- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 17, 2001

PAUL McCARTNEY

Driving Rain

(Capitol)

This is Paul McCartney's comeback album comeback, that is, from the death of his wife, Linda. With a host of memorable melodies and his voice and instrumental work, especially his bass playing, in top form, Paul regains the creative momentum he had after 1997's "Flaming Pie." At times, he even seems to be showing off how good his voice still is at age 59.

On display throughout "Driving Rain" is the McCartney of "Oh Darling" and "Maybe I'm Amazed," not "Silly Love Songs" and "Ebony and Ivory." Sure, a couple of beautiful ballads are mandatory "From a Lover to a Friend" and "Your Loving Flame" but the production is stark, the arrangements simple. No elaborate background choruses, no George Martin strings, just the player and his piano, with a little help from the three 20-somethings who make up his pickup band throughout. Even longtime McCartney fans are likely to be surprised at some of the turns taken by these songs.

Mr. McCartney recorded nearly everything here in two weeks this past February, rehearsing the new material on the spot, then putting it on tape. Producer David Kahne, whose credits stretch back to the Bangles and up to recent favorites Sugar Ray, pulled together three top musicians from the Los Angeles scene guitarist Rusty Anderson, keyboardist Gabe Dixon and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. to accompany Macca. Their energy level fuels material that roars out of the speakers.

There's a lot of music here, too, from ballistic rockers such as "Lonely Road" and "About You" to the quasi-psychedelic "She's Given Up Talking" and the Al Green-ish "Tiny Bubble." Mr. McCartney even tips a hat to fellow Beatle George Harrison's sitar sound with "Riding Into Jaipur" and manages to make rap remarkably melodic on the lengthy "Spinning on an Axis." The countrified "Your Way" is reminiscent of the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son."

Closing out the album is "Rinse the Raindrops," a 10-minute-plus raver that probably will make most listeners start the album over again. Mr. McCartney tacked on as a bonus cut his newest song, the anthemic "Freedom," recorded only a month ago at the Concert for New York City, which he pulled together for the benefit of World Trade Center victims.

Rock on, Sir Paul. Fran Coombs


TONY BENNETT

Playin' With My Friends:

Bennett Sings the Blues

(Columbia)

Continuing his late-career series of thematic albums, Tony Bennett takes a swing at various blues numbers, joined more or less by such "friends" as Diana Krall, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, K.D. Lang, Billy Joel and Natalie Cole. He even does his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," with Judy Garland, who shuffled off this mortal coil in 1969.

Although several of the songs are keepers, Mr. Bennett's effort does not come off as well as his recent tributes to Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. It's worth noting, however, that Mr. Bennett's pipes haven't lost much power at the age of 75. The man is amazing.

One reason I don't rate the album all that highly is strictly personal: I don't particularly care for the genre. I occasionally enjoy the work of such blues singers as "Lady Day" and Joe Williams, but a whole album of the blues with their trademark repetition of lyrical lines is a bit much for my tastes. But if you feel otherwise, you'll probably love this CD.

Another negative is that most of these numbers apparently are electronic duets in which Mr. Bennett's partners were nowhere near him. The skimpy liner notes give no indication whether the duets indeed were perpetrated by twisting dials, and Mr. Bennett is pictured with many of his fellow artists. However, Phil Ramone is listed as producer, which makes me suspicious. Mr. Ramone was the guy who conceived and produced Mr. Sinatra's two phony "Duets" albums of the 1990s, which are an affront to true "Blue Eyes" fans.

Mr. Bennett does solo on "Don't Cry Baby," "Blues in the Night," "Undecided Blues" and "Old Count Basie Is Gone" and does very well. The last of these is easily the best song on the set, a swinging and evocative tribute to the good old days of big-band jazz.

Otherwise, I liked "Everyday I Have the Blues" with Mr. Wonder, "New York State of Mind" with Mr. Joel and "Stormy Weather" with Miss Cole. All in all, though, I prefer my Mr. Bennett straight and uncluttered by others.

One final complaint: Mr. Bennett has a reputation as a nice guy, but he needs to gush a little less. Was making this album really "the most memorable moment of my 75 years," as he says in the notes? C'mon, Tony. Dick Heller


NATALIE MERCHANT

Motherland

(Elektra)

O Natalie Merchant, Where Art Thou?

First out of sight, then all over the place.

After a four-year sabbatical from the studio, Miss Merchant returns with "Motherland," a diverse album that ranges from R&B to tango influences. What results under co-producer T Bone Burnett, who put together the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack is a beautiful but elusive album that probably won't bring Miss Merchant back to the popular heyday of her 1995 solo debut, "Tigerlily."

Take, for instance, the opening track, "This House Is on Fire," which features Arabic strings and flutes and a reggae background. Sure, the juxtaposition serves to create a bit of intended cacophony, but at the same time it forces Miss Merchant into an uncomfortable rhythm throughout the song. Intended as a commentary on the craziness of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the 2000 presidential election, it gets the album off to a smoldering start.

Meanwhile, the next song, "Motherland," showcases the elegant beauty of Miss Merchant's resonant voice. The track leans toward R&B and gospel, musical styles Miss Merchant hasn't used in the past. It also has pertinence after September 11: "Motherland cradle me, close my eyes, lullaby me to sleep, keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me, don't go."

Mr. Burnett's influence can be heard on "Saint Judas," which easily could have been included on the "O Brother" soundtrack. It's one of two songs along with the R&B track "Build a Levee" that feature gospel singer Mavis Staples.

Even with everything that's right, the album remains uneven, and there's no breakout song here that grabs immediately. That may keep listeners away, which would be unfortunate because there's plenty of good stuff to unearth on "Motherland." Scott Silverstein


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