[9 December 2008]
It’s no secret that Paul McCartney was the member of the Beatles with the major jones for experimental music.
Though George Harrison may have beat him to the punch in releasing a solo album with his understated 1968 Moog jam Electronic Sound, it was Macca’s infatuation with musique concrete and the compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen that inspired the found-sound collagist nature of such late-period Beatles nuggets as “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution No. 9”. And just because he was the one member who enjoyed the most mainstream success, gauged by a steady stream of oftentimes gorgeous and inspired, other times corny and contrived radio hits throughout the course of his nearly four-decade long post-Fabs solo career, doesn’t mean the man doesn’t still have a few avant-skeletons in his closet.
Yet while the grand majority of Macca’s material both on his own and with his successful ‘70s band Wings was primarily rooted in pop songwriting, a deeper look into his catalog will show you that the man still has a pinky toe dipped in the experimental hot tub, primarily in the form of the Fireman, his secretive side project with Killing Joke bassist and ambient producer Youth. The duo’s previous two albums together, 1993’s Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest and 1998’s Rushes were both rooted in the downtempo ambient club music of groups like the Orb, whom Youth has worked with in the past.
In fact, their union was originally conceived as a remix project by Youth himself after Macca invited him to the studio to deconstruct and reassemble Paul’s 1993 album Off the Ground, perhaps one of the three worst albums McCartney has ever put his name on. Youth wound up taking pieces of Ground, reassembling them and incorporating found sound samples, old Macca-related demos, pieces of Wings’ 1979 swan song Back to the Egg and new music recorded by McCartney into the fray. It was a wild, leftfield experiment that yielded more satisfying the results the second time around on Rushes, which added more guitar and live bass elements to the mix and coalesced in 2000 with the excellent Liverpool Sound Collage, a one-hour continuous tape collage of Beatles music and studio chatter created by McCartney, Youth and members of Super Furry Animals that comes off like 2006’s Cirque De Soleil soundtrack Love after a few months with the Maharishi and some seriously laced John Cage chewing gum.
Over the last ten years, McCartney has released perhaps his strongest continuous string of albums since the early ‘70s, starting with 1997’s outstanding, Jeff Lynne-produced Flaming Pie right on up through to last year’s label debut on Starbucks Coffee’s Hear Music imprint, Memory Almost Full. So what a better way to add to the winning streak than revive the Fireman from its decade-long hibernation and unmask the thinly-veiled mystery behind Macca and Youth’s collaboration by releasing the new album, entitled Electric Arguments, as an out-in-the-open Paul McCartney project. Meaning that McCartney is actually singing and playing guitar on this particular Fireman album, prompting a 180-degree turn from the duo’s initial vow of anonymity and reconfiguring the concept of the Fireman as a more freewheeling artist-based work along the lines of the first McCartney album and Ram.
So is it any good? Well, that all depends on where you stand as a Macca fan. Electric Arguments, by all accounts, is the most diversified work McCartney has put his voice to since McCartney II back in 1980. Eschewing the ambient house concept of the first two Fireman albums, Youth and Macca instead spent 13 non-consecutive days over the past year recording each of the album’s 13 tracks, which, helps to give Arguments its sporadic nature. Some of the tracks evoke a heavier vibe, like the bluesy stomp reminiscent of Led Zeppelin-by-way-of-Tom Waits on the opening number “Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight” and the uptempo rocker “Highway”.
Others find McCartney tapping into his unrequited affinity for traditional English folk, namely the Pentangle-esque “Travelling Light”, gospel music on “Light from Your Lighthouse” and, for some odd reason, new age pan flute music on “Is This Love?” Then you have songs that reflect upon the varying degrees of McCartney’s solo career, ranging from the inspired (particularly the beautiful, Ram-like folk ditty “Two Magpies” and the mid-tempo “Sun Is Shining”, which could easily be mistaken for a Flowers in the Dirt outtake) to the insipid (tracks like “Sing the Changes” and “Dance ‘Til We’re High” rank up there with “Silly Love Songs” and Give My Regards to Broad Street amongst the cheesiest material in the Macca canon, quite arguably).
Shades of the original Fireman style emerge on Arguments’ last couple of tracks, as predominantly instrumental cuts like “Universal Here, Everlasting Now” and the ten-plus-minute “Don’t Stop Running” bridge the gap between the soundscapes of Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest and Rushes and the musicality of the new material with satisfying results.
Though perhaps a more serious fan of the Paul McCartney songbook will certainly continue to cite the likes of 2001’s understated Driving Rain, 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and the aforementioned Memory Almost Full as much stronger releases on almost every level, Electric Arguments does harbor its own unique charm that will certainly appeal to longtime fans moreover than Macca’s previous pair of Fireman jaunts. Could McCartney III be not too far off the beaten path? That remains to be seen. But nevertheless, it’s good to see the old man get a little weird once again.