RINGO STARR – Ringo 2012

Ringo 2012While Ringo Starr’s solo works have rarely gained the accolades of his former Beatle bandmates, many of his releases feature some great songs.  Never more was this more obvious than on 2003’s excellently titled ‘Ringo Rama’, 2008’s ‘Liverpool 8’ and 2010’s ‘Y Not’, for what they represent, are albums (almost) beyond criticism.  These albums – which are awash with tight, yet often unimposing arrangements, bolstered by autobiographical nuggets and themes of peace and love – deserve a place in the collection of any true Beatles fans.

In theory, ‘Ringo 2012’ – remarkably, Starr’s seventeenth outing – offers more of the same.  Sadly however, this time around, Mr. Starkey appears to be firmly on autopilot, on what is a short outing by most people’s standards, clocking in at just twenty nine minutes.  That, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem, but ‘Ringo 2012’is also subject to a fair amount of what could be considered padding.  Ringo brings only five brand new songs to the table; the rest of the disc is filled with two re-recordings and two covers (one of which was released in identical form in 2011).

Despite the makeshift feel of this release, if you can take the songs at face value, ‘Ringo 2012’ is a fine enough record, though never really outstanding by any stretch of the imagination. ‘Anthem’ returns to a well-worn theme as Starr sings of peace and love, peace and love… While his instantly recognisable tones feel like a return of an old friend or a comfortable pair of shoes, maybe things are just that little bit too comfortable.  Musically, we’re presented with a marching beat – so distinctly the work of Ringo – over which jangly guitars call out slightly jagged chords.  Such a solid arrangement could make a good opening statement, but once Starr starts to sing “This is an anthem of peace and love”, it has to be asked if Ringo couldn’t have come up with something less predictable.  There’s nowt wrong with wanting peace and love, but with Ringo, it feels like he’s labouring a point now.  The same topic was tackled in a vastly superior fashion on his 2010 track ‘Peace Dream’, using a much nicer lyric and melody.

The lightweight blues-rocker ‘Slow Down’ is also okay but nothing special, despite sometime Eagles man Joe Walsh’s attempts to tear it up on slide guitar. Best described as workmanlike, it trots out the kind of mid-pace that Ringo is best at, while his voice occasionally gets a little lost with its lack of edge.  There’s something slightly amiss: maybe it could have been a little faster, maybe it needed a better hook, maybe more needed to be made of the organ part lurking in the back…  Whatever, you’ve also heard Ringo do this kind of thing better, many times.  ‘Wonderful’ pootles along in a sub-Wilbury style, with its mix of acoustic and electric guitars backed by old style organ.  Ringo adopts his usual optimism, while the rest of the band do their best to make his lyric nice and buoyant. Again, it’s not much more than Ringo Starr by numbers – especially for those familiar with the man’s previous couple of albums – but even so, an enjoyable lead guitar line and chirpy chorus make it worth almost four minutes’ listening time.  ‘Samba’, on the other hand, drenched as it is in Hawaiian style guitar work and accordions, has a general air of syrupiness and is just horrible.  There is no other word which fits the bill; it’s just horrible.  Some of the music sounds like tape that’s been warped – though this is probably not the case, it’s more likely the work of too many layers at once.  Bad music combined with Starr’s limited vocal, there are no redeeming features here:  simply put, it’s one of Starr’s worst post-eighties recordings.

On the previous albums, Ringo’s autobiographical cuts have been a high-point, and so it remains the same here.  There’s something utterly charming about such numbers, and while Starr could be accused of trotting out another tried and tested idea, there’s still that extra something which makes it endearing.  The guitars adopt another sharp, ringing tone as Starr tells us “in Liverpool the sun always shone in his mind” while recounting a tale of his old childhood gang and bunking off school.  A simple rumpty-tumpty passes for a tune – severely lacking the funkiness of ‘Y Not’s ‘The Other Side of Liverpool’ – and lyrically, although it’s not as heart-warming as ‘Liverpool 8’, it hits the goal it sets out to score.   Overall, it represents what Starr is best at; uncomplicated music coupled with an uncomplicated sentiment.

The two re-recorded numbers are surprisingly good – though good in this case is relative, since newly written songs would still have been preferable.   A track originally featured on ‘Ringo’ [Starr’s relatively popular 1973 elpee], ‘Step Lightly’ appears here in a superbly moody variation, where a warming bass and some old fashioned electric piano lines are a near perfect compliment for Starr’s slightly woozy voice.  In terms of arrangement, it’s similar to the 1973 cut, but replacing the clarinets and oompah horns with something more blues oriented proves a much better, much classier choice.  It’s one of the album’s sure-fire winners: certainly something which makes ‘Ringo 2012’ worth checking out.  Likewise, the re-jigged ‘Wings’ (originally from Starr’s 1977 flop ‘Ringo The 4th’) is enjoyable with its reggae chops, female harmonies and brass fills.  The sharper band and arrangement make the late 70s version sound flat and demo-like in comparison.  While artists revisiting old works to improve them can sometimes be disastrous (Kate Bush’s ‘Director’s Cut’ being a glaring example of such empty vanity), with this pair of tunes, Starr has made the right decision, since with his band of arguably superior musical chums in tow, these tunes have been re-worked for the better.

As for the covers, the Buddy Holly track is endearing but ultimately inessential (once again, though, Ringo and co sound like they’re having fun, and in lots of ways, that’s what Ringo’s solo career has always been about), but a cover of the old chestnut ‘Rock Island Line’ suits Ringo rather well (certainly much better than it suits Graham Bonnet!).  On this Leadbelly standard, with his steady drum pace and equally steady vocal, he sounds perfectly at ease, as if he’s played the song a thousand times (and probably has).  Augmented by some great slide guitar, a more than worthy solo and lovely bar-room piano, it’s a good, solid number.  Although nothing too out of the ordinary, it has to be said, at the centre, there’s the sound of Starr and his chums enjoying what they do, and even Starr’s most vocal detractors would be mean to deny him that.

It’s easy to feel short-changed by ‘Ringo 2012’ (certainly on the first few plays, at least).  While there’s some enjoyable material to be heard (and the re-recorded ‘Step Lightly’ has a very pleasing arrangement), this release feels like a total rush job – especially compared to a few of his previous efforts.  Being an ex-Beatle and certainly not having to attract an audience, you could argue that Ringo is Ringo and can do what he likes; however most would probably find it hard not to agree with the idea that even Ringo can do better, even after taking on board some of the album’s best moments.  Regardless of its patchwork quality, if you’ve dug Ringo’s output from the nineties and beyond, ‘Ringo 2012’ is still worth investing in, though…but only if the price is right.  For everyone else, the best advice is to give this a miss and give ‘Ringo Rama’ and ‘Liverpool 8’ a listen with an open mind instead.

February 2012