George Harrison is dead. Long live Sir Paul McCartney.
With the recent loss of the relatively young Harrison, McCartney seems all the more precious and Beatlemaniacs have seen a kind of dear friend -- one of rock-and-roll's most underrated guitarists -- forever pass into the great hereafter. Besides teaching John Lennon how to do more than just look good with a guitar, beautifully playing lead in the world's greatest rock-and-roll band, and always exhibiting a rarely equaled musical versatility, Harrison was a perfectionist, a master of his instrument and of melody, originality, and economy.
But George has finally completed the art of dying, and it seems strange that Paul's newest album, Driving Rain, was barely into its first month of release when we lost another one of his fellow Beatles.
The very imaginative Driving Rain kicks off with "Lonely Road" and its thick riffs and twang. Another obvious ode to late wife Linda, it misleadingly begins an album of multifarious intent and method. But Driving Rain is coherently compelling throughout, both an exercise in diversity and a strong return to experimentation. What continues to surprise is the uncanny resilience of McCartney's voice -- he must gargle water from the fountain of youth. And as a great party album, Driving Rain could even shrink Beck's Dionysian aspect.
From the timeless precision of the title song to a departure in sound for McCartney, "She's Given Up Talking" (a bit of spooky modern pop with complex rhythm and careening electric guitars), the album stands as one of his most well-rounded. And there is, of course, no shortage of love songs. On "Magic," a gorgeous tribute to girlfriend Heather Mills, McCartney leisurely sings, "There must have been magic/The night that we met/If I hadn't stopped you/I'd always regret." Et cetera.
Driving Rain gains momentum with "Spinning On an Axis," its playful, fluid changes and philosophical mien making it one of the best songs on the album. The driving drums and effortless melody of "About You" prepare us for the healthy rock of "Back In the Sunshine Again" and the perhaps overindulgent (yet dynamic) "Rinse the Raindrops," which is followed by the affecting "Freedom," a hidden 16th song and last-minute addition from the September 11th benefit concert. "Rinse the Raindrops," though, gives us a little over 10 minutes of McCartney reprising his role as assured musical frontiersman: Meandering but ultimately cogent, this wild sonic excursion seems to catalog rock-and-roll's every transfiguration over the past 35 years. -- Jeremy Spencer
Buddy & Julie Miller
On this their long-anticipated first album together, the dynamic Nashville-based duo do not disappoint. Though it was touted to be an all-country album, which is Buddy Miller's forte, it turns out to be pretty evenly divided between traditional fare and the harder, darker material that Julie Miller favors. And the Millers glide effortlessly from one genre to another -- from the hillbilly punk of "Little Darlin'" to the symbiotic Richard-and-Linda-Thompson harmonies on the opening track to pure Carter Family (their original tune, "Forever Has Come To an End," with Emmylou Harris crooning in the background). In fact, this album reminds me of Emmylou's classic Wrecking Ball not only for its sagacious mix of roots and rock but also for its atmospheric beauty.
Produced by the Millers, some of the tracks take the listener into an otherworldly realm. It's little wonder that Buddy is so in demand as a producer as well as a touring guitarist. His talents in the latter department are amazing. The man can do a delicate, spooky distortion (a la Richard Thompson) and then deliver a gut-wrenching solo or white-trash thrash without batting an eye. And Julie's voice, all innocence personified and delicate as a bee's wing on the old-timey stuff, goes divinely raunchy on some tracks here. In fact, on the stellar track "Dirty Water," with Buddy's lachrymose but sensual guitar providing a hypnotic background, her hisses and moans conjure up images of an Appalachian PJ Harvey. This duo's debut is not to be missed. -- Lisa Lumb
The Reindeer Section
Great Scot! That's one supremely atrocious album title. It's bad-stupid instead of good-silly, which ranks it right up there with REO Speedwagon's You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish, Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog-Flavored Water, and Michael Bolton's Timeless: The Classics, Vol. 2. Along with the whimsical cover art depicting blobular cartoon reindeer frolicking in a spot of grass, the title implies a certain lightheartedness in the accompanying music, but that's so not the case. YGSN, YH! is full of bleak, deliberate folk rock that's perfectly suited to an evening spent sipping pints at the back of a smoky pub.
Such melancholia is appropriate given the makeup of the band, a supergroup whose members hail from some of Scotland's finest alt- and post-rock outfits, including Snow Patrol, Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, and Arab Strap. Snow Patrolman Gary Lightbody wrote most of the album in one sitting after discussing the supergroup idea with his bandmates at a Lou Barlow gig (at last, Barlow's good for something!), and he sings the deceptively simple tunes in a genuinely heartbroken voice. On "12 Hours It Takes Sometime," he consoles a long-distance lover that "we'll be here for 30 years or maybe more We can meet up somewhere, on our own time." It's a lonely, hopeful, endearing moment on an album that's surprisingly full of them.
But the MVP award goes to drummer Jonny Quinn, who plays with Lightbody in Snow Patrol. His inventive rhythms seek out the sags in these sad songs and prop them up like tent poles.
There's a pleasant chemistry between all the musicians involved in the project, which lends YGSN, YH! a cohesion that suggests a real band instead of a one-time-only supergroup. The music is indeed memorable, but the presentation needs a lot of work.
-- Stephen Deusner
Strange Little Girls -- Tori Amos (Atlantic): This batch of cover tunes written exclusively by guys is more a recorded act of music criticism than homage, and, in those terms exclusively, a pretty successful experiment. The perfect Tori Amos album for record geeks (like me) who've never liked Tori Amos and about as compelling a feminist critique of male-centric rock as Exile in Guyville -- just nowhere near as good a record. ("New Age," "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," "Strange Little Girl," "Real Men")
Songs in A Minor -- Alicia Keys (J Records): Though there's plenty of good stuff lurking beyond the fab first single and solid second one, the preponderance of song doctors here precludes me from crowning this child prodigy/Clive Davis protégée the new Stevie Wonder, though she does share '70s-era Wonder's penchant for sounding genteel without sounding stuffy. So while the Wu-Tang sample and choice Prince cover are ace touches, this boho-soul bandwagon-jumper is as much Mariah Carey and Debbie Gibson as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, but that doesn't mean it isn't a mighty impressive debut. ("Fallin'," "How Come You Don't Call Me," "Girlfriend") -- Chris Herrington