Friday, July 01, 2005

Choose Love!

I was stunned a few years ago when, in a televised interview, Beatles record producer George Martin gave an unexpected answer to this question: Did any one of the Beatles exercise veto power over what the band recorded or how songs were arranged?

Yes, Martin answered without hesitation, "If Ringo didn't like it, they didn't do it."

It's not that Ringo Starr was the leader of the Beatles, of course. Nor was it because he was a creative power house. He was neither of these things.

But he was an accomplished player on the Liverpool music scene before the rest of the Beatles were. They respected him for that. His standards were also such that, unlike his bandmates who seemed so smitten with their unprecedented success that they couldn't see deficiencies in their robotic performances before screaming audiences, Starr became convinced of the need for the band to get off the road for a time just to ensure quality. (Unfortunately, the move spelled the end of the Beatles as a road band.)

Starr was also, by all accounts, the most good-natured of the group, the least egotistical. His affability no doubt added to his credibility with his bandmates.

So, Martin's revelation is understandable.

Amazingly, in the first several years after the break-up of the Beatles, Starr was the best selling solo artist of the bunch. This is probably attributable to his not taking himself too seriously, his wise collaborations with everyone from Harry Nillson to producer Richard Perry, and the composition and selection of material that suited his limited vocal range. But even those caveats indicate that the judgment ascribed to him by Martin and the other Beatles served him well as he sailed out into the Beatles-less night.

While Starr projects since the 80s have not been top-sellers and have largely escaped notice by the public and critics alike, I've enjoyed his releases through the years.

They're not great art, of course. And Ringo isn't Bono or, for that matter, Phil Collins, to name another drummer, as a front man.

But his releases have been reliably fun. And there's something to be said for that.

Something else: Through the years, Starr's songs, irrespective of his collaborators, show a maturing man, becoming more comfortable in his skin and willing, in lyrics that are less than eloquent, yet true, to convey some of the hard-won truths he's discovered about life, himself, relationships, and even fame.

He's got a new CD out, a double-sided affair called, Choose Love. (Yes, Starr has refused to give up on the notion that All You Need is Love. One senses that it's more than a marketing ploy for him, that he really believes it.) One side of Choose Love is a conventional CD. The flip side has a short "documentary" on the creation of the collection and a few other features.

The sound is a little more stripped-down than on past Ringo LPs, not as elaborately produced. Usually, the cuts are just your standard drums, guitar, bass, rhythm guitar, and occasionally, organs and pianos, along with background vocals.

In addition, it seems that producer Mark Hudson is more willing this time out--he's been Starr's collaborator, co-producer, and musical director for several years now--to let Starr's vocals stand on their own. In the past, the ploy has often been to "compensate for" or "cover up" Starr's admittedly limited vocal ability. Frankly, even with the additional burden of carrying the songs with this new approach, he turns in his best vocal performance ever.

In addition, Starr is the only drummer and percussionist throughout the whole collection. On previous projects, talented studio side man Jim Keltner or others have been brought in to "fatten" the drums on Starr releases. But, it seems, the judgment has been made that Starr's drumming is more than sufficient. I think that's a good choice. He remains my favorite drummer because Ringo Starr has always understood that the drum is not meant to be a solo instrument. He knows that providing the back beat is a big job. And nobody does it better than he does!

The songs are mostly rockers, with some terrific riffs and guitar solos along the way.

No Ringo CD would be complete without allusions to "that band I used to be in," and Choose Love is no exception, although it doesn't overwhelm you with them. Lyrically, my favorite Beatles allusion is composed of a fragment where Starr sings, "The long and winding road is more than a song/Tomorrow never knows what goes one." Three Beatles titles in two little lines!

On the song, 'Choose Love,' he also recycles lines from 'It Don't Come Easy': "Got to pay our dues, if you want to sing the blues."

In Hudson, Starr seems to have found the perfect collaborator. The Beatles-nut who gained fame in the 1970s when he and his brothers, sounding like less-talented clones of the Fab Four, had a few hits and a forgettable variety show, understands Ringo's persona, is a talented musician and arranger, and seems able to bring out the best in Starr and their band. On past Starr-Hudson efforts, I felt that Mark Hudson shone a bit too brightly. But things seem to be in their proper order here and Starr comes through strong, happy, attractive, and fun!

Billy Preston and Chrissie Hynde make guest appearances here. Preston is impressive. And I love Hynde so much that I wish they'd made greater use of her than they did. But that's quibbling.

So, here's my recommendation: Before you have your next party, Choose Love. It'll be the perfect soundtrack for that...or for your commute to work and back home again.

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