2 stars (out of 4)
On his first album since 2007, “Kisses on the Bottom” (Hear Music), Paul McCartney tosses his dinner jacket over his shoulder and takes a casual stroll down Tin Pan Alley, revisiting songs his father used to play on the family’s piano in ‘40s and ‘50s England.
The tunes are classic American songbook fare written by the greats – Frank Loesser, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen – and once were the core of countless classic jazz albums by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. In the rock era, they’ve resurfaced on career revival albums by desperate types such as Rod Stewart and McCartney’s old pal, Ringo Starr, whose “Sentimental Journey” was recorded to please his mum in 1970.
Now McCartney’s stab at the nostalgia market is framed as a Valentine’s Day gift to his new wife, Nancy Shevell, though it otherwise arrives at an odd juncture. The ex-Beatles bassist has been on a late-career roll, releasing a string of albums that rank with his best solo work and playing long, satisfying concerts. In many ways he’s been rocking with greater purpose than he has in decades. So this slow-dance with the misty past can’t help but feel like a letdown.
In aiming to make an easy-listening mood album, McCartney hired pros who know their way around the lounge: jazz pianist Diana Krall and her band, plus veteran producer Tommy LiPuma, who has worked with Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole, among others. The singer approaches these songs from a respectful distance, recording them in period style with brushed drums, upright bass, drizzles of piano, cushy strings. Indeed, the influence of vaudeville and ragtime songwriting on his work has been apparent for decades (consider the Beatles’ "When I'm Sixty-Four," “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and “Honey Pie” for starters).
These songs are meant to swing, but McCartney lets them plod. His take on "Bye Bye Blackbird" is so deliberate it nearly stalls. Many of these standards sound slightly out of his range, and his voice strains even though he’s singing at barely-above-a-whisper volume. Things improve when McCartney slips on his top-hat and cane to soft-shoe through Waller’s "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."
He sounds most at home on “My Valentine,” one of two originals on the album, and the tune that best suits his vocal range. With Eric Clapton embroidering nearly every line with acoustic guitar fills, McCartney finds the casual authority he never quite grasps anywhere else on the album.
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