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Xmas Releases From Streisand, Isley, Sting & More

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Critic's Notebook: Old Songs Revisited by Voices of Today

November 28, 2003


One way to draw the map of popular music in the new

millennium would be to divide the world into two volatile,

interacting territories. One, the world of pop for

grown-ups, is a land of song where the sunsets are dramatic

and the pace is leisurely. The other, younger world is a

defiant nation under a groove, a fast-food franchise in

which tornado watches are announced daily.

Every pop record, of course, borrows elements from both

sides. The most aggressive rap hit still carries a

suggestion of song structure, and the dreamiest pop ballad

has a time signature, even if the beat is faint. Despite

communication between the two worlds (often carried on in

the form of remixes, which can pump hard rhythm into just

about anything), they have never been further apart than

they are today.

The distance between them has allowed a resurgence of a pop

classicism that sees the past in a new light. The old

generation gap between rock and pre-rock music has given

way to a new and even wider one, with hip-hop and metal and

their assorted hybrids on one side, and everything else on

the other.

A flurry of recent standards albums by artists identified

with rock and soul blurs the old distinctions between music

made before and after 1960. As "American Idol" has

demonstrated in its tacky way, pre-rock standards like

"Over the Rainbow" and golden oldies like "Respect" are

increasingly seen as pretty much the same thing. Today, the

most famous songs of the Gershwins, Richard Rodgers, the

Beatles, Motown, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell

and Sting share an uneasy artistic parity.

You have only to listen to two of the year's most

satisfying adult pop albums, Michael McDonald's "Motown"

(Motown) and Barbra Streisand's "Movie Album" (Columbia),

to sense the changes. Both recordings are vocal tours de

force that extend the repertory of popular standards into

the rock and soul era.

And who knew until recently that that rusty-voiced rock

roustabout, Rod Stewart, had a fondness for vintage

American standards? The newer of his two best-selling

collections, "As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook,

Volume II" (J Records), includes 14 pre-rock songs arranged

in a bland, bouncy ballroom-dancing style with a British

music hall flavor. The record, whose tempos never really

slow down, includes breezy duets with Queen Latifah ("As

Time Goes By") and Cher ("Bewitched, Bothered and

Bewildered"). Mr. Stewart croons them in a high, croaking

half-voice reminiscent of Billie Holiday in her final

years, but without Holiday's jazz phrasing and interpretive

depth. Whether or not you like these two albums (and I

don't much), Mr. Stewart at least deserves credit for

perpetuating the lives of songs that have at least as good

a shot at longevity as "Maggie May" and "Tonight's the


Other recent collections of standards by singers who have

never gone there before find Michael Bolton (also at

half-voice), Aaron Neville (as twirly-gospelly as ever),

Boz Scaggs (swinging agreeably with a small pop-jazz group)

and Cyndi Lauper digging into the past.

The best of these is Ms. Lauper's "At Last" (Epic), whose

far-reaching repertory ranges from "Makin' Whoopee" (a duet

with Tony Bennett) to Motown ("You've Really Got a Hold on

Me"). The quirky chamber pop arrangements showcase Ms.

Lauper as a smart, offbeat kook (the nostalgic version of

her "She's So Unusual" persona), and her performances are

intensely committed. The one inconsistency is Ms. Lauper's

uncertain pitch. Half the time, she sounds like a naïve,

vocally insecure disciple of Rickie Lee Jones.

Celebrating Breakthroughs

The McDonald and Streisand albums lead my list of this year's

recommended adult pop albums because they're so beautifully

sung. Both records are late-career breakthroughs from artists

who seemed adrift. Both are forceful reminders that after the song,

the voice is still the thing.

Mr. McDonald's "Motown" is the kind of album that everyone

hoped he would make after leaving the Doobie Brothers but

that he held off recording for two decades. He is one of

the few male blue-eyed soul singers to grasp instinctively

the soul man's attitude of impassioned humility, in which

vulnerability is a badge of virility. There has always been

a seam of genuine sorrow and heartbreak in Mr. McDonald's

rich, chocolaty baritone, which shades up into an anguished

bark. Here his voice is pushed to the foreground on the

album's 14 songs, all of them pop-soul standards, including

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Ain't No Mountain

High Enough."

If Mr. McDonald doesn't slam out a home run every time out,

his heart-rending versions of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You"

and Stevie Wonder's "All in Love Is Fair," along with a sly

jazzy version of Mr. Wonder's "Higher Ground," match the

originals in power and surpass anything Mr. McDonald has

done. The arrangements refer to the Motown originals

without straining to be copies. This wonderful record

reminds you that the genius of Motown was in finding a

seamless blend of song and groove in which the two sides

had equal weight.

Ms. Streisand's "Movie Album" is far and away her most

satisfying recording since "The Broadway Album," released

18 years ago. Since then, she has demonstrated an

unfortunate late-blooming fondness for saccharine kitsch.

For the inspirational album "Higher Ground," she adopted a

tone of hectoring grandiosity. But all that has been

radically softened in "The Movie Album," a well-chosen

collection of Hollywood chestnuts that include the gospel

ballad "Calling You," from "Bagdad Cafe." Ms. Streisand has

also pared away many of her mannerisms. Gone are

self-dramatizing gasps and ostentatious sobs, and her

whining nasality is kept to a minimum. The result is

revelatory. The pure, restrained singing on "The Movie

Album" is, in a word, beautiful.

The ballad-dominated collection includes three definitive

interpretations: "Wild Is the Wind," "How Do You Keep the

Music Playing?" and a swooning bossa nova version of "I'm

in the Mood for Love." Yes, there's still too much aural

gloss for a real sense of intimacy to be communicated. But

this indication that Ms. Streisand has finally discovered

that less is more is very encouraging.

A Selection for Grown-Ups

Here is a selection of other

worthy adult pop albums released in the last year that

won't wear out their welcome after one listen. New names

like the singer-songwriters Phil Roy, Damien Rice and

Teitur are mixed in with rock, folk and jazz veterans, many

of whom are over 50 and going stronger than ever. (CD's

range in price from $9.98 to $18.98.)

STING: "Sacred Love" (A&M). Sting has done more than anyone

else lately to forge a sophisticated and flexible fusion

between world music and traditional pop without reducing

international influences to kitsch references. The music on

"Sacred Love" is dense and swirling, the mood earnest, the

tone spiritual. As always, one of the strongest tools in

Sting's musical arsenal is his gift for simple, repetitive

melodic phrases that stick in your consciousness even as

they are put through sophisticated harmonic changes. If the

album has its dull moments, its high points are thrilling.

"The Book of My Life," a fireside meditation on memory and

approaching death, set amid swirling sitars, is as deep and

memorable a song as any Sting has composed. And in

"Whenever I Say Your Name," a soaring call-and-response

duet with Mary J. Blige, the two singers egg each other on

to peaks of enthusiasm.

PHIL ROY: "Issues and Options" (Or). Mr. Roy, who lives

outside Philadelphia, worked as a professional songwriter

in Los Angeles for two decades (he wrote for the movie

"Leaving Las Vegas") and had minor hits for the Neville

Brothers and others before beginning his career as a solo

performer. He is now in his 40's. His emotionally naked

singing in a style midway between folk and soul conveys a

piercing honesty. (Imagine an amalgam of Van Morrison,

Leonard Cohen and Jesse Colin Young.) Anyone can relate to

his autobiographical lyrics expressing the spiritual crisis

of someone determined not to succumb to the pervasive

nihilism of the age. He is the rare songwriter who can talk

about God without sounding preachy and doctrinaire. Mr. Roy

is a natural melodist and a gifted arranger whose songs

blend folk and pop-soul hooks with echoes of bossa nova

into music that is fairly complex yet entirely accessible.

ANNIE LENNOX: "Bare" (J Records). Ms. Lennox's third solo

album almost matches the achievement of "Diva," her 1992

tour de force of chameleonic singing and layered

production. "Bare," an anguished, introverted breakup

album, is just as lavish. Its finest songs, "The Hurting

Time" and "Honestly," are self-scrutinizing ballads in

which this Scottish singer projects equal measures of

vulnerability, imperiousness and diffidence. "Honestly," in

particular, is a sweeping midtempo ballad that rides on

irresistible, shifting dance-floor grooves and has an

internal chorus of overdubbed voices that express the

narrator's conflicting inner thoughts; a bravura pop


DAMIEN RICE: "O" (Vector). This Irish singer-songwriter

projects a raw, undiluted passion whose intensity recalls

Jeff Buckley and the Van Morrison of "Astral Weeks." His

song "Delicate" begins as a dreamy folk-pop meditation for

acoustic guitar and strings, then builds into a cracked

half-scream. That unpredictability is typical of his

quirky, asymmetrical songs, which intensify as they go

along and sometimes abruptly break off (as in "Amie"). His

potential is extraordinary.

RICHARD THOMPSON: "The Old Kit Bag" (Apart). This venerable

British folk-rocker is as brilliant and sardonic as ever in

"The Old Kit Bag," which is bit more contemplative and

folk-leaning than his recent albums. The characters in

these vignettes include the usual battling lovers and

working-class blokes with their tragicomic inner lives. The

strangest song is the monologue of a cranky misanthrope who

dismisses Einstein, Newton, van Gogh and Charlie Parker -

shorthand for every major artist and scientist who ever

lived. The most profound song is the minimalist

life-and-death meditation "First Breath."

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: "So Damn Happy" (Southbury). "Much

Better Bets," the most biting new comic song on a live

album that blends recent compositions with old favorites,

sarcastically concludes that the only true love to be found

in his world comes from pets. Others of the newer songs

also find this most astute folkie humorist of the baby boom

waxing nostalgic in "Westchester County" and "The Picture."

Even in a gentler mode, Mr. Wainwright's reminiscences

include one or two barbed insights to make you squirm. In

getting his own number, he gets ours, too.

RON ISLEY: "Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach" (Dreamworks).

Ron Isley, a founding member of the Isley Brothers and a

chip off Sam Cooke's pop-gospel block, has recorded an

opulent, joyful album of Burt Bacharach songs (11 classics

written with Hal David, plus two newer collaborations with

Tonio K.). The tempos are markedly slower than in the

original recordings by Dionne Warwick and others, and the

orchestra, conducted by Mr. Bacharach, glows. The most

adventurous number, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,"

turns the breezy musical boast from "Butch Cassidy and the

Sundance Kid" into a freedom anthem in the mode of Cooke's

"Change Is Gonna Come."

CASSANDRA WILSON: "Glamoured" (Blue Note). As is her way,

this loamy voiced pop-jazz-folk singer stretches across

many genres to apply her brooding personal stamp to both

original songs and nonoriginals, all given spare folk-funk

arrangements that underscore the earthiness of her voice.

The most memorable cut is a sad, ruminative version of

Sting's ballad "Fragile." She makes Abbey Lincoln's great

folk-jazz song "Throw It Away" a statement of personal

liberation. Although the record is strong and intelligent,

it lacks the variety of musical color to be found in Ms.

Wilson's two memorable 90's collaborations with the

producer Craig Street.

LUTHER VANDROSS: "Dance With My Father" (J Records). Before

his nearly fatal stroke, this great pop-soul balladeer made

"Dance With My Father," his first album ever to find a

fruitful balance between the fluffy, flowery sound of his

80's albums and contemporary hip-hop. If the atmosphere is

still charged with romantic possibility, there's usually a

beat kicking things along. The title song and best cut,

written by Mr. Vandross with Richard Marx, is a touching,

detailed personal tribute to Mr. Vandross's father. The

most sumptuous cut is his remake with Beyoncé Knowles of

the Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway duet "The Closer I Get to


TEITUR: "Poetry and Aeroplanes" (Universal). The songs on

the debut album by Teitur, a singer-songwriter from the

Faeroe Islands, mingle sweetness and wistful whimsy in a

style that suggests early Paul Simon crossed with Stephen

Bishop. The airy, gossamer arrangements (produced by Rupert

Hine) and dreamy vocals evoke the reveries of a romantic

troubadour musing out loud as he travels the world. Best

songs: "Sleeping With the Lights On" and "I Was Just


SEAL: "Seal IV" (Warner) Although the fourth album by this

British pop-soul singer reteams him with the producer

Trevor Horn, whose dense quasi-symphonic arrangements

placed the singer on an oracular pedestal, that sound has

been sharpened on their fourth collaboration. Seal's

post-hippie sensibility is still rooted in a 70's

one-world-living-in-peace ethos typified by the catchy,

inspirational "Get It Together."

KENNY LOGGINS: "It's About Time" (All Time Best Records).

The best songs on "It's About Time," an ambitious midlife

summing-up, are three churning ballads the singer wrote

with Richard Marx. "With This Ring" is a grand, heartfelt

wedding song; "I Miss Us" a man's lament to his wife that

the romantic idyll of their courtship has been pre-empted

by children; and "The One That Got Away" a father's

poignant plea for understanding and forgiveness to an angry

son from a previous relationship. On all three, Mr.

Loggins's air of eager sincerity, which sometimes borders

on the mawkish, rings true.


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