Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't pass Ringo by

I write a lot about John and Paul, not enough about George, and woefully little about Ringo. Such is the natural order of things with The Beatles. To be sure, I make no apologies for the considerable space I devote to the Lennon-McCartney tandem, and I feel I'm on the path to correcting my neglect of George. As for Ringo, it's a different story. I admire him as a drummer; he added terrific style and color to The Beatles' music. And I have no time for those lazy, dried-out jokes about his "luck" in being a Fab; the others sought him out for a reason. But it shouldn't be lost on anyone that Ringo has never been a noteworthy songwriter. Far from it. His output, it seems, is judged more on the basis of charm and feel-goodness than artistry and technical skill. Modest expectations and upfront good-will often occasion reviews that are chock-full of awkward faint praise (one line from an write-up: Ringo "does not embarrass himself at all"). In other words, Ringo doesn't permit the most rewarding or honest conditions for evaluating an album. I've avoided his solo discography because the post-Fab careers of the other three interest me far more and I feel more comfortable being critical of their music. Well today marks the end of those days. This is a Beatles blog, and Ringo's voice deserves to be heard.
Ringo's first solo outing, 1970's Sentimental Journey, is an album of popular standards. At first blush, it may seem like a curious genre escapade for a rock 'n' roll drummer and country/western enthusiast, but - as Wikipedia explains - "the idea was to create an album of standards that would reflect his parents' favourite songs." Against the odds, Ringo was one-upping Paul, The Beatles' arch-sentimentalist, in the nostalgia department. To produce, he enlisted George Martin, who was likely tickled by the opportunity to work with a Beatle on his home turf: florid strings, booming brass, singsongy fluff. For the arrangements, Ringo brought in an array of big-name talents: Richard Perry, Maurice Gibb, Quincy Jones, and more. Recording began in late October 1969 and wrapped up the following March. The final product was released on March 27, a full three weeks before McCartney came out. (I like to imagine an alternate universe in which it was actually Ringo's debut solo album that hastened The Beatles' demise.) Though reviews were mixed, Sentimental Journey hit #7 on the UK charts.
As with Kisses on the Bottom, I'm not on strong footing writing about an album like Sentimental Journey. I'm pretty ignorant of music from the pre-rock 'n' roll era, and I don't have much of an ear for jazz, big band or show tunes. Plus, this is exactly the kind of album that leads to cliched talk of "charm" and the like. But I'm in too deep at this point. My layman's take on Sentimental Journey is that it's a mixed bag of easy listens - several gems and pleasant confections alongside a handful of so-so cuts that bleed together - and it may work to greater or lesser degrees depending on your comfort level with Ringo as a singer.
Ringo's voice isn't an ideal fit for this showy style; flat and earthbound, it can't fill out a big sonic canvas. If this objection looms large in your mind, it'll likely take you out of Sentimental Journey. The easygoing title track will just plod; the big jazz of "Night and Day" and "Blue, Turning Grey Over You" will feel too big for the guy at the mic; and the lushness of "Whispering Grass (Don't Tell the Trees)" will seem wasted without the right voice as an anchor. Indeed, some of these songs need a stronger presence in the middle. However, if you focus on the positive associations that Ringo and his familiar, folksy voice can recall, you may enjoy what you hear more.
Then again, each song is different. Ringo's vox may be pedestrian, but "Bye Bye Blackbird" is still a bright and bouncy jaunt that wouldn't be out of place on "The White Album." Better yet is "Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing," a shimmering, wide-screen take on the Oscar-winning classic. The huge vocal accompaniment that hovers behind Ringo delivers a dazzling effect. Finally, on more low-key numbers like "I'm a Fool to Care," "Dream" and "Let the Rest of the World Go By," Ringo sounds right at home.
To no surprise, I haven't avoided all of the Ringo review cliches I cited above. I'll add one more. Sentimental Journey is a hit-or-miss vehicle for Ringo's always-winning *personality*. It's hard not to root for an album that was essentially made for someone's mom. Richard Starkey = The Beatles' clown prince. Going forward, I hope to see more of him in these parts.

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