Roger McGuinn is back. From Rio (not really). And he brought Tom Petty with him. I guess that’s the premise behind re-launching his solo career after so many years. Back From Rio sounds a lot like Tom Petty, or at least Tom Petty with Don Henley’s brain inside of him. (I don’t know why I’m always taking out people’s brains and putting them in other people’s bodies.) The songs are punchy, polished pop with a noticeable twang, not far removed from the contemporary work of singer/songwriters like Graham Parker and Lindsey Buckingham. The lyrics generally emanate from a failed romance (must be the influence of all those Heartbreakers); the Henley connection occurs in the social correction and anti-materialism found in songs like “Car Phone” and “The Trees Are All Gone.” It’s a very professional affair, affording younger artists (Elvis Costello, Michael Penn) a chance to work with an influential if infrequent artist. McGuinn, never a prolific songwriter, takes help where he can get it: EC is stamped all over “You Bowed Down,” Petty on “King of the Hill.” Combined with McGuinn’s own material (“The Time Has Come,” “Someone To Love”), Back From Rio is remarkably solid. Of course, a lot of people were making music like this: studio pop with ringing guitars and harmonies that could be seen as an alt rock update of The Byrds’ original vision. That McGuinn can lay claim to this legacy puts him ahead of the pack, much as it aided Roy Orbison and The Traveling Wilburys. But the history lesson was lost on most and, despite charting well, Back To Rio went back to the cutout bins. If you missed his emergence from the shadows the first time, this effort is worth a second look.
Kronomyth 13.0: BACK FROM RINGO. There was a sort of Beatles/Byrds renaissance happening around this time, with the careers of George Harrison (Cloud Nine), Roger McGuinn (Back From Rio) and Tom Petty (Full Moon Fever) in various states of revival with what were invariably termed their best album since (fill in the blank). In the case of Time Takes Time, the blank was typically Ringo, since apparently no one owns a copy of Goodnight Vienna. Ringo’s career was already in semi-revival thanks to the popular All-Starr Band tours, although this time the impressive guests are seated in the producer’s chair: Jeff Lynne, Don Was, Phil Ramone, Peter Asher. Ringo recorded a few tracks with each of them, using material furnished for the most part by professional songsmiths (somehow, impossibly, a Posies cover got in there) that sounded like someone’s approximation of The Beatles and The Byrds circa 1990. The producers had their work cut out for them in making The Velvet Smog sound good; Ringo hits so many flat notes he’s like a human whack-a-mole. The solution, not surprisingly, is a liberal use of sparkle and spackle. No less than 25 people are credited with background vocals; in other words, it takes a village to raise Ringo’s voice to humanly acceptable levels. My snide comments aside, Time Takes Time is one of the more “fun” Ringo records to come around in years. Songs like “Weight of The World,” “Don’t Know A Thing About Love” and “I Don’t Believe You” are nice vehicles for Ringo, and the rest of the record passes pleasantly enough, even the Ringo originals (which really aren’t the best songs on here). I’d take the best-record-since-Ringo comments with a grain of salt, however, since Ringo fans tend to be soft critics for obvious reasons. I wouldn’t call it a comeback since so much of the material comes from other people who aren’t named John, Paul or George, but it is nice to hear Ringo getting the starr treatment from the day’s top pop producers. As an added bonus, the Japanese version includes a fine cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” which I’m sure John would have appreciated.
Kronomyth 16.0: STRAIGHT UP THE BEST THING HE’S EVER DONE. As much of a fuss as people made of Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie, Ringo’s Vertical Man stands equally tall in my eyes. Fast as I can say “It’s a return to…” someone will answer: “I thought that’s what Time Takes Time was all about.” And they’d be right, sort of, only Time Takes Time felt unnatural. Vertical Man feels right. Ringo, Mark Hudson, Steve Dudas and Dean Grakal write most of the songs; not the Fab Four exactly, but far better than seeing Diane Warren’s name pop up for the umpteenth time. As for the production, it’s a mix of vintage Beatles and XTC, with mellotrons and tablas in moderation. The guest list is long to the point of distraction (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, George Martin, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Alanis Morissette, Joe Walsh, Scott Wieland, ad inifinitum), but the best Ringo Starr albums are never only about Ringo. He’s the host of the party and he’ll sing if you egg him on, but it’s always with a self-effacing shrug. If it’s a good song, he’ll pull it off. If it’s not a good song, you don’t hold it against him. He gets a lot of good songs on Vertical Man; “One,” “Vertical Man” and “La De Da” are some of the best songs he’s sung since the golden age of Ringo. What golden age? It was kinda short (1973-1974), so maybe you were napping. As a very funny man once said (in a very unfunny movie), it’s good to be the king, and Vertical Man is Ringo’s command performance in the 90s. It has a little something from everyone, with a lot of somebodies from everywhere, which nobody does better than Ringo.