Whilst in no way meaning to damn with faint praise (it's Ringo Starr, who would wish him ill?), there is little on Ringo 2012 that is deserving of great praise either.
Nor does there really have to be. Beatles completists and milder nostalgists will find this comfortable stroll through the 4/4, twelve bar, ageing men playing competent blues checklist.
That should be, and will be enough for both camps. It's interesting to hear what a musician with nothing to prove comes up with. It would be typical at this point to say something along the lines of 'in 2012's intensely competitive and failure-strewn music market, only music which strives to be great can hope to survive', and point out that with a fanbase as solid as Ringo's, perhaps there is some comforting aspect to making music which only has to strive to be good.
interesting to hear what a musician with nothing to prove comes up with
It misses a point though, which is that there never was a time when the recorded music market wasn't viciously fought, and that being one of the few to have sold records over the course of six decades still doesn't guarantee a smooth run with a record label. Ask Tom Jones.
And Ringo, the one member of The Beatles who wasn't there from the start, described by John Lennon as 'not even the best drummer in The Beatles', still has to perform. Shouldering that quote for nigh-on sixty years can't help but irritate, but to his credit, the album resists any urge to get flashy with the kit, throwing in nifty little syncopations or tricky assymetric paradiddles. (Lennon did tell Playboy magazine in 1980 that Ringo was 'a damn good drummer'.)
not even the best drummer in The Beatles
Starr's great gift as a drummer, and one which he is well aware of, is his time. Metronomic and sturdy, what he can do is beat out a backbone to any song, solid enough to anchor any amount of histrionics going on at the front of the stage. In his earlier days that may have been a couple of artschool scousers yelling out harmonies, now it's more likely to be guitar solos or in one particularly sultry case, Rhodes piano.
'Anthem' opens the album with a surging flashback to 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)', the very same bridge-picked guitar sound (or as near as dammit) swooping in and livening up what is otherwise a pretty pedestrian runthrough of simplistic peace and love platitudes calling upon us all to get our act together and sort the world's more obvious problems out.
a surging flashback to 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
There are no surprises in the exuberant guitar solos or solid percussion on the blues-rock structure, unless it has some coded clues that only true fans with encyclopaedic knowledge of his life and career will pick up. Perhaps, played backwards, there is a ghostly voice chanting 'George is alive', but in its absence, the track is a competent plodder.
Elsewhere the album is jaunty – from the steel drum peppered 'Think it Over', which sounds a bit like Dion's 'The Wanderer' mated with 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da', to the strangely polka leanings of 'Samba'. If these songs were to be played, this well, at a wedding reception, you would dance and enjoy. And there is the heart of it, because as can be expected after so many hugely successful years in the business, the man knows some fine musicians. It's not the Wilburys, but its a bunch of experts, playing well within their competence, and thus getting on with all those beyond-competence facets of music that come from that: groove, humour, swagger, fun.
It's not the Wilburys, but its a bunch of experts, playing well
Where that reaches its peak, as does the album, is in 'Step Lightly', where Benmont Tench's languid dexterity on the Rhodes piano [it's not specified on the notes who played what, but call this an educated guess] is gut-churningly electric, utterly captivating. Any complexity of lyricism or vocals would be wasted on the track, and completely inappropriate. Which is just as well, because to be brutal, there are none of either on the album. What Starr offers instead is unabashed honesty, not soul-baring intensity honest, but just the simple stuff:
the worst it ever was was wonderful,
better than I ever dreamed,
the worst it ever was was wonderful,
because it's always been you and me.
And we made it through,
like we always do
But there is always the moment on solo albums where the artist overextends. Bands self-police, and when one member is in danger of megalomania, the others often cut him down to size. In the case of The Beatles, that could involve a kick in the head. Not ideal, or recommended, but effective nonetheless.
Session men, even as illustrious as Dave Stewart, tend to hold their tongues (and feet). Which is a pity, because with a little constructive criticism, 'In Liverpool' might have been the song to finally get Ringo that UK number one single that has been so elusive (all the other Fab Four have had them). It's sweet, it's even lump-in-throat at times, but it's just not enough.
Clunky lyrics are forgiveable, or would be if there were just a detail or two
'In Liverpool' walks us through a halcyon recreation of the city where the young Starkey grew up, and whilst clearly autobiographical, is just not intimate enough to satisfy. Clunky lyrics are forgiveable, or would be if there were just a detail or two in the song to draw us into his confidence. Instead we get non-committal observations that whilst 'the rain never stopped, but the sun always shone in my mind', or that 'an apprentice engineer, but I had something very clear in my mind, in Liverpool. Music was my goal, in my heart and in my soul and in my mind'.
So tantalising, especially where he sings of 'Me and my band, living our fantasies', there are memories here that would be wonderful to hear, but they are not shared. Instead we get (admittedly very fine) strings adding to the nostalgia of the song, but no real insight. (The subject is better covered on his earlier song 'The Other Side of Liverpool', on YNot)
Complex or poignant, 'In Liverpool' is not. Which is a pity, because it would be lovely to hear something more detailed. Then there is the unfortunate fact that the track owes a great deal in melody to The Kinks' 'Waterloo Sunset'. And that's a tough, tough song to be compared to.
a complexity of feeling for that city that is utterly lacking in Ringo's paean to Liverpool
Ray Davies' self-consolatory but bittersweet musings on being left behind in London by an elder sister bound for Australia deliver a complexity of feeling for that city that is utterly lacking in Ringo's paean to Liverpool. It wouldn't be at all fair to even mention it, only that in tone and melodic hook they are so akin. Having spent as many years living in Los Angeles, Monte Carlo and Surrey, Starr's relationship with Liverpool is surely more complicated than this runthrough of childhood and young adult rose-tinted images.
In truth, the song has much in common with the joke about the Irish boomerang (i.e. it never comes back, nor does it ever stop singing about it). Liverpool, a captivating city in so many ways, seems also to grow in romanticism the further one gets from it.
Boasting an undeniably heavyweight cultural punch for all that, Liverpool still lacks an anthem to rally behind. Marsden's 'Ferry Across the Mersey' wallows in bombast; 'Penny Lane' is too suburban, and 'In Liverpool' suffers from being simultaneously too personal – it is obviously autobiographical – but not personal enough to evoke the love for the city that Starr clearly feels. And judging by the mid-Atlantic blues, honky-tonk and pub rock flavour of the rest of the album, we may have to keep waiting.
Nomatter, there'll always be The Spinners.
Ringo 2012 is released on Monday 30th January, on Universal Records.
The album features performances by Joe Walsh, Benmont Tench, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dave Stewart, Don Was, Van Dyke Parks and Edgar Winter.