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As the Fireman, Paul McCartney offers one of his better albums

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

THE FIREMAN "Electric Arguments"

3 stars

As Paul McCartney is at pains to remind the world, it was he - and not his foil John Lennon - who brought the experimental flair to the Beatles psychedelic period, with his fondness for tape loops and collage-style arranging.

The former Beatles bassist recently revived talk that he will release "Carnival of Light," a 14-minute experimental jam the band recorded during its acid-gobbling phase. The track was played at an electronic music festival in 1967, then buried in the archives.

Yet McCartney's embrace of the avant-garde has rarely manifested itself in his "official" post-Beatles solo albums. Instead, he indulges his inner Stockhausen on a side project dubbed the Fireman with Martin Glover, aka Youth, a former member of Killing Joke and the Orb and a producer who has worked with U2 and the Verve.

The first two Fireman albums ("Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest" in 1993 and "Rushes" in 1998) emerged with little fanfare. They presented McCartney as a largely anonymous studio urchin creating wordless electronic soundscapes for the chill-out phase of a long night at the dance clubs.

The duo's third collaboration, "Electric Arguments" (One Little Indian/ATO), places a greater emphasis on songcraft and introduces vocals to the mix. It's an accomplished combination of melody and experimental mirth notably lacking in the sentimentality and puppyeyed cuteness that mar some of McCartney's more mainstream efforts. In other words, it's one of the better McCartney albums, even if his name appears only in small type on the inner sleeve.

McCartney and Youth worked quickly: 13 days, 13 songs - not that "Electric Arguments" sounds rushed or unfinished. Most of the tracks blend a small army of instruments - guitars, drums, flutes, tubular bells, mandolin - and studio tomfoolery into arrangements that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" or the B-side of a "Revolver" single. McCartney rarely sings in his normal range; instead, he adopts a variety of personas: growling blues patriarch, mischievous elf, Bono.

He sounds free to be anyone but himself, and that opens up all sorts of possibilities in the music.

"Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight" opens the album in much the same way that McCartney's fine 2007 album, "Memory Almost Full," ended: with a blast of "Helter Skelter" blues-metal, topped off by the sound of the singer audibly inhaling and then barking like a dog.

He downshifts into the acoustic "Two Magpies," his upper-register vocals multitracked to create an aura of woozy intimacy. Then "Sing the Changes" bursts through the haze, a major-key verse ushering in an even more exultant major-key chorus.

"Traveling Light" drifts into bucolic reverie, the kind of acid-tipped folk McCartney witnessed firsthand among '60s U.K. compatriots such as the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. None of the remaining songs is as strong as that opening burst, though "Dance 'Til We're High" gamely channels the widescreen blend of atmosphere and grandeur made popular by early U2, and "Light From Your Lighthouse" evokes a madcap hootenanny. The album becomes progressively stranger, a shift telegraphed by song titles such as "Universal Here, Everlasting Now." The songs dissolve in a wash of pan pipes, tribal drums, moaning bass lines and noises from animal-kingdom documentaries.

It's McCartney once again primping up his avant-garde bona fides. But not before he has also laid out some satisfying surprises.

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