Album Review — Paul McCartney’s ‘McCartney III’

Sir Paul McCartney is without question one of the greatest songwriters of all-time. The songs John Lennon and McCartney wrote influenced every artist that came after them. I should mention McCartney is also my favorite Beatle, as his excellent storytelling and ear for beautiful melodies is what in my mind makes him the best of The Fab Four. His strong solo career after The Beatles only reinforces this in my mind (although Harrison has the best solo album of the four with All Things Must Pass). And the fact that he’s still making music at 78 years old after all he’s accomplished makes me marvel. So anytime Paul McCartney makes music, I’m going to appreciate it, regardless of it’s quality.

If you’ve listened to his previous McCartney albums, you know he likes to get a little weird on these albums. McCartney served as his debut album and it was largely panned by the critics because it was just so odd and different from The Beatles (with the exception being “Maybe I’m Amazed”). But with time people have come to realize how groundbreaking this album was, as it was basically the first indie pop album and it went sharply against the grain of the “wall of sound” that was becoming popular. It was unheard of before this for an artist to do everything on the album by themselves (his wife Linda of course played a big part in that album too) and it’s what distinguishes this series of albums for McCartney. McCartney II pushed the envelope by embracing synthesizers, as this was right before synths became a big trend in pop music in the 80s. So I was expecting something different with McCartney III in tradition with the previous two albums. And he delivers something different.

McCartney said he made this album simply out of boredom during “Rockdown” (his cheeky dad joke on the term lockdown) and while the rawness of this one-man effort shines through, the thorough fullness of the songs makes this feel like something that was more carefully orchestrated. In other words, McCartney can screw around and make a better album than most people can spending years trying to craft a record. I shouldn’t be surprised after laying out above while he’s one of the best. McCartney really surprises me, as he experiments even more than I thought he would on this album and for the most part he pulls off his creative rolls of the dice really well. It’s not amongst his best work (the bar is pretty damn high), but I think it’s a step up over Egypt Station and I would put it amongst his top five best solo albums.

My attention is immediately grabbed with opening track “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” an upbeat, jangly and acoustic-driven melody. It’s got a richly hypnotic feel, as McCartney cryptically asks if you miss him, a reference I’m sure to isolation during quarantine. A really simple track, but quite effective. Also I think he’s the first person I’ve ever heard playing the recorder and I’m not reaching to plug my ears, as it strangely fits the feel of the song. It’s an ideal opening track, as I’m immediately intrigued and want to hear more.

“Find My Way” is an optimistic ode to always being there for someone, even in these anxious, uncertain times. I would point to this song as another example of why I appreciate McCartney so much as a songwriter: he can write excellent happy songs. One of my biggest pet peeves with critics and more critical music fans is the incorrect notion that only dark songs can be considered deep, high-level songwriting. The idea that sadness is a required ingredient in a “serious” song is absolute trite. Sad songs have become just as predictable as the naively optimistic music that populates playlists and radio. I prefer a happy medium in-between. So McCartney’s tendency to be more “groundedly” optimistic and happy in his songs naturally draws me to his songwriting.  “Women and Wives” is an even better example of this. It’s about being determined and always striving to move forward in life, even when the “laughter turns to sorrow” and that it’s important to pass along what you know to the next generation to help in their own path in life. The moody piano really fits the lyrics too, as it feels like the soundtrack to taking a great journey (quite apt for a song about life).

“Pretty Boys” appears to be McCartney’s sarcastic commentary on the plastic faces you see in television and magazines. He muses there’s a lot to look at, but not much substance. This is probably my least favorite song on the album, as the musings are a bit amusing, but not as interesting as other songs on the album. The alliteratively titled “Lavatory Lil” makes me recall to mind “Polythene Pam” with it’s name choice. And I don’t who this is about, but she pissed off McCartney. He warns throughout the song of a “harlot” strung out on pills and sleeping around. It’s basically a diss track and a fun one to singalong with. The aggressive and punchy guitars are also appropriate on this smack-talking track.

The meandering and dream-like trance of “Deep Deep Feeling” is a real highlight, as McCartney gets real experimental and plays around. He really lets the song breathe and wander around, kind of a like a lost trip through a maze as the lyrics explore the tugging of emotions of someone in love. McCartney’s aged voice lends well to the mystical atmosphere created by the production too. This part of the album is where McCartney really hits his stride, as “Slidin'” is a fun, heavy rocker. McCartney again plays into psychedelic sounds, appropriate as this song seems to be about being high and having an out-of-body experience. The crunchy guitars are the key to this song, as they’re infectious to the ears.

“The Kiss of Venus” is a stripped-down love song about being captivated by your partner’s kiss. When it comes to these more saccharine McCartney songs, it’s hit and miss for most listeners, including myself. You either love it for it’s innocent sweetness (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Got To Get You Into My Life”) or as John Lennon once said, it’s “granny shit” (“When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Wild Honey Pie” for me). Fortunately this falls more into the former for me. The harpsichord is also a nice touch in the bridge. “Seize The Day” is about discovering an optimistic way of thinking after having love open your eyes. As McCartney wisely laments, you’ll wish you had a better attitude when bad times arrive. It’s another well written message about striving for optimism.

“Deep Down” is very much in the same vein as “Deep Deep Feeling.” It’s a long and mesmerizing track that takes it’s time. The drums and horns give it a commanding, catchy melody and the lingering mellotron chews up the scenery in a good way. I enjoy how McCartney experiments with his voice throughout, changing his tone and octave. He’s not really sure where to settle, but it works in a strange way that’s hard to put my finger on. Of course if you’ve listened to outtakes on the various albums of The Beatles, you know McCartney has always been a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to his vocals (really his music in general) and he likes to play around with them.

McCartney does a quick reprise of “Winter Bird” before giving way to “When Winter Comes,” which has an interesting backstory. McCartney originally recorded it in 1997 during the sessions for his album Flaming Pie with longtime Beatles producer George Martin. He decided to give it new life on this album rather than burying it as a B-side on the deluxe version of Flaming Pie. I applaud this choice because it’s a great song. It’s got a smooth, easy-going melody as McCartney muses of the surroundings of his farm. I particularly enjoy the lyrics about planting trees so someone may enjoy their shade one day and fixing a fence so some foxes won’t make the chickens and lambs uncomfortable. They perfectly fit the theme of this album of always striving to give back to the world around you, even through small gestures to some animals to poking around your farm.

McCartney III is a wonderfully solid album from Paul McCartney and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who enjoy the songwriting of McCartney will find plenty to enjoy. This album also continues the fun weirdness of the McCartney albums, as this fits right in with it’s predecessors. I would put this amongst my top 20 albums of 2020 and hopefully this is not the last album we get from the legendary McCartney. Because he clearly still has a lot of creativity left in the tank.

Buy It

Album Artists, Single Artists & Why Both Need to Ditch The Old Rules

Everybody likes to talk about the genre divides in music today and how this places creative restrictions on artists, but to me there’s an even greater divide and it’s causing a much greater restriction on music creators: artists who focus on albums and artists who focus on singles.

Artists who focus on albums are usually independent/independent-minded artists (with occasional exceptions in the mainstream like Adele, Chris Stapleton, Beyoncé, etc.) that don’t get radio attention or rack up a lot of streams. Albums are meant to draw people to live shows, where they make their money. Typically their fans are more hardcore music listeners. Think artists like Kacey Musgraves, Cody Jinks, Carly Rae Jepsen and Freddie Gibbs.

Artists who focus on singles are usually mainstream/mainstream-aspirant artists that have had radio/mainstream success and/or do really well on streaming platforms. In other words they’re really popular. While they also make most of their money off live shows and hope to lure fans with big singles to them, they make a good chunk of change off the singles sales and streams too. Typically their fans are more casual music listeners. Think artists like Drake, Luke Bryan, Shawn Mendes and Post Malone.

(And yes not everyone will fit exactly into one of these two groups. But for most music listeners, if you think about your listening habits, you know you mostly fall into one of these two groups most of the time.)

This wasn’t always like this in music. It used to be purely singles driven. It wasn’t until the 1960s with artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Beach Boys started to take their albums seriously front to back that it prompted a wide-spread attitude change towards the concept of albums. It was standard practice up until this point to put out an album with a few singles and then literally put filler in the rest. Listen to early albums from The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as even they engaged in it. But then they put out legendary records like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and everybody decided to put out serious albums, at least for a little while.

Through the 70s and 80s this died down and more artists started to focus back towards singles, while there were still plenty who focused on albums too. But both still pushed albums equally. Then we get to the 90s and early 2000s, where album and music sales reached their absolute peak. Also known as when you had to drive to Walmart and pay $20 for a CD and you only knew two songs on it, praying that you didn’t just flush $20 down the drain (often times you did). Then along came Napster and the Internet and then everything in music changes. It became much friendlier towards fans, as we could now listen to music before buying and led to the streaming-driven music world we have today.

I give this little history lesson to demonstrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But also how some things haven’t changed, yet should. I’m referring to the fact that album artists are still being forced to release singles and singles artists are still being forced to release albums. It’s a huge hinderance on creativity. Why is the music industry forcing these artists to fit a square peg into a round hole?

On one side you have album artists like Sturgill Simpson, who don’t give a shit about singles because they know they’re not going to get enough attention from them to generate the amount of sales and streams needed to justify it, yet they’re forced to do the standard single release plus album announcement, followed by a month or more of PR and other unnecessary bullshit before finally dropping the album. All while the album has been ready for release for months.

On the other side you have single artists like Drake and Post Malone, who really don’t give a shit about albums because they know their bread and butter is made by releasing catchy singles that net huge airplay and streams. But yet they’re still forced to release so many hit singles before announcing an album that’s like 20 songs long that they know is just a lot of filler, but the label knows they can exploit this for streaming and chart purposes. Oh and they still do the whole PR thing for a month or so and talk about how they really “care” about the album before finally releasing it.

In both scenarios, the artists and their fans are being screwed over by having to follow this archaic and traditional method of releasing music. Why aren’t labels adapting around these artists and their fans?

Album artists should announce their albums on a Monday and then release it that Friday. Or just drop it. There’s no need for all the waiting around and picking out singles to release when they ultimately don’t matter. Single artists should just release singles when they’re ready and after releasing so many, just put them on a playlist and call it an era instead of forcing them to release albums they don’t even want to make.

I know why this traditional method is still used and it’s because it’s how many people who work at labels justify why they have a job. But really the continual use of this method just proves why their jobs aren’t needed. Many in marketing don’t want to wake up and realize that 2/3 of today’s marketing is by the end user/customer. This is why I advocate for more artists to go independent, but I digress.

Many album artists have been beating a similar drum for years, but not so much single artists. Fortunately that might finally be changing for the latter, as in country music Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton have both said in interviews recently that they’re now just releasing singles instead of albums. I applaud both of them for acknowledging the type of artists they are and serving themselves and their fans the way they should.

There are many artists unhappy with the way they’re being compensated for their music and the first step that needs to be taken in them seizing more control of this is acknowledging and changing how music is distributed. Not only this, but it could also create a fairer playing field when it comes to crowning what’s popular. Right now we have a chart system in place that heavily leans towards rewarding singles artists and streaming, while ignoring album artists and those with fanbases that prefer buying physical albums. I find this funny because labels know this, otherwise why would UMG keep Kacey Musgraves and RCA sign Freddie Gibbs and Tyler Childers? It’s because their album sales demonstrates a strong and consistent fan base, which in turn translates to steady concert sales.

The third thing this traditional release method is doing is creating unfair expectations and judgement of artists. It leads to dismissal of album artists for releasing a lead single that is only a small part of the greater picture they’re trying to show you, while single artists are getting slammed for releasing bad albums they don’t even want to make because at the end of the day they just want to release catchy hits.

No matter what side you fall on, neither are right or wrong. But both are being screwed over by the system. I know we could just keep going along with the current system (just ignoring the albums of single artists and patiently waiting for the album artists to release a record), but when there’s a better way of doing things staring you in the face, why ignore it?

What I Learned About Garth Brooks After Listening to His Ultimate Hits Album

Everyone has heard Garth Brooks music and vividly remembers his superstardom from the 90s. He then created the fake persona of Chris Gaines, got older and temporarily retired from country music. But he’s now back and his return album Man Against Machine is coming out on November 11. As a reviewer of country music it’s important for me to be familiar with artists’ past work when doing reviews on the site. With Garth Brooks that was a problem because I was one of the few who aren’t familiar with his past work. You see I was a very young child during Garth’s heyday and by the time I started to listen to country music he was starting the Chris Gaines project and fading from his superstardom. My parents also weren’t fans of his music, so when his music came on the radio station dial turned to another channel. And of course Garth’s music isn’t on iTunes, Google Play or any (legal) streaming services. After months of casually browsing the CD section at Walmart I finally came across one of his greatest hits albums, The Ultimate Hits released in 2007.

Before I even started listening to this album I was well aware of both Garth fans’ praises and Garth critics’ thoughts on his music. And after listening to the whole album I now understand where both sides are coming from with their thoughts. Garth fans love his charisma, showmanship and relatable songs. The last point was definitely something I noticed when listening to his music. Garth loves to sing music that relates to the common person, which is great and something artists today certainly should do more. At least Garth’s music paints a realistic view of everyday life and not drinking on a river bank on the back of a tailgate. Garth doesn’t have the best voice in the world, but he conveys enough emotion and charisma to make his voice standout. I can see why so many people love him.

Garth critics go after him because his music is too pop, the themes can be too cheesy and the overproduced instrumentation. Not to mention they hate his concert antics, like riding in on a zip line to the stage (but I’m not commenting on this today). I definitely heard the criticisms on his songs too. The biggest offender of these three criticisms is “Two Piña Coladas.” This song is okay with one listen, but after multiple listens it becomes quite annoying. It’s way overproduced and doesn’t sound country enough. The same can be said of “Friends in Low Places.” The cheesiness is in full effect with “We Shall Be Free.” This song does have a good message, but it panders so much to people that it makes me barf. Not to mention it’s very commercial sounding. There’s a reason this song is used in those 30 second PSAs, along with Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” Country music should never be PSA music.

There is a good side to Garth Brooks and there were several songs I did enjoy listening to on The Ultimate Hits. The moving and romantic song, “The Dance,” is a great song that sounds country. I love the use of the piano in this song and I wish more country artists would incorporate the piano into their songs, something I mention frequently on this site. The other standout I enjoyed of course is “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” arguably Garth’s best song ever. I think this is one song where most traditional country fans and Garth fans would agree is great. The song conveys great emotion and really paints a good picture in the listeners’ heads. I can say the same thing about “The Thunder Rolls.” Another song I enjoyed listening to is “Unanswered Prayers,” despite being a little cheesy. I think the song sits well for me because once again Garth’s ability to appeal to people’s emotions and their everyday life comes into play. His duet with George Jones on “Beer Run” was a fun listen too, as it’s always great to hear “The Possum” sing.

To me when it comes down to Garth Brooks, I believe he’s overrated and yet he doesn’t get enough credit either. He’s overrated in the sense that he isn’t one of the greatest artists of all-time next to the likes of Elvis and The Beatles, despite selling the third most albums all-time in the United States behind these two. Garth fans build him into something much bigger than he really is. At the same time I think traditional country fans are a little too harsh on Garth because he’s made more quality music than they’re willing to admit, even if some of that good music is pop country. Some have realized this after being hit over the head with bro country for the last couple of years.

Garth’s debut single from Man Against Machine, “People Loving People,” isn’t the best song in the world and it definitely feels like a rehash of “We Shall Be Free.” I can confidently say though that this probably isn’t an indication of the whole album. I think this new album will be similar to his past albums. There will be some good country songs, some bad pop country songs and then a few in-between. The million dollar question is what impact can Garth Brooks have in this current country music landscape? Can he pick up right where he left off or is he too old to run with today’s artists? That’ll be the interesting aspect to watch when his new album is released. All I know after listening to The Ultimate Hits is that Garth Brooks is polarizing with his music and it will always create a buzz among country music fans.