Don't get me wrong - I love Ringo and have all his albums. It has been great having a new album from him every few years, and they are consistently enjoyable.
But the Mark Hudson formula has really run it's course with this one. Judging by the production credits, this was essentially a Mark Hudson production like each of Ringo's previous album going back to "Vertical Man" a decade ago. Dave Stewart was brought in at a late enough stage that he is credited as "re-producing" the album, while Mark Hudson is still credited as producer of all but one track. Interestingly, I'd say that one specific track - the title song - is easily the best on the album. A Starkey/Stewart collaboration, the song "Liverpool 8" is noticably fresher sounding - lacking the rather tired cliches of Hudson's arrangements.
The thing about Mark Hudson, it seems he ran out of production/arranging/writing ideas for Ringo after "Ringo Rama." I consider him sort of a poor man's Jeff Lynne. In a way, he has served the same function for Ringo that Lynne served for George Harrison. Of course, it should go without saying that Harrison was in an entirely different artistic sphere than Ringo. Jeff Lynne helped shape a new, updated sound for George - who remained in control of his overall vision. Ringo, on the other hand, needs far more creative input from his producer - something Mark Hudson provided, and then some. Hudson is kind of a hack, really, despite numerous highlights throughout "Vertical Man," "Ringo Rama," "Choose Love," and now "Liverpool 8," the songs are generally formulaic variations on one another. There is a sameness to the arrangements - the often too-forced 'Beatlesque' backing vocals in particular - as well as the lyrical themes. I don't think any of the Hudson-produced albums match Ringo's "Time Takes Time," the 1992 album that provided the template for Hudson to base his work upon. Speaking of Jeff Lynne, he was one of several producers that worked on that earlier album.
I was intriqued by the promise posed by a new chief collaborator for Ringo. But as I mentioned earlier, I think most listeners will be hard-pressed to detect any significant differences from the earlier albums. An obvious difference is the absence of the big-name cameo appearances peppered throughout the last few albums. The title track is classic Ringo - the hook is strong, and the lyrics actually sound like Ringo wrote them. They are simple but effective. The Starkey credit is usually listed first throughout the Hudson-era albums, but generally followed by 2-4 additional names. I find it hard to believe anything in Ringo's career suggests he is capable of churning out dozens of clever (though ultimately vapid) songs. He just doesn't have the tools - which is fine. On the song "Liverpool 8," Ringo makes the most of simple four-note phrases as he looks back fondly on his storied past. It's unsophisticated and unpretentious - and it's the one track from this album that would've been great on his recent 'Best Of' release.
As usual, most of the rest here is mid-tempo pop/rock - but the energy and surprises are farther and fewer between. There are a couple of mildly interesting genre exercises; I enjoy the Harry Nilsson tribute ("Harry's Song") and the Latin lounge ballad "Pasodobles" (as overlong as it is). "Gone Are the Days" is an odd, dated-sounding attempt at a modern rocker. "R U Ready," the album closer, would've been better without the strange vocal effects that make Ringo's voice sound like it's coming through a telephone receiver. Actually, something tells me Hudson wouldn't have done it this way - and in this instance I wish he HAD been around to prevent that unfortunate production choice. The song is an otherwise nice country-stomper that contemplates death - one of the only tracks on the album that goes a bit beyond skin-deep lyrics. No song on the album is particularly embarrassing - most of it chugs along at a nice, relaxed rocking pace. But I feel like I've heard it all (or at least most) before.
I'm always glad to have a new Ringo Starr album and I hope that he has more to come. I will have to reserve judgement on Dave Stewart's contribution until he has a chance to work with Ringo from the ground up (should they continue working together).
on January 21, 2008
Ringo Starr may not have created the peace-and-love aesthetic the Beatles put forth late in their run, but over the years, he's embodied it as none of his band mates could.
Despite his talent behind the drums, Starr was always the regular guy in a group of icons -- an affable foil to John Lennon's confrontational genius, Paul McCartney's pop ambition and George Harrison's mystical leanings. On "Liverpool 8," Starr again plays the good-natured everyman, making simple pleas for peace and understanding over the kinds of bouncy backing his old band invented.
Starr doesn't even pretend the Beatles weren't the best thing that ever happened to him, and on the title track -- named for his childhood neighborhood -- he retells the story of the Fab Four, insisting, "Liverpool, I left you/ but I never let you down."
Producer Dave Stewart heaps on the gloss, but his technique is similar to that of Jeff Lynne, who helped Harrison stage his '80s comeback and recorded the two "new" Beatles tunes the following decade. As a result, Starr's songs have an old-friend quality, and their familiarity overshadows their hokier moments.
On "R U Ready," the album's closer, Starr stages a hoedown while contemplating mortality. Looking toward the afterlife, he's as hopeful as ever: "It's good that you believe, but it's better if you know."
on February 16, 2008
Like a good wine, Ringo just seems to keep getting better with age. His last few efforts going back to 1998's Vertical Man saw a creative rebirth of his talent. He then followed that up with Ringo Rama (and his beautiful tribute to George Harrison, "Never Without You"). His personality, charm and sly humor really came through on that CD, not to mention some flat out rocking tunes. Not to be outdone, in 2005 he released 'Choose Love' which was more or less in the same vein as Ringo Rama, choosing and writing some excellent material that could have been RR-part 2. Now comes Liverpool 8, where he expands on the formula that was present on his two previous efforts. Nostalgic, irreverent, fun and the continual propulsion of the back beat that we've know for 45 years, pardon the pun, hasn't missed a beat. Both he and George were overshadowed in that other band they played in, and if either he or George were in another band, they easily would have been leaders. Liverpool 8 doesn't travel far from the 60's inspired peace and love themes, but like McCartney asked in 'Silly Love Songs', "What's wrong with that"? It's a testament to the man's (often underrated) talent that he can produce fresh, vibrant and creative music, and the age of 67! Do yourself a favor and get this CD, sit back, enjoy and just have fun. There are no deep life-altering lyrics (OK, Ringo I really love ya, but deep lyrics haven't always been your strong suit--sorry) but just listen to one of the great masters doing what he does best, and it sounds like he's having a great time doing it. Keep them coming Ringo, we love ya!
on January 18, 2008
Let me start this review by saying I am a huge Ringo fan, lest any doubts arise. But 5-star reviews of this record -- especially by fans so giddy at its release that they didn't even listen to the record before writing the review -- miss the point. This is not a "great" record.
Ringo's career has interesting parallels. 30+ years ago, his greatest record, "Ringo", set a benchmark for what he can do, given the right conditions. He was up, he had the right people with him, they were ready to roll, and they created a classic. That record was followed by "Goodnight Vienna", which tried to imitate the formula for success defined by its predecessor, but was just a bit too... whatever, too much or too little, depending on how you looked at it. It seemed like they thought it would be easy to make a "Ringo 2", but it turned out they were wrong. It was overproduced and underproduced, overwritten and underwritten; too little effort was expended to make it great. Its high points were as high as "Ringo", but there were less of them, and the rest wasn't nearly as good.
The next record, "Rotogravure" (1976), again had most of the ingredients for success, yet, though it steered fairly clear of the low points, it had no real high points left. It was a too-lazy or too-misunderstood attempt to re-create "Ringo", and after hearing it, one could conclude that the only really stellar moment, the intro to the first song (!), was over in about 10 seconds. The rest was good, but not great in any way, and Ringo's career went down the drain, fully and completely, with the next release, "Ringo the 4th", the nadir.
Is history repeating itself? After cleaning himself up in the late-'80s, Ringo released a string of enjoyable, quality records, and his 2003 release, "Ringo Rama", was very exciting indeed. Firstly in that, as his best record since "Ringo", every single song was good, his playing and singing were better than anyone would have expected, and he was obviously having fun. But the exciting part was it was achieved as part of an upward curve -- it led many to think that Ringo had now finally "arrived". He, his co-writer and producer friend Mark Hudson, and his band (the Roundheads) just seemed to fire on all cylinders. He was realizing his potential, and the future looked very bright.
The 2005 follow-up, "Choose Love", had (like "Vienna" in 1974) some very bright spots, equal to anything on "Ringo Rama" -- for example, "Some People", the Chrissie Hynde duet "Don't Hang Up", and the title track -- but most of the rest was unremarkable, and it was often overproduced to the hilt, while Ringo's playing and vocals were not up to "Rama" standards. Indeed, many of the poorer tracks on "Choose Love" were actually worse than the 3 bonus tracks from the expanded edition of "Ringo Rama", all of which were excellent and had actually been cut from that album!
For me, the parallels continue with "Liverpool 8". This record shows that the formula that seemed so promising isn't working any longer. Though most of the songs are "good enough", there is only one truly stellar moment on the album, the opening (title) track. Interestingly, it is the only track not co-written with deposed producer Mark Hudson or the Roundheads, but rather with Dave Stewart, Ringo's new "accomplice". A couple of the other songs are also quite good as album tracks, but it seems the record also uses a lot of "gimmicks" to replace what, just two albums ago, wouldn't have been necessary: good writing, arranging, playing, or singing. And there are just too many weaknesses to overlook.
Examples? Re. writing, the song "Tuff Love", which has an upbeat message, drudges along with a negative-sounding melody line that seems to contradict the lyrics. His obligatory mention of "It Don't Come Easy" seems very contrived indeed as stuck into the otherwise engaging "Gone Are the Days." On an otherwise enjoyable tribute to Harry Nilsson, "Harry's Song", the refrain just doesn't seem to want to get off the ground, begging for one more writing session to finish it. And even the very respectable, fun, sing-along song "Liverpool 8" is musically over-repetetive at times -- and wouldn't the final line, "But I never let you down", have sounded more positive, less conceited, and more pro-Liverpool if it had just been changed to "But *you* never let *me* down," at least once in the song?
Arranging/production: "Give It a Try", a pleasant and well-played song, breaks suddenly into a hectic (and poorly sung) middle eight that just ruins the whole relaxed atmosphere of the song, leaving a bitter taste. The miking/mixing (and playing) of the drums in "Harry's Song", a light and enjoyable song, is at times far too heavy-sounding; Ringo and his producers should have given "When I'm 64" a listen to remember how brushes should be recorded (and played). And what kind of gimmick is the drum-oriented "For Love", with mediocre singing and a stilted beat that can't hide the song's inherent weakness? It ain't no "Back Off Boogaloo"!
Singing: I already mentioned the middle eight of "Give It a Try"; Ringo is audibly "reaching for it", but not getting there - it's grating, and it shows a lack of effort to get it right. The otherwise punchy and effective "If It's Love That You Want" is also spoiled by strained vocals. We all know Ringo isn't the greatest singer, but again: On "Ringo" and on "Ringo Rama", he and his producer succeeded in getting it right nevertheless. This smacks of laziness.
Playing: The sharp and effective playing shown on "Ringo Rama" is still present here on some songs, but there are some messy bits, too, that are more typical of the ex-Beatle Ringo; too often in his solo career, he settles for less than enough. He can be an excellent player (indeed, there are great bits of playing on this record, like the title track), but he can also be excruciatingly lazy or sloppy.
But I should mention the bright spots as well. Besides the title track, there are the swinging, and even kinda funky "Now That She's Gone Away", a track worthy of any Ringo record; "Pasodobles", a wonderful, slow love song about dancing (albeit to a rumba rhythm!), also very good; and the country-and-western "R U Ready", with its gospel/Harrison-esque lyric that ranks amongst the best lyrics ever on a Ringo record, and which might even have felt at home on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack if you overlook the bizarre production aspects in the middle of the song.
Also worthy of a mention are the poppy "If It's Love That You Want", which is fun if you overlook stints of strained singing; the light and airy "Harry's Song", which, despite my various criticisms above, is actually quite nice; and "Love Is", with Lennon-esque guitar picking and a typical Ringo lyric about the positive aspects of love.
(If you combine these with the best of "Choose Love", you would have one very nice album!)
All in all, a "good" record but one with too few moments that shine out and demand to be seen (or heard), and one with too many weaknesses to be "great". My rating: 2-1/2 stars. Hopefully, the next record will deliver what the Starkey/Stewart title track seems to be promising, and history will not repeat itself with some sort of "Ringo Rama the 4th".