Molten Wax

Paul McCartney
Run Devil Run

(Capitol)

When Paul finds himself in times of trouble, personally or professionally, like most veterans he turns to the oldies. From "Get Back" to Choba B CCCP, he's retraced his baby steps in an effort to figure out where he's lost his one-fourth of the Beatle magic. Like the Russian Album, he's recorded a dozen oldies in 9 to 5 workaday sessions like the first two Beatles album, as if the briskness of that approach would recapture that same sense of urgency. The good news is that his elusive urgency has returned after sitting it out for the umpteen Macca live albums of late. This is the best rock singing the ex-Wing commander's managed since touring the world at the speed of sound in 1976.

Paul's rejuvenated Little Richard and Fats Domino vocal impersonations on "What It Is" and "Coquette" will inevitably remind you of Beatle moments like "Kansas City" and "Lady Madonna," respectively, but it's Wings that I keep hearing in my head. Maybe because the real nucleus of that band was Paul and Linda and revolving sidemen, it didn't seem like that band ever really broke up until now.

McCartney: Retracing his rock 'n' roll baby steps.
McCartney: Retracing his rock 'n' roll baby steps.
American iconoclast Woody Guthrie: Protest, 
commentary and crawdad songs.
American iconoclast Woody Guthrie: Protest, commentary and crawdad songs.

Or maybe it's because having already recorded for posterity every combination of syllables most Anglo Saxons get up to, there's more of Paul's past stretching behind him to recapture. The title track could be one of Wings' B-side rockers like "Girl School." The vocal take of "She Said Yeah" sounds like it was recorded on the same day as "Jet." The echo on "Shake a Hand" probably has the identical number of repeats "Let Me Roll It" has. When "Honey Hush" starts out with an a cappella "we-e-e-e-ll," it feels like he could lurch into either "Hi Hi Hi" or "3 Legs."

"Well I got the feeling in my so-o-oull!" Paul yelps happily on Larry Williams' "She Said Yeah," and while Paul's got the feeling back in spades, his sidemen (Dave Gilmour, Ian Paice, Paul Wingfield) always sound persistently professional, like they're punching a clock in some Hard Rock Cafe all-star jam. Comparing this album's "She Said Yeah" to the hungry version the Stones laid down for December's Children might seem a tad unfair given the age differences, but since McCartney's press kit insists that he showed the song to Jagger first, let's go right on ahead. In both versions the words are pretty indecipherable, which gives credence that Paul did teach it to Mick -- they both sound as if they're singing "I won't love your one-eyed brother." The similarities pretty much end there. Macca's version is less rushed, confidently plowing ahead with its equidistant instrument separation and faint touch of analog hiss -- more than is allowed by law on a 1999 recording, but still tastefully faint.

Listen to the Stones' version and all you hear is oppressive layers of crud burying the vocals and congealing the fuzzy guitars and bass into one giant buzz, like a hornet's nest flying into a bug zapper. In short, it's both a complete sonic mess and the best minute and 30 seconds you're ever likely to spend. When Keith's fingers squeak against the strings as he peels his fastest-ever solo, it's the difference between revisiting an old song and claiming and carving your name into it with a switchblade.

Ultimately, Run Devil Run shows you what makes Paul tick, but you end up wishing he could have a band that could set him off to explode. Since there are no term limits or enforced early retirement in rock 'n' roll, McCartney will likely keep looking for that combustible combo until he can no longer raise his thumbs up after a good take. -- Serene Dominic

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie: The Asch Recordings Volumes 1-4

(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

In his parody "The Folk Song Army," the great iconoclast Tom Lehrer wrote "Remember the war against Franco?/That's the kind where each of us belongs/Though he may have won all the battles/We had all the good songs." One such good song, "Jarama Valley," about American soldiers of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion who died fighting for Republican Spain, is performed by an even greater iconoclast, Woody Guthrie, on the first volume of this four-CD set from Smithsonian Folkways.

There aren't too many subjects, from the frivolous to the philosophical to the radical, that Woodrow Wilson Guthrie didn't write and/or sing about, and Moses "Moe" Asch recorded hundreds of these songs on 78 rpm master discs. This reissued CD collection consists of material recorded between 1944 and 1949, and it's a little overwhelming. Even if you're aware of Guthrie's greatness as a songwriter, and of the extent of his influence, by way of Dylan and others, on the popular music of this century, you may never have encountered him so directly or in such a concentration.

It's nearly five hours of, arguably, the greatest American songwriter, playing and singing both his own songs and those -- like cowboy and outlaw ballads -- that influenced him. On numerous cuts, he's accompanied by the likes of Cisco Houston, Lee Hays, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, Bess Lomax Hawes and even Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. On just as many cuts, it's Guthrie solo, strumming and singing in his inimitable Okie drawl, flat and deadpan and yet somehow deeply expressive and impassioned at the same time.

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