Key collaborator Diana Krall helps keep Paul McCartney's album of pre-rock standards sweet … and, unlike Rod Stewart's, subtle
There's a new Diana Krall album out, though it has Paul McCartney on vocals and his name on the cover. This is all a good thing.
All right, so that's a severely reductive way to describe McCartney's fine new album of old standards, "Kisses on the Bottom."
But it's clear Macca ceded a great deal of creative control to Krall, who plays piano on every track but one and is credited with the rhythm arrangements, and her longtime producer Tommy LiPuma, not to mention frequent Krall collaborators like orchestrator Johnny Mandel.
Funny that, 20 years after McCartney had his last major collaboration with a major pop artist, Elvis Costello — a fruitful but short-lived situation where you sensed maybe the mutual willfulness finally got to them — he would be taking up with Mrs. Costello and seemingly surrendering himself to her artistic sensibilities.
That's hardly to say that McCartney lacks a deep knowledge of or affinity for the pre-rock oldies represented here, written by the likes of Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. He's said he wanted to do an album of the types of tunes his family used to sing around the holidays in pre-Fab, pre-Elvis days. And maybe he felt enough time had passed now since Ringo Starr had the same idea with his first solo album, "Sentimental Journey," back in 1970. (Okay, probably not really a concern.)
As painful as Rod Stewart's standards albums could be, that's how pleasurable McCartney's is. He isn't speaking in a completely adopted, foreign idiom, for one thing, and for another, the song choices haven't been chosen with the sort of Standards for Dummies commercial optimization Stewart employed at every exhaustingly obvious turn. And if you know Krall and LiPuma, you know the arrangements won't be beating anyone about the head any more than the song selections are.
About half the songs are done jazz quartet-style, or something close to it, and about half add Mandel's trademark barely-there orchestration. The syrup-intolerant need not fear: A light touch prevails throughout. That applies to McCartney's vocals, too, which are surprisingly restrained — bordering on too much so, at times.
A younger Macca might've added a lot of "ooby dooby" flourishes, but it sounds as if he felt so deferential to the serious jazzbos on hand (who also include guitarists John and Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist Christian McBride) that he felt the need to keep it cool. Even on a song like "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," which naturally lends itself to a bit of twee vocal embellishment, the singer plays it pretty straight.
There's certainly liveliness, though, starting with the opening "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" — a song that, had it been arranged differently, could also have gone on McCartney's other covers album, the rockabilly-focused "Run Devil Run," since it bridged the rock era by being included in Elvis Presley's "Sun Sessions."
Less than a minute and a half in, McCartney's whispery, almost falsetto-like delivery gives way to a series of swinging piano rolls from Krall, and if you aren't hooked at that moment, you never will be. Among the lesser known material here (at least to the average McCartney fan), the most gorgeous discovery is the vibraphone-laden "Home (When Shadows Fall)," the sweetest evocation of dusk ever written.
A more familiar number that still manages to surprise is "Bye Bye Blackbird" — not to be confused with that other "Blackbird" — which gets a surprisingly laid-back treatment that brings out the latent wistfulness in the vintage lyric. (Beatles buffs will note that this is the one song that also appeared on Ringo's "Sentimental Journey," where it got a more typically upbeat treatment.)
Eric Clapton shows up to add a bluesy electric guitar solo to the R&B ballad "Get Yourself Another Fool," the most contemporary cover here. But the blues don't really befit McCartney right now, as he demonstrates with the two original songs he contributes, "Valentine" and "Only Our Hearts," both of them hyper-romantic (if hardly terribly silly) love songs.
As the first ballad McCartney wrote for Nancy Shevell, "Valentine" weds a thoroughly optimistic vocal to a melody cast mostly with minor chords — musically hinting at some of the heartbreak McCartney experienced before meeting his bride, even if the lyric doesn't quite want to go there.
If you're inclined to be a romantic yourself, it's easy to think of this entire album as McCartney's valentine to Shevell, with Krall and LiPuma as collaborative cupids. We're lucky to get to horn in on it.