Driving Rain

"Not that this should come as a shock — though after all these years it often goes unnoticed or taken for granted — but Paul McCartney is one kick-ass bass player. A listener could live inside the voluptuous notes he so effortlessly threads through Driving Rain, his first album of new rock songs in four years. His genius on the instrument often has been enough to atone for many of his lesser post-Beatles compositions (no matter what one thinks of "Silly Love Songs," the bass line by itself practically justifies that ditty's existence). Driving Rain exploits this virtue to the fullest with fuss-free arrangements that magnify the interplay of a decent little four-piece rock & roll band comprising three relative unknowns and one living legend.

McCartney is one legend with a penchant for breeziness, and many of his lesser solo discs traffic in mere pleasantness. This album isn't one of those, though it does contain a handful of tracks that sound tossed off rather than finely tuned: "Tiny Bubble" floats but never arrives at its destination; "Spinning on an Axis" drifts lazily; and "Heather" suggests a warm-up exercise for the band rather than an actual song.

Fortunately, McCartney has embraced the small-combo spirit that made Run Devil Run, his 1999 album of rock & roll covers, such a triumph. Back then, McCartney was deep in mourning for his wife, Linda, and he returned to the music of his youth with almost desperate purpose. The best of his new tunes revisit that emotional terrain, giving "Lonely Road" a bite that becomes a frenzied growl by song's end. "There Must Have Been Magic" looks back in poignant reverie, while "From a Lover to a Friend" looks ahead with hymnlike wonder tempered by anxiety.

On each of these tunes, plus the snappy if slight "Driving Rain," the country-flavored "Your Way" and the ten-minute rave-up "Rinse the Raindrops," McCartney's bass does the steering. Four-string melodies rise up as a counterpoint to his still-pliant vocals, and the never-ending McCartney groove, well, it isn't silly at all."

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