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Paul McCartney
Flaming Pie
Capitol

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

Radish
Restraining Bolt
Mercury

Don't hate Radish because they're young. Hate Radish because they're mediocre. That's the lesson behind Restraining Bolt, the debut CD that finally puts a sound to the hype. From the million-dollar Mercury deal to the full-on New Yorker spread, there are those who would have you believe that these Dallas teens are Nirvana's second coming. But for better or mostly worse, that title belonged to Candlebox, and Radish will have to settle for third- or fourth-generation Bush. Even though this latest blast of teen spirit sports nary a bad song nor boring hook, Restraining Bolt is still sadly devoid of imagination or innovation because, yes, imagining your name is Kurt Cobain is no longer innovative.

The weight of Radish falls on the shoulders of Ben Kweller, a 16-year-old gifted enough to pen the smart metallic pop of "Sugar Free" and "Today's Bargain" and still dumb enough to find album-worthy a line such as "School's not working today / My math teacher's gay." At that point, which comes in the painfully generic "Failing and Leaving," it's as if Kweller is too lazy to jump for the brass ring the record business is conveniently holding just about knee-high and is already lyrically underachieving just to spite his own promise.

And how do we know Kweller's so promising anyway? Perhaps because just before Restraining Bolt sizzles out on Kweller's faux rage and kiddie ramblings, there's a truly catchy one-two punch -- the dreamy "Little Pink Stars" and the chord-twisting "Simple Sincerity." While both are solid alternative rock anthems, it's too little from a band coming about five years too late. Here's hoping all the hype spurs better writing -- which could make Kweller's In Futero follow-up the one to buy. (** 1/2)

-- Andy Langer

Papas Fritas
Helioself
Minty Fresh

Papas Fritas is the latest contender (and quite possibly the trophy-taker) in the Happiest Band on Earth contest. Their jolly songs bounce around the room like kids who ate too much sugar. Although they have their indie sensibility intact and have been a fave in their hometown of Boston for some time, these pop players don't buy into the lo-fi, fuzz-filled aesthetic common to some of their peers. Instead, they hole themselves up in Boston's Columnated Ruins -- a former Montessori school with open lofts, spiral staircases and 17 acres of surrounding land -- with grade-B-plus equipment and practice until they get it right.

The trio, whose roots go back to high school, shares songwriting and singing chores, although drummer Shivika As-thana has the most striking voice for slower tracks such as "Say Goodbye." Both guitarist Tony Goddess and bassist Keith Gendel, a Houston native, remind lovers of new wave of a time when three-minute ditties ruled radio and frontmen didn't mind exposing their sensitive side for the sake of a great song. The steady drum beat on "Sing About Me" is straight out of the Go-Go's' repertoire.

This sophomore release's barrage of hand claps, saccharine tones and la-la choruses, especially in "Rolling in the Sand" and "Words to Sing," conjure up images of moral-filled themes from a children's TV show. The peppy candor grows on you with every play. Bottle this stuff quick, because it's addictive. (***)

-- Carrie Bell

Richard Buckner
Devotion & Doubt
MCA

As was his indie debut Bloomed, Richard Buckner's Devotion & Doubt is filled with songs that convey deep sorrow, confusion and regret. At his best, Buckner captures such emotions in tightly packed language and well-chosen details: the vow we didn't keep, the look that says it's over, the old photo that brings it all back. Just as often, though, his tunes seem to hide these painful moments; the listener has to dig for meaning.

I'm not saying Buckner's songs are complex enough to reward repeat listenings; I'm saying they often require repeat listenings to make sense of them. Buckner's newest compositions are fleshed out with words that are often more poetry than lyric, and with subtle melodies that begin to reveal themselves only after several run-throughs. On "Roll," "Song of 27" and others, complete thoughts leak out over several slowly delivered lines, if at all, and the result is that even as the words -- usually more adjective than action -- drip down, it's tough to wrestle them into either sense or sensibility. Heck, I've listened to the line "Won't you slump on over and stir my shuffle down" 20 times and I still don't know how it's supposed to make me feel, let alone what it actually means.

Because of this, it's up to Buckner's voice and to the spare arrangements of producer J.D. Foster to ensure we stick around long enough to understand the poetry. To Buckner's credit, his intense, wrenched vocals (he sounds like an unpolished Dwight Yoakam) are up to the task -- sometimes. On the a cappella "Fater," for example, he wishes a departing lover the best, and the sheer sincerity of his aching cries ("I hope your heart will travel well"), not to mention the song's familiar folk melody, pulls you in. As the album progresses, though, the arrangements become more atmosphere than music. Just solitary piano chords and barely audible brushes support "Roll"; only long, thin accordion lines and a noodling e-bow flesh out "On Traveling." While admittedly moody and often intriguing, these soundscapes serve mainly to further ob-scure the songs.

Devotion & Doubt's finest moments, then, are the most traditional sounding ones: the tempting, dread-filled shuffle of the opening "Pull," the bleary-eyed "4AM," the full band romp of the sorrow-charged "A Goodbye Rye." These cuts and a few others -- where voice, lyric and arrangement join to convey a mood of devotion and doubt -- are simply devastating. The rest, however, seem designed to frustrate the best efforts of most listeners, and as good as Buckner can be, that's a damn shame. (** 1/2)

-- David Cantwell

Mark Eitzel
West
Warner Bros.

It could've been an Academy Award winner: Two desperate human beings, fast running out of steam from doing the same thing for way too long, find each other and, out of mutual need, form a bond. One has resigned himself to be a chronic drunk (or at least an endless chronicler of drunks), as he sways lazily between almost-was and never-will-be. He's planning to drink himself (or write songs about drinking himself) to death. The other is a star who seems to have found it all -- money, success, influence -- but in the bargain he's traded his freedom. He's fleeing the safe life, where working with the same people has become burdensome. He's drawn to the drunk's sense of purpose, while the drunk sees in the star a savior. The drunk needs some of the light the star can shine upon him. The star, meanwhile, simply needs someone else to need him.

So they hole up in a house in San Francisco for three days and nights, where the doomed relationship is consummated in a nonstop songwriting session. Things go great: tunes pour out like never before, and it starts to look like maybe, just maybe, they've found in each other musical soul mates. But at the end of the three days, they look back at what they created together and the cruel truth hits them: While they set out to escape their own demons in the arms of another, each ended up infecting the other with the very things they'd hoped to escape. The staleness of the star's guitar strum and chord progressions makes the drunk's maudlin brooding sound more flimsy and formulaic than ever. And the drunk's dull and heavy vocals make the star's simple charms sound stiff and cumbersome.

But at the last minute, just before the two -- seeing no hope -- are set to fulfill their suicide pact, a group of friends from Seattle step in for emergency intervention. They show the pair how to put the best face on an unfortunate situation. A little skronky sax here, a little delicate marimba there, and the two find reason to hope. As the credits roll, the entire group of friends -- drunk and star included -- assemble for a mass hug, and a big collective pat on the back.

(Any similarities to actual people named Mark Eitzel and Peter Buck are strictly coincidental.) (** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

Michael Penn
Resigned
57 Records/Epic Records

Five years after Free-for-All lived up to its name, winding up in the cutout bins before anyone even took it out of the shrink-wrap, Michael Penn returns with Resigned, and only the extremists wait with bated breath. He had his shot eight long years ago (with the top 20 single "No Myth") but aimed too high. Like girlfriend Aimee Mann, Penn has been shuttled from label to label and too often lost in the shuffle; he recorded two fine records for RCA (March and Free-for-All), made one more the label didn't want, then found himself living in oblivion. He got the save on Mann's I'm with Stupid (one of the finest records of 1996), guested with her again on a Christmas one-off, recorded music no one heard for a movie no one saw (Hard Eight) and had his Epic debut bumped back on the release schedule until it seemed it might never see the light of day. But here it is, finally, worth the wait for those who bothered to stick around -- 11 short, engaging gems that are at once intimate and somehow huge, grand gestures made by a man who plays to the back of the room but stares only at the front row.

Penn possesses a poptopian vision that connects the Beatles to Badfinger to Matthew Sweet to the Grays, one that plays considerably deeper than it appears at first or 50th glance. Like Mann, Penn creates complex music out of simple melodies, catchy choruses, easy and perhaps even obvious progressions; the notes blend into one another as if they're the only combinations possible until, at the end of 40 minutes, you feel you've heard one impossibly long, unbearably perfect song. Penn writes songs the way long-distance runners breathe, pacing himself for the long haul until it all builds to that final gasp.

The lyrics seem almost beside the point, like filler meant to provide these songs with a reason for being (example: "I am so selfish / I'm absorbed, I am absolved / It's just that you don't get involved"). Penn -- working with longtime partner Patrick Warren on keyboards, ex-Grays drummer Dan McCarroll and producer/57 Records boss man Brendan O'Brien on bass -- creates a sound bigger than his black-jeans poetry; the music, filled with guitar waves and Chamberlin echoes and snare-drum kicks, absorbs the lyrics until all that exists are these dramatic hooks ("Try," "Selfish," "Like Egypt Was") and beautiful moments ("Figment of My Imagination," "Small Black Box") that are almost orchestral in concept and dreamlike in execution. Five years may seem like a long time to wait for 40 minutes -- pardon, work ethic? -- but rarely does so much sound like so little, and come off the better for it. (*** 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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