Paul McCartney
Flaming Pie

It's possible that undue stress has been heaped upon Paul McCartney's post-Abbey Road reputation by the assertion that he was the less substantial -- and less driven -- half of rock and roll's most celebrated songwriting partnership. Then again, maybe not. There are plenty of songs in the post-Beatles McCartney catalog to suggest that he's just as capable of indelible moments of pop craftsmanship as he is of squandering his talents on tossed-off, if hummable, drivel.

To a point, McCartney has made a career out of piquing our interest with the occasional fit of brilliance even as he unloads mounds of half-assed tunes right under our noses. McCartney, bless his heart, has always been a winsome hack, getting by on hooks and charm alone. That may be fine for the enthusiast looking for little more than a catchy chorus to hum in the shower, but it's been frustrating for anyone still anticipating an effort less forgettable from start to finish than what McCartney's thrown at us of late. True, his '90s collaborations with Elvis Costello on Flowers in the Dirt and Off the Ground were frequently engaging -- but engaging compared to what, 1986's trite, numbingly accomplished Frisbee Press to Play?

But one can't wait forever ... which brings us to Flaming Pie, a thoroughly charming and (yes) hook-filled effort made all the more so by production and songwriting contributions from Jeff Lynne and former Fab Four producer-in-residence George Martin. McCartney's 11th solo release (not counting his Wings discs) begins auspiciously enough with "The Song We Were Singing," a charming folk-pop jig with a soaring chorus that celebrates fond reminiscence in warm, loving detail. It's vintage Mac, light and boyishly sweet, yet somehow classic in its simplicity -- alternately slight and substantial. In just under four minutes, though, the magic is over -- for a while, at least.

Following the opener, the music not so much careens as slides comfortably into contented, if appealing, indifference. "Somedays," yet another ode to wife Linda, reworks the lovely acoustic melody from Rubber Soul's "For No One," but to lesser effect. "If You Wanna" and "The World Tonight" are formula rockers colored by an unconvincing bluesy menace. "Young Boy" (the perfect disposable single) proves only that McCartney would have held his own as a Traveling Wilbury, especially with Lynne on his side. From that point on, however, things get substantially more interesting. On "Calico Skies," "Little Willow" and "Great Day," McCartney airs out a trio of breezy, effortless melodies, with nothing to spoil their purity but an acoustic guitar, leg slaps and a smattering of keyboards and backing vocals. Also among the second-half keepers: the lushly orchestrated ballad "Beautiful Night" and the frisky, piano-driven title track, "Flaming Pie," a modern-day tandem of ELO's "Don't Let Me Down" and the Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R."

Would it be a stretch to say that Flaming Pie is McCartney's most consistently compelling solo work since his 1970 debut? Probably. But remember, my judgment's been skewed by years of rapidly decreasing expectations. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Big Mike
Still Serious
Rap-A-Lot/Noo Trybe

Once upon a midnight dreary, the proclaimed law of hip-hop was that whoever flows the hardest wins. But now the rule seems to be that whoever flows the most superfluous wins: Rhymes that roll off the tongue like honey down the nape of the neck of an Ohio Players CD cover girl have been given more prestige than the overworked I-blasted-ten-bustas-and-still-had-time-to-smoke-a-blunt routine. Although Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony have got the superfluous flow honor locked, Big Mike has got his own mouthful-of-words mojo working on his second CD, Still Serious.

In this follow-up to his debut, Something Serious, the Houston-by-way-of-New Orleans rapper (who pinch-hit for Willie D on the Geto Boys' 'Til Death Do Us Part) hovers over the mike with bubbly resonance, laying down verses that feel effervescent rather than force-fed over bass-heavy funk patterns. In his own ebullient way, Big Mike is giving support to a hip-hop breeding ground that's been virtually ignored amid the East Coast-West Coast hubbub -- the South.

In nearly every song, Big Mike praises his part of the country as an underrated cultural village, a community that can spout urban attitudes just as effectively as those other rap centers. "It's the best-kept secret, baby," he laments at the beginning of "Southern Dialect," a term that nicely describes the artist's lyrical flurry. And on "Southern Comfort (On and On)," Mike and the gleefully loud and rambunctious Mystikal, a rapper from New Orleans, shoot off a number that serves as both a love letter to the place they love and a rebuttal to those ignoramuses who don't know how marvelous it is. It's a winning moment from two very distinguished Southern gentlemen.

Despite the CD's occasional come-on vehemence, Big Mike scores through a style that rivets with gumption and freshness. With a tongue of silver and a drawl of pure butter, Big Mike provides the rap world with something it very much needs -- a down-home sense of Southern hospitality. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Restraining Bolt

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