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Saturday, November 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #11: Memory Almost Full, Electric Arguments, Etc.

I'm coming towards the end of this journey through Sir Paul McCartney's oeuvre, and this month I had the strong feeling that Macca himself had come to an end of sorts as well. This poses a problem, at least insofar as my unfortunate tendency to attempt to impose some meaningful biographic narrative upon McCartney's musical journey goes--because, obviously, Paul's life and word didn't come to an end with the stuff I listened to this month. The albums and recordings that I thoroughly familiarized myself with this November were made between 2006 and 2012--that is, McCartney's mid- to very late-60s, which I've always kind of thought of as retirement age. There is a lot that I've listened to--and, really, come to love--over the past month that seemed to me entirely fitting as a retirement statement from Paul, as providing closure. Still, no such closure yet. Whether the work Paul has produced in his 70s will make rethink my impression remains to be seen. I kind of hope so--I don't want to wish on this man I've come to appreciate enormously the opinion (for whatever that matters!) that he's spent the last 7 or 8 years making music and going on tours that are nothing but exercises in nostalgia. Still, for the moment, I heard in McCartney this month something of a grand finale. We'll see if I change my mind.

First, the stuff which complicates and qualifies my impressions. Just before he turned 70, McCartney released Kisses from the Bottom, a collection of music hall and classic jazz standards. It's a vanity project, and as far as that goes, it's...fine. Sir Paul has always loved this old sentimental stuff (what Lennon called Paul's "granny shit"), and if he wants to make like a crooner, he's more than free to do so. But frankly, the only interest I think any genuine fan of this music could have in this recording is if they were also genuine fans of Macca, and thus really find some enjoyment in hearing him make his way through "It's Only a Paper Moon," etc. Paul has an awesome pop and rock voice, capable of both folk whimsy and bluesy growls, but here he just sounds thin, without the kind of texture these slow songs demand. The two original tracks were composed with a better sense of what his voice is capable, and they can stand on their own two legs, but the best that can be said for any of the rest is that they aren't unpleasant to listen to. The same goes for Ecce Cor Meum and Ocean's Kingdom, classical recordings which came out in 2006 and 2011, respectively. The former is a return to the oratorio form that he made use of 15 years earlier, and while this one is better, it's still more admirable (it's probably the closest that McCartney has ever come to really exploring his own deepest spiritual beliefs) than enjoyable. The latter is similarly a return, this one to the quiet tone poem approach of Standing Stone, and it, like that one, makes for a pleasantly meditative listening experience.

But now, his actual forte--the bass guitars and pianos and rhythms of pop music. The more I listened to Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (the latter being his third Fireman album with Youth but the first time, really, that his collaboration with that producer generated not just ambient remixes but strong, distinct pieces of music, and hence this is the first time I'm treating a Fireman production as a real Paul McCartney album) the more I was put in mind of Sting's 57th & 9th. Sting, after years of work on his Broadway play and orchestral recordings of his earlier compositions, decided he wanted to make a rock and roll album again. He was 65 years old. Similarly, after years during which the best of his often uneven pop work was--I think, anyway--usually on the mellow and folky side, I feel as though McCartney, also age 65 (or thereabouts), wanted to go out strong; he wanted to rock. So he went back to recover songs left unfinished before Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, wrote some new ones, worked with Youth on doing some remixes, and the result was these two albums, which came out in 2007 and 2008. Neither are as great as his best solo work--but together, I think they rival Flowers in the Dirt, Tug of War, or even Band on the Run.

On Memory Almost Full, for a change, the weaker songs are the quieter ones: "You Tell Me" sounds like a belabored prog rock ballad, and "Gratitude" is just soggy."See Your Sunshine" is a middling effort, as is "Nod Your Head." But I have a hard time criticizing anything else. "Dance Tonight" is solid, upbeat folk-pop, "Only Mama Knows" has a furious, infectious beat, "Mr Bellamy" is a clever pastiche of pop and rock styles that starts slow but grows on you, and "Ever Present Past" has the kind of bright sound which Youth led McCartney often to (on the album I discuss below). The closing medley songs includes one that should have been cut ("Feet in the Clouds"), but it ends with "House of Wax," which is a kind of brilliant reworking of Chaos's "Riding to Vanity Fair," taking the moody echoes of that mysterious love song and turning it into an equally mysterious, but also angrily crashing denunciation of (and/or search for) the cult of authenticity. It's not Dylan, but that's what it's reaching for. And I don't know how anyone could criticize "The End of the End," a gorgeous ditty both Beatlesesque but also mature and rueful. I give this album a B, his best and most complete set of recordings he's produced since Off the Ground. (I should also mention that, immediately after the release of this album, McCartney did a small, exclusive show at an Amoeba Music store in Los Angeles, and the result--originally released as an EP tiled Amoeba's Secret, later as a promotional album titled Live in Los Angeles, and then finally as a complete recording titled Amoeba Gig--is, in my opinion, the best live McCartney show since Tripping the Live Fantastic.)

I'm tempted to rank Electric Arguments even higher than Memory Almost Full, though I can't really justify that. I haven't bothered to grade any earlier Fireman releases before--I found the first a pretty great collection of rave beats, the second a disappointing bunch of yoga music. But neither were really pop records, the way this one was. It starts less than impressively; "Nothing Too Much Out of Sight" is rehashed Led Zeppelin, and "Two Magpies" is a weak faux-Delta Blues number. But beginning with the third track, "Sing the Changes," and running all the way through the ninth track, ""Lifelong Passion," Electric Arguments provides song after song with the big, shimmering, experimental energy of the best of 90s-era U2. "Light From Your Lighthouse" has McCartney sounding like a Keith Richards vocal track left off Some Girls and rediscovered and re-produced for the 2000s, and "Sun Is Shining" sounds like McCartney redoing the previous album's "See Your Sunshine," only doing it right this time. Really, it's a tremendous run of tunes. The album peters out with a return to slow, uninspired, ambient beats in its final cuts, which is a bummer--imagine if Paul had been guided by some strong producer (perhaps Youth himself!) to drop the weaker songs from both albums and release them as a double-album. What a terrific send-off that would have been. Ah well.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Taking Our Time with Century II

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

The argument over what to do with Century II has quite arguably been a subtext to just about every major debate which has been conducted in our city in 2019. With the rapid construction of the new baseball stadium and the redesign of McLean Boulevard on the west side of the river, the need to think about the east side, and in particular the fate of Wichita’s single most notable landmark (sorry Keeper, but you know it’s true), has been unavoidable; you can see the evidence for it everywhere.

Last spring, The Century II Citizens Advisory Committee, chaired by Mary Beth Jarvis, finished their work, concluding that a new performing arts center to replace Century II was a necessity. By the summer, historical preservationists and other activists were organized to protect Century II, asking hard and necessary questions about retrofitting alternatives, financing schemes, and influence of local development interests. At a mayoral debate in the fall, a disagreement between Mayor Jeff Longwell and Mayor-Elect Brandon Whipple over the loss of the downtown coffee house and community center Mead’s Corner was seen as staking out different approaches to historic buildings like Century II. And now, as the year comes to an end, the design group Populous–which was paid $700,000 to come up with plans for the whole Hyatt-Bob Brown Convention Center-Century II bloc–have revealed five possible scenarios for reconstructing the entire downtown riverfront; three of which gets rid of the building entirely, with one preserving it intact and another designing it as an open-air shell. After all these months the argument, as 2020 draws closer, finally seems to be coming to a head.

I don’t envy those whose responsibility it will be to juggle the financial, architectural, environmental, and economic aspects of this decision (though I’m gratified to see Whipple at least making it clear that this decision will have to be framed in such a way that voters will be able to exercise some real responsibility over it, as wasn’t the case with the fate of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium). I would only suggest, on the basis of two meetings about Century II I’ve attended in the last couple of weeks, that the generational aspect of the decision not be ignored either.

One of the meetings I’m speaking of was a small, exclusive gathering–only six people were present–at private home, which I was fortunate enough to be invited to. Bill Warren was there, getting ready to thrown down the gauntlet he announced on Sunday in support of preserving Century II. The four others (besides myself) included a couple of the most well-known and influential people in the city. Everyone there was white, and the average age skewed...well, let’s just say “older.” The focus was strictly on contemplating ways to impress upon the Wichita population the architectural significance of Century II, the possibilities for its future use, and the great costs involved in simply wishing it away.

The other meeting I have in mind was held at Roxy’s Downtown, organized by W (the new name of Young Professionals of Wichita). It was open to public, and pulled in about a 100 people, including a number of young local leaders (city councilman Brandon Johnson and county commissioner Michael O’Donnell both were there). The crowd was young–it was a mostly late-20s to mid-30s group, with only a sprinkling of Gen-X-and-above types like me–and about as racially diverse a turnout as I’ve ever seen at a civic meeting here in Wichita. The focus was on reviewing, ranking, and commenting upon the plans which Populous has presented...a process which, even before it formally began, showed every sign of reflecting a deep anti-Century II sentiment. (When one older gentleman stood up to defend Century II and suggest that internal renovations might still be possible, he prefaced his comments by saying “Please don’t throw bricks.”)

So, two very different meetings, reflecting two very different slices of Wichita’s demographics. At the W meeting I ran into a former student of mine, a young African-American woman heavily engaged in fund-raising efforts for the restoration of the Dunbar Theatre. It was great catching up with her, and she wasn’t not shy–as the conversation about Populous’s different options developed, with everyone making comments about all sorts of different possibilities and opportunities–at making her perspective known. “I’m a Wichitan, I’m not going anywhere, and so I’m thinking about what I can enjoy for the next 50 years. How many years do all those folks calling Century II some kind of monument that should be preserved have left? Maybe 20?”

She wasn’t alone in feeling that way; the votes on the various proposals, and the comments posted in real-time from peoples’ phones (it was a very interactive meeting), made it clear that getting rid of Century II–whether to create a open green space to extend from a proposed new performing arts center all the way down to the river edge (Scenario 1), or to allow for an expansion and reconstruction of the convention center (Scenario 2)–was something almost everyone agreed on. Scenario 3A, the only one which keeps Century II intact, was the lowest ranked of all five by a long measure. (Scenario 3B, which suggests knocking out Century II’s walls but opening up and preserving the space under the dome didn’t get much love either, which I thought was too bad, though maybe that’s just because I grew up in a city that similarly retro-fitted a huge old pavilion from the 1970s into an open-air space that served as our downtown centerpiece for decades.)

That the answer to the question of Century II needs to respect the views and hopes of those who will be living with and making use of it decades into the future seems obvious. But at the same time, it would be wrong to assume that the accomplished people at the first meeting were a bunch of instinctive “no’s”; rather, they were experienced people asking additional–and, in some ways, even harder–questions. Like: Have we considered building a new performing arts center solely for stage performances, thus making it more cost effective to concentrate solely on acoustic improvements in Century II for Wichita Symphony and the like? Or: Have we asked whether it really is the case that large amounts of convention business passes Wichita solely because Bob Brown lacks windows, as opposed to the (I think much more likely) fact that flight connections through ICT remain poor? Complicated and unromantic as they may seem, such questions have to be asked.

And, to be fair, they are being asked; indeed, if you listened closely at Roxy’s, you heard and saw, along with the desire to grandly remake Wichita’s riverfront, other, less expansive and more careful concerns. My former student expressed a couple of them to me. Regarding all the talk about mix-used developments to “activate” and generated revenue-generating commerce along the river: “All these shops they want to build as part of the riverfront–will they make sure that a low-income person like me will be able to shop there?” And regarding all the talk of the Arkansas River an accessible part of the plan: “What kind of river clean-up will come along with it? You can’t make a ‘Riverfront Legacy’ if the river’s natural legacy isn’t a priority.” Good questions, both of these–and that just scratches the surface.

So while there probably is a significant generational divide in how Wichitans think about Century II, it’s not a total divide by any means. Which is all the more reason to make sure we take enough time to make certain that everyone in both of these cohorts, and everyone in between, can hear all the questions be asked, without having the pressure of some promised quick land deal driving the conversation. Yes, decisions will have to be made, at city council and county commission meetings and in the voting booth; we can’t put it off much longer, and that means some will be unhappy with the results. But we can reach that result in a respectful, inclusive way, and that starts with listening. The best, most lasting parts of any city’s built environment are those that come slowly, organically, through the actions of citizens both young and old. Century II was built to be that, and the new Century II, whatever it’s called, should be too.