Graded on a Curve:
Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram

Ram, the second post-Beatle LP from Paul McCartney has just been reissued through Hear Music. There are numerous ways for the uninitiated to acquaint oneself with its contents, but the best is likely the two-disc Special Edition. It presents the contents of this hard-fought classic alongside a second album of appropriate bonus material.

Paul McCartney was the member of the Fab Four that so many used to relish knocking around. Whether it was in spirited bar chats or animated discussions at parties, when the tide turned to The Beatles somebody could always be counted on for a hearty jibe at Macca’s expense. And in my above use of “so many” I’m generally referring to males and by “somebody” I’m specifically speaking of those who indisputably considered John Lennon to be the Best Beatle.

While for those truly devoted fans of the band there could simply never be a Worst, for many Paul was the Square Beatle, a designation not borne out by the facts, for he was as interested in the avant-garde as any member. Hell, in ’68 he co-produced “I’m the Urban Spaceman” by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band for Pete’s sake, an act that places him rather high up on the meter of cool.

However, others derided him as the Corporate Beatle. And yeah, it’s true that Paul never lost track of the business aspect of the whole affair, but his behavior in this regard hasn’t really played out as particularly odious in comparison to other rock star types of not even half his stature or talent.

But both Paul’s image and the assessment of his post-Beatle solo career has rebounded in recent years. Much of this might have to do with the constantly regenerating fanbase of the Four consistently growing older and perhaps letting go of the rebelliousness that inspired easy identification with Lennon or Harrison. It also might be related to the race for Coolest Living Beatle being down to him and Ringo “No More Mail, Thanks” Starr.

But seriously. In my estimation Paul’s general critical resurgence is a welcome phenomenon, if only because his first two solo records have finally gotten something approximate to the proper level of respect. And yes, for years I bought the baloney regarding the collective underwhelming nature of McCartney and Ram, too.

This was in part due to older acquaintances, even those quite favorable to McCartney’s work in The Beatles, being generally disapproving of his solo stuff, considering those early albums as grievous miscalculations of ambition (or lack thereof) and Wings (which of course wasn’t really Paul “solo,” being a band in its own right) as a severe pendulum swing into the other direction, offering safer though often more grandly scaled distillations of Paul’s talent.

But the kibosh was Landau and Christgau’s critical double whammy on Ram, which was enough to make me weary for years. And yet, as I kept stumbling onto really great albums that either Jon or Bob (or both) disdained, and as the general curiosity inherent to music fans started getting the better of me, I decided to take the plunge.

I sensibly started with McCartney, and was knocked plumb out by its stripped down feel; it’s been described as demo-like, and that’s accurate. In contrast to the over-slick efforts that were clogging the bins at my point of discovery, it was a real breath of fresh air. And unlike its rep, the level of the songwriting was excellent, and made clear that McCartney’s aims were indeed ambitious, though simply at odds with what the critical zeitgeist (it wasn’t add odds with the record buying public however; both McCartney and its follow-up sold an asston). But the high quality of Paul’s solo debut simply couldn’t prepare me for the exquisitely ramshackle affair that is Ram.

While I already knew and highly enjoyed “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” I was a fresh-faced newcomer to the wonky blues of “3 Legs” or the rollicking smack-talk of “Smile Away.” In “Monkberry Moon Delight” I found a deliciously snide and considerably twisted stomp, and “Ram On,” with its distorted electric piano tones and strummed ukulele, is nothing less than a prototype for the 21st Century indie-pop sound.

The interplay between Paul and Linda on “Eat at Home” feels a little like a laid-back country-rock precursor to the Buck/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac, its scale smaller, oozing with the nonchalance of a couple that’s discovered they have nothing to prove, so they’re just going to do what gets them off. It seems this was enough to drive many observers to vitriolic ends. That “Eat at Home” is apparently a tribute to the undying grandeur of Buddy Holly only adds to its panache.

And unlike some who find her co-credit to be a display of hubris or economic maneuvering, I continue to find Linda’s vocal contribution to Ram one of its most endearing traits. There’s a mixture of earnestness and palpable pleasure that’s sweetly accented by an appealing lack of polish in her delivery, and this blend really adds to “3 Legs,” “Monkberry Moon Delight” (I gas every time on how she sings “cats and kittens”) and the extended “Long Haired Lady,” another Ram cut that solidly presages the modern indie sound. And while we’re on matters of the up to date, the smooth folk-pop of “Heart of the Country” sounds downright contemporary. Bon Iver, anyone?

Over time I’ve detected a mild thread of similarity across the grooves of Ram to the songwriting of Brian Wilson. Not only can I hear it in the album’s terrific closer “Back Seat of My Car,” but I also perceive its presence on “Dear Boy” and even a little bit in “Smile Away,” mainly due to that song’s backing vocals. And this directly relates to one of McCartney’s most positive attributes, specifically the lack of anxiety in his influence. He’s always been pretty open about where his inspiration derives, maybe attempting to add a little modesty to the mantle of pop messiah that was thrust upon all three of the Beatles’ principal songwriters.

Unlike some hit songs, tunes which stick out on otherwise superb albums like an unfortunate mustard stain inflicted upon a finely-designed and well-worn shirt during a swank holiday picnic, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” fits snuggly into Ram’s qualitative gist. In fact, it’s one of the album’s more important tracks in that it provides quite a template for some of the expansive tweeness that’s occurred over the following four decades.

It’s also a very weird song; to wit, the assumedly Linda-derived tongue-flutter in the cut’s first section. And while listening recently, it suddenly became tangible that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” again at least in its first section, isn’t that far removed from some of the more pop-inflected moments of Animal Collective. Yeah, contemporaneousness is surely in abundance on Ram.

By this late date it’s not likely too many people are continuing to harbor a lingering prejudicial grudge against McCartney’s pre-Wings solo work. Like this expanded issue of Ram, McCartney was released in a deluxe bells-and-whistle intensive set not quite a year ago, and if that effort had either stumbled commercially or been subject to a persistent persnickety critical evaluation, Sir Paul might’ve hesitated over putting this one in the racks in so quick a fashion.

And in my estimation, the two-disc edition of Ram edges out the same configuration of McCartney by a little more than a nose. Sure, both “Another Day” and “Oh Woman, Oh Why” were already added to the ’93 CD issue, but their inclusion on the vinyl of this impeccably crafted set is still quite jake. “Little Woman Love,” the b-side to Wings’ “Mary Had a Little Lamb” also turns up, and is sorta the odd track out.

For unlike the latter live versions that make up the bulk of McCartney’s extra material, Ram includes a bevy of previously unissued studio tracks, all of which date from the sessions for the LP (a big plus in my book), which makes hearing them an absolute cinch for anybody that’s stumbled onto the greatness of Ram.

And the verdict on the general worthiness of these extra tracks is a resounding positive. Quite interestingly, the unreleased songs don’t sound like completed tunes that didn’t make the cut for reasons of inferior quality, instead feeling like pieces that were worked on and then set aside unfinished, never to be picked up again. For a few examples, “Great Cock and Seagull Race” and “Sunshine Sometime” are both instrumentals, and the lengthy rocker “Rode All Night” would’ve likely undergone some editing in a non-bonus cut version.

Of course, McCartney maniacs might already be familiar with these tracks through unauthorized channels. But here they are in a Paul-instigated expansion of Ram, another installment in one of the most meticulously assembled and least mercenary of contemporary single artist reissue programs.

Like McCartney, Paul’s second solo stab has endured the tide of time to distinguish itself as one of the more interesting and most personal works of the ‘70s, easily ranking in the top three Beatle solo albums alongside All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Hearing Ram in its original form is essential. This well conceived expansion of its contents does nothing to interfere with its disheveled majesty.

Graded on a Curve: A+

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