CD Review: Ringo Starr

Liverpool 8 Capitol
Music •••½ Sound ½

Ringo Starr has never made an album that was less than entertaining - and there aren't any other Beatles you can say that about. The catch, of course, is that few of his albums have been more than entertaining. Nobody expects Ringo to get near the artistry of his former mates: He's a great drummer and personality who also happens to be an appealing singer, and his best albums are essentially parties that stand or fall on the guest list.

You can't ask for a better list than the one he had for 1973's Ringo. It was the only post-breakup album to include all four of the Fabs, and it was also one of the most enjoyable solo discs any of them made. Ringo updated that concept on 1992's Time Takes Time, where contemporaries like Jeff Lynne and Brian Wilson rubbed shoulders with young Beatles acolytes from the Posies and Jellyfish. That solid album largely coincided with his new gig as the king of the oldies tours. But oddly, he's since chosen to keep his live shows separate from his studio albums. Instead of hitting up his celebrity pals for songs and bringing one of his All-Starr Bands into the studio, he's now made five albums with the same non-touring crew.

Or, you might say, he's made the same album five times. All of his releases since 1998's Vertical Man have essentially been Mark Hudson albums, as the L.A. pop figure has taken over as producer, bandleader, and main songwriter. (There's usually a Starkey credit on most tunes, but always with two or three collaborators listed.) And that's been a mixed blessing. On the plus side, Hudson's had good hook-writing instincts since his '70s days with the Hudson Brothers. But he's also a born overproducer, prone to clogging up tracks with Pro Tools tricks, sticking his own voice everywhere, and hitting you over the head with Beatles references - something he even did with Aerosmith on that band's all-time worst-produced album, Just Push Play.

So the real news about Liverpool 8 isn't so much that it marks Ringo's return to Capitol Records, but that it's his break from Hudson. Unfortunately, the break happened after the disc was nearly done: Hudson produced most of the album, and head Eurythmic David A. Stewart was brought in to "re-produce" it. Not surprisingly, the results are a mess - a sonic battle of the egos that nearly trashes a perfectly good collection of songs. On the autobiographical title track, a reference to Ringo's nautical roots is answered by a "Yellow Submarine" hornpipe, then by "Eleanor Rigby" cellos; that's two Beatle quotes, and we're only 17 seconds into the album. And that's subtle compared with what comes next on the same track: more strings, massive guitar sounds, screaming fans when he mentions Shea Stadium, cheers and handclaps, and a "Day in the Life" finale - all on a song that was aiming for low-key charm.

The production debacle never lets up, with the whole album mastered at maximum-crunch levels, as if Ringo was assuming that his fans have all sustained hearing loss by now. Stewart does a Frankenstein number with a few of the tracks - notably, "Gone Are the Days," which changes in midstream from psychedelic drone to light rocker. But he leaves in most of Hudson's candyfloss, including the vocal countermelodies that are usually mixed louder than Ringo's lead. And what the hell's up with "R U Ready"? This oddly jaunty song about the afterlife is mixed to sound like a few old 78s playing at once. It comes across like "Peace of Mind," the phony low-fi Beatles outtake (allegedly found in the Apple garbage can) that's well known to bootleg collectors. But if that's the reference, it wasn't worth it.

Making a better album out of this would've been easy: Just dump the gimmicks and record it in a live setting with a good band. The material's certainly here, as Ringo (or Hudson, or somebody) loaded these songs with hummable hooks and melodic turns; in particular, "Think About You" and "Tuff Love" are up there with his most infectious singles of old. And whenever it stops straining to sound like the Beatles, the album sounds like, well, the Beatles - at least the Beatles in their more modest, countrified moments. Having already done a touching tribute to George Harrison ("Never Without You" on 2003's Ringo-Rama), he does the same here for Harry Nilsson ("Harry's Song"), and for once the sonic homages sound fitting.

The message of Liverpool 8 isn't hard to fathom, with the word "love" in a third of the titles and nearly all of the lyrics. It's Ringo being Ringo. And as everyone knows - everyone but Stewart and Hudson - that's really all you need.

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