Paul McCartney, "Kisses on the Bottom." hanks for the valentine, Sir Paul! Unlike so many rock stars who are ransacking their parents' record collections, Paul McCartney doesn't seem to be making any big statements here about what may or may not be a "classic" or "standard" song. To the contrary, he is revisiting -- with obvious affection -- music that moved him as a kid. That so much of the material is squishy-sentimental or in the novelty/music-hall vein should come as no surprise from the man who wrote "All My Loving" and "When I'm Sixty-Four."
Pairing McCartney with Diana Krall was a brilliant move. Her spare, swinging piano and snappy rhythm arrangements are instantly recognizable -- a nice surprise, since we think we know her only as a voice. Though Krall comes from the jazz side and McCartney from rock, they sound utterly at home on the lush, sophisticated pop terrain Nat Cole inhabited so well. Indeed, Cole had a hit with one of the tunes here: the 1931 ballad "Home (When Shadows Fall)."
McCartney has excellent intonation and detailed muscular control, though he does not have a big voice by crooner standards. He sounds best riding light and high on the soft-shoe swing of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter" (from which the album takes its unfortunate title) and "It's Only a Paper Moon." He makes us believe every earnest word of "The Glory of Love," yet also nails the silly insouciance of the Ink Spots' "We Three -- My Echo My Shadow and Me" and Fats Waller's "My Very Good Friend the Milkman" (nice whistling!).
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When he tries to blow up his voice to crooner proportions, he sounds artificial, whether it's on Johnny Mercer's "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive" or his own yearning ballad, "My Valentine." And while Eric Clapton burns on "Get Yourself Another Fool," McCartney plays it disappointingly straight (especially in comparison with Sam Cooke). Whether you like the closer, "Only Our Hearts," also an original, will depend on whether you're a fan of the grandness of "The Long and Winding Road."
Overall, though, this is a charming, brave album.
Catherine Russell, "Strictly Romancin'" (World Village): Though popular music is structured around obsolescence -- styles emerge, fall away, then revive as "retro" -- some artists, thank goodness, just do what they do. Though the songs on this album are old, they are not self-consciously so. Russell sings in a marvelously full, rich alto and hangs just a hint of a blue scrim over her cheerful, straight-shooting, girl-next-door innocence. Her soulful, R&B triplets on the Lil Green classic "Romance in the Dark" will heat up any Valentine's date, and the sentiment on the cheerfully inviting "Everything's Been Done Before" will appeal to any would-be lover. Russell has a keen curatorial ear. As familiar as you may be with Mary Lou Williams and Louis Armstrong, chances are you've never heard Williams' infectious ditty "Satchel Mouth Baby." And though you may know, by way of Bobby Short, Billy Strayhorn's "I'm Checkin' Out, Goom Bye," you'll be glad to hear it again by Russell. Her haunting version of "No More," with its '50s-modern arrangement, is easily as good as Billie Holiday's. It's not a big deal, but it's worth mentioning that Russell is black, since vintage song excavation has been primarily a white obsession. But like the Carolina Chocolate Drops with the blues, Russell is a delightful addition to the party.
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