After long absences, Steve Winwood, Paul McCartney, and John Fogarty return, but only Fogerty gets back to where he once belonged
New music from baby-boom rock legends
The filmmakers of Fathers’ Day borrowed ”Young Boy,” a song off Paul McCartney’s new album, to be the opening theme for their proud-papas comedy. They chose wisely, if unadventurously. For boomers, McCartney is as much a father figure as a contemporary, and not just because it’s so easy to picture him as a flower child in a cardigan. No other major rock figure has cultivated a warmer, friendlier persona, but there’s always been something just a little remote, guarded, and too quick to placate about him as well. Funny that McCartney was such a key part of the countercultural revolution that inspired a generation of sons to revolt against their emotionally inaccessible fathers only to turn out to be an archetypal distant dad himself, always personable but rarely too personal with his millions of charges.
In Macca’s solo career, ”Let ‘Em In” has been mostly a song title, not a mantra — which is why some of us can argue that the guy has written more great songs than anyone else in the second half of the 20th century and still waffle when it comes time to pick a favorite Beatle. There was reason to suspect Flaming Pie, his first album in four years, might be the one from the heart we’d hoped for: With no impending stadium tour, Pie‘s lower-key, largely acoustic approach seemed to promise self-revelation. And a brush with mortality like Linda’s ongoing bout with breast cancer is the sort of stumbling block that’d bring any beknighted Sir to sit and reflect.
Actually, McCartney spent a lot of time reflecting on the Beatles’ Anthology series, he’s said, which motivated him to record this album more spontaneously. It sounds like it — a lot of Pie‘s most promising songs seem frustratingly half-baked. Several of the most enjoyable bits are the slightish tunes designed as throwaways, like the why-don’t-the-Wilburys-do- it-in-the-road title track — one of eight coproduced by Jeff Lynne — or flyweight blues jams with Steve Miller and Ringo Starr. But when he waxes somber in ”Somedays” (with an ”Eleanor Rigby”-redolent string arrangement), the lazy-boy writing backfires in lyrical non sequiturs that can only be described as Rutle-esque, and you wish he’d been inspired by the Beatles’ finished albums.
Stick it out through the sluggish first half, though, and you’ll be rewarded in the home stretch with three nicely bittersweet numbers — ”Souvenir,” ”Beautiful Night,” and ”Great Day” — that celebrate companionship for life with just a hint of the mortal awareness that helps make even the pain precious. None of these count as actual confessions, but in these waning moments McCartney does sound more like a brother who’s struggled than a goofy father who knows best.
If you caught Steve Winwood’s takeover of the VH1 Honors telecast, perhaps you noticed how he shares McCartney’s characteristic singing expression — eyebrows raised into perpetual arches, erected above a look of wide-eyed wonder. Unlike Paul, though, Winwood’s voice is frozen in a single expression too — an agreeable white-soul inscrutability. On Junction Seven, he sounds about the same whether brooding with sexual paranoia in the opening ”Spy in the House of Love” or exulting about sexual salvation in ”Angel of Mercy.”
Unfortunately, his album is as overproduced as McCartney’s is modest. His current partner, Narada Michael Walden, is apparently of the belief — speaking of frozen — that 1987 was the summit of pop soulfulness. The drum programming, the MIDI synths leavened with a humanizing pinch of funk guitar, the compliantly cooing female vocals…nearly every discarded studio-cat idea from a barely bygone era is back out of mothballs. By the time they have their way with a swingless cover of ”Family Affair,” you may feel ready to have one of whatever Sly Stone’s having, wherever he is.
John Fogerty’s Blue Moon Swamp should, by all rights, sound at least as labored as Winwood’s fussy ”Junction”: It’s been 11 years since the ex-Creedence leader’s last record, and he went into the studio four and a half years ago. Instead, it feels like something he might’ve knocked out over a few weekends; here, that’s a compliment.
The drum programming that diminished his two ’80s albums is long gone. So is the nastiness that helped make 1986’s Eye of the Zombie well nigh unlistenable. Swamp is much more akin to the unpretentious, poop-kicking ’70s solo albums Fogerty issued just after disbanding CCR, and though there’s no ”Almost Saturday Night”-style classic around, you’ll have a hard time finding a more charming roots-rock record this year. Fogerty took driving trips through the Delta as prep work, and the album’s relaxed amalgam of blues, country, and hard rock has the ease that comes with studied absorption of the terrain, not just genre literacy.
Titles like ”Hot Rod Heart” and ”Bring It Down to Jelly Roll” suggest that Fogerty’s current ambitions are modest and traditional. But he achieves ’em and has made some effort to grow, besides: By his reckoning, the Dobro-drenched ”Joy of My Life” is the first love song he’s written in his three-decade career. It’s hardly Swamp‘s best cut; that’d be the roadhouse anthem ”Blueboy.” But a ballad for his wife is a big stride toward openness for a fellow who, for most of the bitter, Saul Zaentz-baiting ’80s, seemed determined to play the role of angry dad — or unfortunate son — instead of compassionate lover and fun-loving pal. For some boomers, there is life after aloofness.
Flaming Pie: B-; Junction Seven: D+; Blue Moon Swamp: A-