Kisses on the Bottom is a fairly brave move for Paul McCartney at this stage in his career. Recording an album of Great American Songbook standards would’ve likely been a knockout for him thirty or forty years ago. At nearly seventy years old, McCartney simply doesn’t have the vocal range or power to make the most of these tunes. That said, he turns in a carefully controlled performance that demonstrates great respect for the material.
Teaming up with Diana Krall was a very smart move, as she and her band provide impeccably tasteful accompaniment. What could’ve easily been an overproduced schmaltz fest is mostly restrained. For the first time, McCartney’s role is strictly that of vocalist. Though he slips in a little acoustic guitar on two songs late in the album, Krall and her band do all the heavy lifting. This allows McCartney to concentrate almost exclusively on singing. Though he doesn’t stray far from the established melodies, he does challenge himself to explore his full range. “Home (When Shadows Fall)” is one such example, where he delivers a delicate, whispery upper-range performance.
As McCartney explains in the liner notes, he avoided a predictable track list by opting for less frequently played numbers. Krall and producer Tommy LiPuma helped with the song selection process. Ballads dominate, with only a few tunes approaching a mid-tempo swing. “Bye Bye Blackbird” is excessively slow and dreary, while “The Glory of Love” similarly could’ve used a shot of adrenaline. More fun are “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” with McCartney whistling a call-and-response with violinist Andy Stein, and “My Very Good Friend the Milkman,” which boasts a loose, playful vocal.
Of the fourteen tracks, two are brand new McCartney originals. Not entirely surprising given that he has dabbled in this genre in the past, neither song feels out of place. Both are aided immeasurably by guest appearances. “My Valentine” is bolstered by some moody acoustic guitar riffing from Eric Clapton, who also drops in to similarly lift Frank Haywood and Monroe Tucker’s “Get Yourself Another Fool.” The second McCartney original, “Only Our Hearts,” gets a hand from Stevie Wonder who contributes a richly melodic harmonica solo. McCartney and Wonder last worked together on Wonder’s 2005 A Time to Love, when McCartney played guitar on the epic title track. “Only Our Hearts” is Kisses on the Bottom’s only performance that doesn’t feature backing by Diana Krall and her band.
Curiously, the one song that sounds the most McCartney-esque is a rather charming rendition of Frank Loesser’s “The Inch Worm.” Though I could’ve done without the children’s choir providing backing vocals, this arrangement would’ve fit in on just about any McCartney album. Heck, if I didn’t already know it was a fifty-year-old song, I might’ve mistaken it for a long-delayed sequel to McCartney’s own “We All Stand Together.” Arguably the most unusual and risky choice for the album, “The Inch Worm” stands out as one of its best tracks.
Kisses on the Bottom is unlikely to begin a new phase in McCartney’s career à la Rod Stewart and his Great American Songbook series. But thankfully that doesn’t seem to have been his intent, having taken a more subtle, refined approach than Stewart. This will most likely go down as a minor footnote in McCartney’s discography, but it’s a pleasant enough one.
There is a deluxe version of Kisses on the Bottom available, but beware – different retailers are selling different versions. The standard deluxe version includes a download code for the February 9th, 2012 performance McCartney is giving at Capitol Studios as well as three glossy, color postcards. But the Target deluxe version is the one to get. In addition to the aforementioned items, the album is augmented by two additional tracks. McCartney’s own “Baby’s Request,” the closing song on 1979’s Back to the Egg, is reworked by Krall and company. The results are excellent, far outshining the original version. The other track is a lovely reading of “My One and Only Love,” a song that McCartney admits in the Target deluxe edition’s liner notes he was previously unfamiliar with. These extra songs are well worth the extra couple of bucks, but keep in mind you can only find them at Target or Paul McCartney’s official website.