On "Cloud Nine," George Harrison has come up with his best solo work since 1970's "All Things Must Pass." Of course, the ex-Beatles guitarist had seven years to work on that triple album (which actually contained only one album's worth of great material).
After three dismal efforts, ending with 1982's dreadful "Gone Troppo," Harrison sat out the next five years, wrote some good songs, found the most empathetic producer possible in ELO's Jeff Lynne and finally went back into the studio with some old friends, including Ringo Starr, Elton John and Eric Clapton. Not surprisingly, "Cloud Nine" (Dark Horse LP, cassette and CD) is a relaxed and assured affair that sounds absolutely great. Harrison has bounced back with a bouncy audio treat, not rock and droll, but effusive rock 'n' roll.
Much of the credit must go to Lynne, who has never disguised his own work's great debt to the Beatles. "Cloud Nine" is a high-tech record grounded in a genial '60s sensibility, a bridge between the communality of the white album and the independence of "All Things Must Pass."
This is most evident on "When We Was Fab," a playful look back at older, though not necessarily better, days "when we did it all." There are evocative echoes of various Beatles stages, from "Norwegian Wood" sitar lines to "I Am the Walrus" string dissonance. It's one of two songs cowritten by Harrison and Lynne, and it's hard to imagine any other Beatle pulling off such wry self-reference so well.
There are other "Beatley" songs: the terse testimonial to love, "Fish on the Sand," which has a John Lennonish vocal line; the maudlin McCartneyesque ballad "Someplace Else"; and the pulsating title cut and "Got My Mind Set on You," which sound very ELOish. "Just for Today," a languorous and insipid ballad with lush vocal wrappings and some exquisite slide guitar, is the kind of song Elvis Presley should have lived for.
The most intriguing tune is "Breath Away From Heaven," with its oriental glaze and billowing melody. Here, and throughout the album, Harrison does the best singing of his career, sounding confident and renewed. "Got My Mind Set on You," his ebullient remake of an obscure '50s hit by Rudy Clark, may have an '80s gloss but it also recalls the Beatles' great taste in covers before they got around to writing their own material.
There are some weak songs. "Wreck of the Hesperus" rejects the notion that time and fashion have passed by '60s rockers like Harrison (for further confirmation, look at the current pop charts), and "That's What It Takes" is just another silly love song. But while Harrison's penchant for the mystically vague and ethereal sometimes undercuts his melodies, even the weaker songs benefit from Lynne's outstanding production and the guitar work by Harrison and Clapton.
In "Devil's Radio," Harrison seems to address some of the reasons he's chosen to stay out of the limelight this past half decade, namely the cruel and incessant gossip of the media, from print to television to radio. Luckily, it's such a tight number that no one's likely to hold this toothless diatribe against him. It may take a while for some of Harrison's new songs to sink in -- none jumps out as an immediate pop classic -- but the production is so good, the playing so supportive and the spirit so exuberant, you may not even notice that while "Cloud Nine" sounds great, it's less filling.
Squeeze: 'Babylon and On'
Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of the reunited British band Squeeze are often compared with Lennon and McCartney, but their songwriting more closely resembles Harrison's. Difford and Tilbrook's songs possess the tunefulness and cleverness of the Beatles' records, but they lack the fierce passion of Lennon's work. Instead the Squeeze records offer the detached, neat quality of Harrison's songwriting.
The new album, "Babylon and On" (A&M, SP-5161), is the band's best effort since 1981's "East Side Story." Squeeze broke up in 1982, reunited in 1985 and after two years of roadwork sounds like a cohesive rock 'n' roll band again. Vastly underrated drummer Gilson Lavis applies an insistent push to the songs, and newcomer Andy Metcalfe plays Memphis soul organ against Jools Holland's Nashville rockabilly piano.
Difford's lyrics resemble the recent fiction in The New Yorker: full of wryly observed and carefully rendered detail but empty of any big emotions or provocative arguments. This is an unlikely recipe for rock 'n' roll, and more often admirable than exciting. Tilbrook's melodies suit Difford's lyrics perfectly; the music is full of clever twists and turns but rarely yields a memorable hook or heart-tugging chorus.
The two best songs deal with the losses that occur with passing time. The catchy, horn-powered funk of "Hour Glass" underscores an Ingmar Bergman-like nightmare of being left alone in a dreamscape of broken clocks. The carnival pop of "Footprints" uses an evocative winter beach scene to mourn lost youth.
"Trust Me to Open My Mouth" recalls the wicked puns and fractured pop of the band's old producer, Elvis Costello. Most fun of all is "853-5937," which updates the old telephone-number song for the age of answering machines.