Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Paul McCartney Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Venus and Mars (1975, Capitol)                                                                   

A  

Venus and Mars had the misfortune of being the next Wings full-length release after Band on the Run, and for that reason, it was almost predestined to fall short of critics' expectations, but in actuality, Venus and Mars, while not holding together quite as perfectly as an album piece as its predecessor did, is still a very excellent and highly underrated Wings album. The inherent flaw with the album is that it is too long for its own good and includes a small handful of tracks that manage to draw attention to Paul's weaknesses and provide more fodder for his detractors. ("You Gave Me the Answer" in particular revives Paul's unfortunate late-era-Beatles fondness for vaudeville, while "Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People" is the first in a long series of instantly-forgettable ballads that would too often grace the closing moments of Paul's later solo albums.) But never mind that - tracks can be skipped over, after all, and there's no shortage of great ones here: the Number One smash "Listen to What the Man Said" remains an irresistibly sunny, endlessly hooky slice of AM pop to this day; the album-opening medley "Venus and Mars / Rock Show" is as great a slice of arena-rock as Paul ever penned as a solo artist and gets the album off to an explosive start; the Fats Domino-tinged "Call Me Back Again" is the most delightful piano rocker McCartney had penned since Abbey Road's "Oh! Darling" six years earlier; the dark blues-rock of "Letting Go" never ceases to be chilling and remains a wildly underrated single; and Wings guitarist Jimmy McCulloch even chips in with a magnificent song of his own, the furious anti-drug rocker "Medicine Jar," which surprisingly turns out to be every bit as hooky and contagious as any Paul song here. The album quickly goes downhill after "Listen to What the Man Said" and comes to an awfully anti-climactic end, but nearly everything up to that point is fairly solid.  Not to be missed. 

Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976, Capitol)                                                           

B                    


After the brilliance of the previous two albums, it'd be easy to dismiss Speed of Sound as a letdown, not in the least because McCartney restricts himself to nearly being a guest star on his own album, as each of the other members of Wings gets at least one chance to take the mike, a distinction that causes most music critics to automatically write this album off, but in terms of pure songwriting, this is certainly a more impressive and fully-realized set of songs than, say, Red Rose Speedway was. McCartney's practice here of band democracy actually and surprisingly pays off quite highly in two instances for those willing to listen - Jimmy McCulloch's "Wino Junko," like "Medicine Jar" from the album before it,  is a catchy anti-drug song, and the wildly underrated McCartney-penned "Must Do Something About It," sung by drummer Joe English, is every bit as catchy and hook-filled and enjoyable as any Paul-sung track here and could have been a single. The practice only truly backfires on the Linda-sung "Cook of the House," which isn't dragged down by Linda's vocal so much as it is by the fact that it's just a terrible song to begin with. The album also ends on an extremely anticlimactic note, ending with what are easily the two worst Paul-sung tracks here. But half of the album, anyway, is quite solid: besides the two excellent McCulloch-and-English-sung tracks, "Beware My Love" is one of Paul's most energetic Wings rockers yet, and there are two massive hit singles also contained within, the minimalist pop of "Let 'em In" and the absolutely ingenious music-critic kiss-off, "Silly Love Songs," which may seem really basic on the surface but has a deceptively-complex arrangement so clever and subtle in its execution that it ultimately proves to be one of the most wickedly fun McCartney singles to listen to through a pair of headphones.    

London Town (1978, Capitol)                                                                                   

B –


A real grower of an album, London Town can admittedly be really disappointing on first listen, not in the least because there is some truly embarrassing material here (namely, the album-closing "Morse Moose and the Grey Goose"), Denny Laine has never sounded more weary than he does here (but then, so does everybody else in the group, too; all throughout the record, it's hard to escape the feeling that everyone involved was just overwhelmed with exhaustion at the time), and the second side is unquestionably inferior to the first and, if not for "With a Little Luck" and "Name and Address," could be bypassed entirely. All of this might seem like a bad recipe for an album, but its best moments tend to be very underrated.  "Cafe on the Left Bank" is as fun a throwaway as Paul's written in quite a few albums, and "Girlfriend" - later covered by Michael Jackson on Off the Wall - is even catchier.  "With a Little Luck" was the big hit here and is still a wonderfulsingle, extremely rare though it is to hear it on FM radio these days, but it's the album's two other singles that are the lost gems here, the wonderful title track and the even better angry rocker "I've Had Enough," both songs among McCartney's most underrated solo singles. [The 1993 CD reissue adds the fantastic double-sided non-LP single, "Mull of Kintyre" / "Girls' School," which makes the package all the more worth the purchase, not in the least because it remains the only place you can get the latter song - a Top 40 hit, mind you - on an LP or CD.]  

Back to the Egg (1979, Columbia)                                                                

C  


Of all the albums released under the Wings name, it's only Wild Life that prevents Back to the Egg from having the dubious title of the worst Wings album.  The musicianship, as always, is excellent, but the set of songs overall is McCartney's poorest in quite some time, and nearly the entire second side of the disc, which is weighed down with too many instantly-forgettable ballads, can be skipped over, save for "So Glad to See You Here," a fun, Cheap Trick-esque power-pop tune with an all-star cast featuring everyone from Pete Townshend to John Bonham.  It's the album's two excellent singles that keep the album from being a near-complete disaster: the hard-driving rocker "Getting Closer" is perhaps the most underrated of all of Sir Paul's singles over the years and is highly recommended, and Side One's closing track, the paranoid, neurotic plastic soul of "Arrow Through Me," where synthesizers and brass players play off each other to wonderful effect, is almost every bit as good and is arguably the most creative of all the Wings singles of the latter half of the '70s. Sadly, neither single has ever been included on a hits package, but perhaps that's only because it would completely invalidate the need for anyone to pick up this disc. [The 1993 CD reissue of the album adds the perennial Christmas favorite "Wonderful Christmastime" as well as the excellent B-side of "Goodnight Tonight," "Daytime Nighttime Suffering," which is nearly every bit as great as either of the two singles from the album.] 

McCartney II (1980, Columbia)                                                                   

C –    


Structured and marketed as a conceptual follow-up to McCartney's 1970 solo debut, 1980's McCartney II finds Sir Paul once again recording at home as a one-man band, this time fiddling around with synthesizers. The album manages to retain the low-key charm of its conceptual predecessor, but where the album falters is that, where McCartney had its handful of numbers that were clearly written before recording began (i.e. "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Every Night") to counter the more throwaway numbers, here you can't help but get the impression that Paul just made up damn near everything here as tape rolled - hardly anything that made the cut seems like a fully-realized song, and even the melodies are extraordinarily weak more often than not.  "Waterfalls" is one of the more cloying and dreadful ballads Paul's ever written and, for good reason, dubiously became his first post-Beatles single to miss the Hot 100 entirely; "Temporary Secretary" couples a wonderfully weird and neurotic synthesizer loop with what is easily one of the oddest sets of lyrics McCartney's ever written; and most of the remainder of the album is self-indulgent nonsense, reaching its nadir on "Bogey Music," arguably the most cringe-inducing song in Macca's entire solo catalog. The album's only truly excellent track is the amazing and quite-underrated single, "Coming Up," a live version of which (and which would ultimately be added to the record in the form of a bonus 45) would top the charts that year, but it's the studio version contained here that's actually the more fun and impressive of the two recordings. If you've got the studio version elsewhere, there's absolutely no need for anyone but completists to own this album.