama Knows," "You Tell Me," "Vintage Clothes," "That Was Me," "Feet in the Clouds" and "House of Wax."

"In places it’s a very personal record and a lot of it is retrospective, drawing from memory, like memories from being a kid, from Liverpool and from summers gone,” McCartney wrote. “The album is evocative, emotional, rocking, but I can’t really sum it up in one sentence.

"There is a medley of five songs towards the end and that was purposefully retrospective. I thought this might be because I’m at this point in my life, but then I think about the times I was writing with John [Lennon] and a lot of that was also looking back. It’s like me with ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ -- I’m still up to the same tricks!"

Except one thing: There's nothing on Memory on a par with those two compositions. No Lennon to collaborate with. Nothing new that can compete with Sir Paul’s ever-present past.

A month after I'd first heard it, I listened to Memory Almost Full again, but my reaction was the same. In fact, it was worse the third time around.
I still thought the first two songs -- and first two singles -- were the catchiest. "Dance Tonight" was an ultra-light Savoy trifle, if you will, and "Ever Present Past" a pleasant, slightly more substantial rocker driven by a cool fuzz guitar riff.

Its lyrics refer to the past that went by in a flash; it follows him always, and he has a hard time living up to it. In the present, he barely has time for a meaningful relationship because he's so busy chasing the muse and the moment: "I've got too much on my plate/don’t have no time to be a decent lover/I hope it isn’t too late/searching for the time that has gone so fast/the time that I thought would last/my ever-present past…”

While McCartney doesn't make specific reference to the demise of his marriage to Heather Mills, listeners may read into that and a few other songs and speculate, if they are so inclined. That interplay between Sir Paul and listeners is hardly new.

"I know people are going to look at some of the songs and interpret them in different ways but this has always been the case," he acknowledged in his email. "The thing is that I love writing songs, so I just write and write. I never really get to a point where I start thinking I’m going to write about specific subjects. Inevitably though, what I am thinking is going to find its way into what I’m doing."

Quantity does not always mean quality. Let's face it. One of the reasons McCartney's work with the Beatles achieved the levels of excellence it did was having a Lennon to serve as a sounding board and editor, someone he respected and could count on to be brutally frank.

Track three, "See Your Sunshine," is a silly love song buoyed by synthesizers and multi-layered harmonies, and reminiscent of Wings; so is "Only Mama Knows," with echoes of "Band on the Run." "Only Mama Knows" opens and closes with a maudlin string figure, bookending a rocker about a poor misunderstood bastard who never knew his father (only Mama knew the whole story).

"You Tell Me," to me, is a bittersweet attempt to remember and focus on when things were good, after they’ve gone bad. He asks a departing lover, and I'm paraphrasing, "Was it ever good for you? You tell me. At this point, I haven’t a clue."

After a brass intro and brief backwards bit, McCartney tells the story of "Mr. Bellamy," a troubled soul who’d rather stay home, upstairs alone, and never come down. Few of us escape feeling like that from time to time. The whole song sounds disturbed. But unlike the hauntingly beautiful "Eleanor Rigby," I felt no connection to Bellamy. I'll concede to being somewhat desensitized 41 years after first hearing “Rigby,” but I felt little to no compassion for Bellamy and his alienation. The last time I heard “Eleanor Rigby,” on the LOVE compilation, my heart still broke for her, the millions of lost souls she represented.

McCartney's strongest rock vocal performance comes on "Gratitude," but when he wails about wanting to show his appreciation to his loved one, it sounds insincere to me, almost sarcastic, as in, "Thanks for nothing." I could be way off the mark here, but I get the same
kind of passive-aggressive smart-ass vibe as I did from "You Tell Me."

The five-song arc McCartney referred to in his email as purposefully retrospective includes, as best as I can tell, “Vintage Clothes,” "That Was Me," "Feet in the Clouds," "House of Wax" and "The End of the End."

"Vintage Clothes" looks at being older as a positive; we're not old rags, we're vintage clothes: "What we wear is what we are/and what we wear is vintage clothes/...check the rack/what we are is coming back." There's a nice little jazz figure that leads from the chorus to the verse, but the song and track otherwise seem inconsequential.

“That Was Me” is a loping, funky little shuffle with McCartney’s flashbacks to childhood, early career and the present in succeeding verses. There's some nice descending single-note bass work and in the last section Sir Paul's vocal ventures a bit back into Little Richard territory.

"Feet in the Clouds" is McCartney’s answer to childhood authority figures who told him he had his mind in the clouds. In fact, he says, his head has always been on the ground and his feet in the clouds. It must have been tough to convince people of this; he sings “I find it very hard…” a dozen or so times. Unless that's more double entendre.

"House of Wax" opens with McCartney on piano and echo-drenched vocals, intro-ing a slow, minor-key, moody rocker with some tasty lead guitar in the middle and end, reminiscent of "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd and sounding like it belongs on a film soundtrack.

"The End of the End" is the most provocative thing on the album to these ears, perhaps because I'm just nine years behind McCartney and likewise trying to come to terms with my own mortality. He sings that the end of the end is the start of a journey to a much better place, and a much better place must really be special, 'cause this one wasn't bad. On the day he dies, he goes on, he'd like jokes to be told, bells to be rung, songs to be sung. "No need to be sad/at the end of the end."

While I’m still ruminating about the song, this place, a better place, leaps of faith, jokes that might be told at my funeral, "Nod Your Head" crashes in and shatters the spell. It irritated me. The album's closing track is loud, rough trash-rock -- shades of the Beatles’ "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" -- but with weird minor chords and an obnoxious synthesizer line in the verses. Like "Road," it ended abruptly, and thus Memory Almost Full.
Poking my player’s eject button and yanking the CD, I almost sailed the disc right out of the window. I stopped only because I didn't want it to slice some innocent passerby down below. The intensity of my reaction surprised me. I can't recall ever being so torqued after listening to an album, much less one by an icon and personal hero whose work I have admired, uneven though it may have been, since late 1963.

At the end of this third play, again, the only two melodies that stuck in my memory were, still, the first two songs, the singles.

McCartney explained in his email how he came up with the Memory Almost Full title (there is no song by that name on the album). It's a phrase we propeller-heads see from time to time in our sundry digital devices, warning that we're running out of resources. Most of us know that applications on a computer or other device don't always run very well when almost all memory's being used. You have to scale back some tasks. Or buy more memory and expand capacity. Sir Paul may have used Memory Almost Full as the title in an attempt at self-deprecating humor, but it may also indeed be time for him to free up some resources to improve performance.

With the exception of a few scattered effects, McCartney and session producer/ programmer David Kahne took a “what you hear is what you get” approach, which gives many of the basic tracks a live feel. In the opening track, for example, McCartney’s mandolin sparkles brightly while the field bass drum sounds street-authentic, with a nice, rounded bottom. McCartney and Kahne’s crew of engineers included Adams Noble, Steve Orchard, Paul Hicks, and longtime collaborator (since Revolver) Geoff Emerick, plus half a dozen assistants. Kahne and Andy Wallace mixed, working at See Squared Studios and Soundtrack Studios in New York and Hog Hill Mill Studios in Sussex, and opted to optimize the music rather than add extraneous effects. Bob Ludwick, another sonic legend with golden ears, mastered at Gateway Mastering in Portland.

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