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Record Review 

Despite recent events -- George Harrison's untimely death, McCartney's atrocious "Freedom" -- it's not a bad time to be a Beatles fan. Two new releases, Harrison's posthumous Brainwashed and McCartney's live Back in the U.S., draw upon each artist's musical strengths and remind us why the Beatles mattered so much (and still do).

Per Harrison's Brainwashed: This could've easily been a ghoulish disaster. Drawing upon what were initially reported as in-the-rough recordings made over the past two years while he was battling cancer, the finished tracks feel pretty complete. Produced by George's son Dhani and Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed delivers a dozen contemplative, even humorous tunes. Kicking off with the rollicking, Wilbury-esque "Any Road," the Quiet Beatle celebrates life's seeming randomness with good-natured vocals and an instantly memorable melody. The remainder of the album follows suit -- and from the contemplative "Pisces Fish" to the lulling instrumental "Marwa Blues," Harrison's distinctive slide guitar is prominently featured. Though not quite on par with his 1970 masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, Brainwashed is nonetheless laced with spiritualism, dry wit and a resigned sense of the inevitable, making it one of the best works in his cannon. It also serves as a sad reminder of what we truly lost last year.

Harrison's former Beatle bud also has a new album in the racks: the double-disc live album Back in the U.S., which documents his recent tour of the States. It's the sixth live album in McCartney's lengthy solo career -- and it's his best, surpassing even 1976's Wings Over America. McCartney's vocals are his strongest in years; he sounds rejuvenated, switching modes effortlessly from soulful singer/songwriter to all-out rocker. The set even contains a few surprises: Along with the expected warhorses ("Hey Jude," "Let It Be," "Yesterday"), McCartney reaches into his ample back catalog to pull out "Getting Better," "Every Night" and "Mother Nature's Son." Most touching are his tributes to his fallen comrades: "Here Today," a frank "love letter" to Lennon, and a gorgeous ukulele performance of Harrison's "Something."

McCartney's touring band is the best he's assembled since the Beatles dispersed. Besides shaking things up a bit (their take on "Back in the U.S.S.R." is a good example), they handle complicated vocal harmonies with surprising grace and style. All in all, if you own just one live Paul McCartney album, Back in the U.S. is your best bet.

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