Sunday, March 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #3: Band on the Run and Venus and Mars

I obviously haven't finished my song-by-song march through everything McCartney did with Wings, but I will be very surprised if these two albums don't turn out to be the best work ever done by that band--or, more specifically, done by the trio of Sir Paul, Linda, and Denny Laine, whomever else may or may not have joined them in the studio. Band on the Run is the best-selling and most critically acclaimed post-Beatles album that McCartney ever played on or wrote a song for, with or without anyone else, and I judge those accolades very much deserved. And Venus and Mars has some great songs on it as well--and, more importantly, with the (brief) addition of the fantastic guitarist Jimmy McCulloch to complement Laine's lead and McCartney's bass, and Joe English on drums as well, you had the makings of a genuine, functioning, mutually interactive and developing band. Too bad it didn't last.

Ban on the Run was released in December 1973, barely six months after the still comparatively aimless Red Rose Speedway, and man, what a difference a half a year can make. The Paul-Linda-Denny trio ended up with nine tight songs, three of which--"Jet," "Let Me Roll With It," and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five"--are, I think, rock and roll songs of the first order, making use of driving horns, crunching bass lines, synthesized organ tones, and boogie-woogie piano. The title song is, of course, a fun pop medley, one that actually holds together in a way that the half-done stitching jobs Sir Paul had given a pass to on his previous albums usually did not. "Bluebird" and "No Words" may not be your cup of tea, but they're both fine examples of how Macca can sometimes turn his fondness for sappy love songs in subtle or surprising directions. "Mamunia," which you expect to be a lazy folk-pop tune, turns out to be a sweet, hummable, clever number. Even "Mrs. Vanderbilt" and "Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)," both of which have McCartney's stereotypical thrown-together feel to them, nonetheless sustain some real musical integrity, and remain entertaining to the end. So really, this whole album is excellent, very much worth listening to all the way through again and again. I give it an A.

Venus and Mars was recorded a year and a half later, mostly in New Orleans. It has a couple of duds: "You Gave Me The Answer" is just McCartney letting his old music hall side out again, and it's hard to know what "Spirits of Ancient Egypt" (a Laine composition) is supposed to be. But many of cuts on the album are supported by tight horns and funky grooves that takes Macca's lyrics in new directions--"Letting Go," "Call Me Back Again," even the pretentious "Rock Show" (which is paired with the almost unbearably twee "Venus and Mars") are all fine, driving rock and roll songs, worthy of a listen or three. "Listen to What the Man Said" was the album's huge pop hit, but "Magneto and Titanium Man" is just as good, maybe better (I think it's terrifically witty, but maybe that's just because I catch all the comic book references). My favorite cut on the whole album, however, is the one which wasn't a McCartney composition: "Medicine Jar," written and sung by Jimmy McCulloch, is a swampy, bluesy, barn-burner; I adore it, and I can't believe no one tried to release it as a single. So give this album a solid B. If McCartney hadn't done what he so often did in the 1970s, and release his best songs--in this case, the blistering and wicked smart "Junior's Farm"--as singles rather than sticking them on the album made from the sessions where they were recorded, it would probably be higher, maybe even at Band on the Run's level.

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