Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Queen of Pop

Here's another installment in our ongoing efforts to bring Arab-pop to all you gaijin (actually, the Arabic word is iganib, but I fell for gaijin while in Japan), a new hit by the reigning diva of the genre, the fabulous Nancy Ajram.

A miracle of nature and art, Miss Ajram has been top of the charts for half-a-dozen years now, a fairly long career in a region in which stardom is either permanent (as with the several deities of Egyptian song and film of the forties and fifties who are still the biggest things around, living or dead) or entirely disposable.

While this little number, "Mashy haddy" ("Walking Near Me") may not be on par with the masterworks of Um Kulthoum, it's a catchy little tune with a candy-coated video that pits plucky Nancy against a deeply lizardly boyfriend. Why she wants to keep him is never quite clear, but you have to admire its stylized visuals and clever art direction.

Like many of Nancy's best videos, it's directed by a woman and gives every sign that the star herself is entirely in control of her image and career - and perhaps rather more interesting than the average, run-of-the-mill thrush. There's no question that she's a brilliant self-marketer, proving, if nothing else, that it's not only in the States that a clever girl can take a little talent and a lot of moxie and go a very long way. Maybe in thirty years she'll be importing kids from Malawi...

A(nother) Call from the Vatican

A few months ago, you may remember, I was startled to notice that in among the usual suspects from all over checking in at the Cafe, there was one visitor from an unexpected source, one at the very heart of Christendom.

Well, it's happened again, yesterday evening:
And to come from such a place of ...colorful... repute as The Lisp! I'm sorry, but I can't quite believe that this surfing of these Blogs-that-dare-not-speak-their-name (actually, we shout them from rooftops) is just a coincidence.

No, I'm really starting to fear that we outré bloggers may have an admirer. I think I'll pass. I don't know about you, but while I don't have a thing against an older man, I really must draw the line at the santa cap. Not to mention the whole unalloyed evil thing, too.

Costumes to Confuse

All that reminiscing has stirred up more memories of Hallowe'ens past, and with them what I think is a perfectly brilliant idea for you last-minute outfit seekers.

The Art Historian and I, you see, were partners in costume-crime for a number of years, and for some of those we went with timely themes, as with the previously described Raisa-Nancy pairings. In 1988, I believe it was, we ripped our ideas right from the headlines, going as that season's leading Scandal Girls:

Beauty-queen-turned-consumer-advocate-turned-homewrecker Bess Myerson...

And the Queen of Mean herself, that living Disney caricature of a villainess, Leona Helmsley.

The AH, as Myerson, found a terrifying MaryTylerMooreische seventies pantsuit, which he accessorized with a Miss America sash (reading, of course, "Bess Mess") and his by now quite tired Flo-wig. I, as usual, hit a more glam note in a truly ridiculous hostess gown (ou sont les thrift shops d'antan, indeed) in flowing cocoa chiffon with died-to-match feather trim, as many rhinestones as I could tote, and long white gloves with which I could test flat surfaces for dust (considering what kind of dust was likely floating around Hallowe'en parties in New York in the late 80s, I probably could have gotten good money for those gloves afterward, now that I think about it...).

It was all quite a night, if not quite up to the standard of an earlier shared masquerade with the AH during our college days, at which we ended up very late at a frat party, of all places. There it turned out that a leading BMOC had had surprisingly slight previous experience with drag and only discovered after a little hands-on experience, as it were, that few very actual girls go on Hallowe'en as Joan Crawford circa 1938. He was surprised, yes, but still, if memory serves, rather game...

But in any case, all of this makes me think that for someone looking for a truly obscure costume experience, the Scandals of Yesteryear might make fertile ground. Back when Lindsay Lohan was just a gleam in her demented parents' eyes, before Lewinski had become a verb, and in the glory days when religious scandals like Ted Haggard's were accompanied by a motherlode of crazed glamour, these ladies were the headliner-makers in a world innocent of "reality" television and still entirely dependent on cretaceous concepts like newspapers and scandal mags. Their names may be anything from quaintly half-familiar to wholly forgotten now, but once up on a time (if that time was 1988 or so)...

You could go as Fawn Hall, for example - a reminder that Sarah Palin was hardly the first deeply underqualifed right wing media darling. At least Ollie North's patsy secretary knew how to work a shredder, and you could practically see Russia from the top of that 'do...

Or if you want something a little more flat-out bimbo oriented, there's always Donna Rice, Gary Hart's nemesis, more recently turned Internet scold and anti-porn crusader...

Or possibly church-secretary-sexpot Jessica Hahn, who helped bring down the Praise-the-Lord empire before going on to an entirely uninteresting career as centerfold and butt of jokes on comedy radio...

Inevitably, you could bring back one of 1987's top costumes and really go all out as Tammy Faye. Just be sure to stay true to period - she had the longest time in the headlines of any of these ladies, but it was never quite as perfectly, deleriously ridiculous as it was when she first burst into (secular) pop-culturedom.

Finally, if you really want to confuse partygoers and prove your props as a longtime New Yorker, who better to impersonate than the era's proto-celebrity-for-no-reason, the footnote in the scandal that brought down Bess Myerson - her judge's cracked daughter, the memorable (albeit now forgotten) Sukhreet Gabel, who parlayed her walk-on role in the Myerson scandal into a fleeting career as club kid, lounge act, and greeting-card starlet. Of all the whatever-happened-to-hers I can think of, she's just about the most obscure.

And therefore perfect for a certain kind of costume, really. However you decide to go out tonight, do have fun - and don't forget that even the biggest men on campus can sometimes make the best of a surprise...

Friday, October 30, 2009

...And the Crowd Goes Wild

You know what I think the most remarkable thing about this picture is? That little Mrs. Hoxenfelder here - doubtless a pillar of her Methodist church and a lady of generally impeccable meekness - is being restrained by two burly policement from joining a throng that is en-mobbing...

Who do you think? Elvis? the Beatles? Conrad Birdie?

Nope. It is, in fact, that white-hot focus of mid-century fanatical fandom:

Mamie Eisenhower.

Eat your heart out, Michelle. But you have to wonder if this kind of thing ever happened to Pat Nixon. Except maybe in Peking...

Been Shopping

What with Hallowe'en, various other holidays in the offing, and the possibility that Mr. Muscato will jet off and see the relatives over the next few weeks, we decided that yesterday was a good time for another trip out to the One Rial Store at the edge of town.

While he shopped for gifts, I as usual cruised the aisles looking for local color (no, not in that way, and get your mind out of the gutter, you).

Even if we were not as on previous expeditions threatened with poxes or terrifying quasi-medical devices, I and my trusty crappy cell-phone cam did observe a few things of possible interest...

For instance, that even here on the edge of the Arabian peninsula, thousands and thousands of miles from the nearest Walmart, we're not immune from that dreaded seasonal plague, Christmas Creep. I mean, what's with the tinsely decorations? It's not even Eid al-Adha yet!

As always, the toy department proved a festival of tragic knockoffs and too-inventive packaging. This little Blythe-Bratz mutation looked especially grotesque even in the low company she's keeping. As for her tag line... well, haven't we all, somewhere along the line, met that special someone whose lips light up when he/she/it phonates?

The fragrances wall - and a massive one it is, too - is a veritable carnival of trademark infringement. You can learn all sorts of things, for at least as long as you can hold your breath (this is one pungent aisle). For example, that Dolce is apparently a goner, with his former partner having, it would seem, taken up with a relative...

Herewith, the latest offering from that talented designer, Galvin Klein. Also on offer were coveted brands like 121 Men, Fahrenheat, Darkker Noir, Pollo (could it possible be chicken-scented?), Kool Water (now in Menthol?), and, in its distinctive plaid packaging, Bruberry. Also something especially vile called Very Sensual Man, which might be the case only if you find kerosene a turn-on.

This little offering achieves a very rare thing indeed - even as the lowest rung of tacky tat wrung from the sweatshops of Asia, and priced to move at the equivalent of less than $1.50, it is less vulgar and squalid than the phenomenon for which it was named or any of his licensed products.

And in that, somehow, perhaps there's a lesson for us. I'd come up with what it is, exactly, but it's going to be a long while before I recover from the fumes...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ghosts of Hallowe'ens Past

This year, I suppose, seasonal parties will be awash in Balloon Boys, Michael Jacksons, zombies, and Amy Winehouses (or was she last year? I think she was). While twenty years ago or so there were at least a lot of Michael Jacksons and zombies, my own favorite costume dates from a fateful, fabulous costume ball of that era at which my pal The Professor (at the time, I suppose, only The Aspiring Grad Student) and I went as Raisa and Nancy.

I wore a sensible vintage suit with a fur hat; he wore a red velvet swing coat that parted to reveal a tasteful hospital gown (this was right about the time of the first lady's mastectomy - classy, huh? Oh, yes, of course he had a pair of strategically placed crossed bandaids, too). He topped his look with his every-year ratty frosted wig that had first appeared sometime around 1982 when he was a Flo-like slutty waitress (The AH pretty much specialized in what we locally referred to as "booger drag"; I tried for something more glam, but usually ended up looking like an Avon lady). My own hair, under the mink, was abundant enough at the time that it could be blown out into a reasonable approximation of the Russian bob-shag crossover. We each carried a little flag with which we sparred on cue, sometimes causing the bottle of vodka to fall out of my pocketbook.

Okay, subtle it wasn't, but we had a hell of a time. This year, if I had the chance and if it weren't so full of potential for offense, I'd be tempted to once again pick up the first lady theme and go as the remarkable Mme. Chantal. We're actually going to a Hallowe'en party, but have a feeling that Mr. Muscato and I will eschew the outrageous and just dive into our stock of ethnic clothes from places we've lived. And you - any plans?

Taxi for Two

Though we all might enjoy
Seeing Helen of Troy
As a gay, cabaret entertainer
I doubt that she could
Be one quarter as good
As our legendary, lovely Marlene!

- Noël Coward on the friend he also
referred to as "the canny old Kraut."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

Have you decided on your costume yet? Why not confuse your friends by going as green Joanne Worley, still-fat Star Jones, and old Mickey Rooney? Bonus points to the best single-costume mash-up of the three!

Lady Diana, V. 1.0

Someday, when I'm a serious grown-up who knows what he wants to do with his life, I hope to have a few scintillas of the sublime self-assurance of the glittering creature seen here, Lady Diana Cooper.

A duke's daughter (at least nominally; there seems to be some question), she was the brightest of London's Bright Young Things who was not genetically a Mitford, a sometime actress and longtime memoirist, not to mention Ambassadress, bon vivant, and, from all accounts, terrifying motorist.

And, as you can see, she manages the rare feat of carrying off hauteur without seeming even a tad haughty - if perhaps just a smidge (like one of my favorite streets) naughty, bawdy, gaudy, and sporty. And for that, I say good on her. Why she came to mind this morning I can't think, but she's the kind of person who rather brightens up a Tuesday, don't you think?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Birthday Goddess: Sing It, Sister

Last year we observed the natal day of the great Mahalia Jackson with perhaps the most transcendently camp moment in the history of the cinema; this year, here's the real deal.

The first three-and-a-half minutes of this clip, from very late in her long career and apparently filmed in Sweden, represent perhaps the most total fusion of singer and song I've ever seen, the melding of a titanic voice and a song that utterly represents the moment in which she is singing it. Listen and be stunned. If you haven't had enough, go here for more, in a clip tantalizingly/annoyingly unavailable for embedding but perhaps even more jaw-dropping.

Boy Meets (Mr.) World

There is still, alas, no word about the 2009 iteration of the Café's favorite handsomeness pageant, Mr. Manhunt International, but almost offsetting that gloomy news is the exciting news that dear Mr. Tarek Naguib, Mr. Egypt, isn't about to let a little setback like that get him down.

No indeed; the delectable Mr. Naguib - seen here resplendent in resort wear, lounging Nileside - is reportedly an inside favorite for the 2010 hustings of the venerable Mr. World title. I think that's a hopeful note for Egypt and for a waiting world, don't you?

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Miss Ritter if you're nasty.

Which is rather how I'm feeling after a first day at the office. Although more than mildly cheered, as usual, by thinking of this particularly feisty lady.

Who is, I have to say, somebody about whom I never really thought I'd have the opportunity to use the "Décolletage" tag. In the immortal words from Little Shop of Horrors, don't it go to show you never know?

Friday, October 23, 2009

So Anyway, Where Were We?

Muscato recuperating (artist's impression)

Yes, children, at last I'm home, and I have to say that it's bliss. The travel? Pretty much the opposite, although I will admit to not flying coach, which does help. Still, 25 hours in transit is 25 hours in transit, and the Champers, while it truly does take the edge off, only goes so far in mitigating the horror.

But I've returned to our own little Villa to find that Mr. Muscato has been an extremely busy and predictably praiseworthy person, fearlessly braving the landlord to accomplish all the repairs necessitated by our little flood and ensuring, with the aid of the tireless Ermilia (seen above, trayed), that all is restored to its usual good order. This has made two days spent in more or less complete collapse quite tolerable, and If I'm not entirely geared up for a return to what passes for normality, it's no one's fault but my own.

As for what's ahead, I've hardly even thought, having been wasting far too much energy and attention on this quite maddeningly entrancing time-waster, courtesy of that reliably startling corner of the 'Tubes, omg blog!!. Don't say you weren't warned...

Monday, October 19, 2009

And Now, a Word from our Sponsor

Can you imagine flying the Mermy skies? I'm picturing lots of Manhattans and a crew of cowering stews. Where Bennett Cerf fits in, I can't quite figure out.

Have I mentioned recently how much I loathe travel? At this point - and apologies, by the bye, for the long silence, but being as nice to people as I've had to be for the past week is exhausting - all I want is to be on the plane and back in our quiet little house.

Hell, I'd even sit Mermside to get there that much faster...

(There was, it turns out, a cavalcade of these "If you've got it..." spots for Braniff - and this was, in fact, one of the least odd couples involved.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Birthday Boy: He Goes to Rio

Depressingly multi-talented star Hugh Jackman celebrates today, a man so lovely to look at that I can even forgive him for being younger than me.

We see him here in full come-hither regalia from his stint as the original Bi-Coastal Crooner, Mr. Peter "First Mr. Liza" Allen, in The Boy from Oz. Having, once eons ago (as a tiny tot, of course), seen Mr. Allen in concert, I can attest that although he was a perfect volcano of showbiz charisma, he was nothing like so handsome as his impersonator, a performer who is welcome to Tenterfield my Saddler any time he likes...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Table for One

Todd Horne, Table for One

Something there is about traveling alone that recalls, inevitably, Barbara Pym. One feels self conscious, a need to be perhaps that little bit tidier, quieter, less obtrusive. Like her hypersensitive gentlewomen, one seeks a quiet table to the side, waits for more obstreperous parties at the checkout, watches the world with a mix of amusement and foreboding.

It has been a year since I've been back in the U.S., and on my first day out, jetlagged, exhausted, and rather disoriented, it seemed a very foreign place indeed - one full of large, loud, and alarmingly capable people, all going somewhere rather faster than expected. There are - and this is a very good thing - a great many dogs out and about, doted over and noted approvingly by passers by. It is cold, comparatively, but crisp, and after a block or two I realize how out of touch with urban walking I am - the necessary rhythms, the numbers of distractions, even the mechanics of crossing the street. It feels, I think, a fraction of what it might for a longtime invalid to go for a first tentative walk after weeks or months of being housebound.

I wandered about for a while, appreciating any number of things - a used book store full of richness, a farmer's market heaped with unimaginable treasure - even as others tended, it must be admitted, to appal: the clothing, which seems quite purposely atrocious, as if people stood in front of their mirrors muttering appreciatively, "yes, indeed, that does make me look cheap, fat, and slovenly!"; the noise, unfettered and inescapable; and the sheer muchness of it all. It makes me realize how restful on the eyes the monotonous landscapes of the Sultanate (white villas, dusty hills, sea) must be.

I finally found a quiet, eccentric little café, recommended by the used-book store's bemused proprietor on the basis of being "reliable and not a chain, with a decent breakfast" and settled in. It was all that had been promised and more, with people hunched over their laptops taking advantage of free wifi, a little quiet Classical burbling in the background, and a very respectable plate of eggs and ham on offer, delivered by the waiter/cook/manager/man of all work, who looked to be Central Casting bohemian, lank black ponytail and large silver earring.

He later came to top up the coffee. "I'm so glad you're here," he confided, stopping, hand on hip with the coffee pot in the other. I suppose I looked surprised, a stout middle-aged party in boatshoes and buttondown, Trollope novel in hand, not being the demographic I would have thought this particular café was seeking. "Oh, you see," he said, "we've had a lot of negative energy in here this morning, and I can see you're not like that."

"You're positive energy," he added, looking thoughtful for a moment, before passing on. Well, thought I, I suppose, as a lone traveler far from home, that's something.

I wish I could report that with that good portent in hand I made something terribly useful and fulfilling of the rest of the day, but no. Instead, I returned to my hotel - an imposingly chic assemblage of what is described as "Early American-influenced minimalism" - and collapsed into one of those inadvised jetlag daytime sleeps. Now it's the middle of the night and I probably won't sleep 'til dawn. Knowing me, I shall endeavor to be positive even about that.

Just as, I'm sure, Ianthe Broome, Mildred Lathbury, or Miss Pym herself would do.

Friday, October 9, 2009

She Never Looked Lovelier

The jury's in, and the mystery's solved. Thanks to the mysterious "Anonymous" and seconded by dear normadesmond, it can be revealed that the Dark Lady of two days ago is none other than the favorite blonde of a Certain Newspaper Magnate, the resplendent (if at times chinny) Miss Marion Davies.

Hearst Marion loved disguise roles, and this one was perhaps her most ridiculous daring. In her melodramatic 1934 opus Operator 13, Marion assayed the role of a plucky Union spy during the Civil War, one who gathers information while disguised as her own Octoroon (now there's a word one doesn't, and good riddance, hear a great deal of these days) maid. Not until Joan Crawford (whom Marion really does resemble, at least in the picture's stills) corked up for Torch Song did Hollywood's ever-precarious racial politics go further out on a (star-studded) limb.

And now, children, I have to run - they're calling my (next) plane. More soon...

Leaving on a Jet Plane

So, after a couple of weeks of exceedingly busy, frequently annoying, and generally attention-sapping work, I'm forced by circumstances beyond my control to go hurtling across time zones and oceans in order to spend a week or so at a business conference back in the U.S. of A. Bother.

Travel, at this point in my life, mostly means annoyance at leaving the dog, missing Mr. Muscato, and, right now, not being here as, for the first time in six months, the weather is such that it's actually possible to start turning off the air conditioners and living like people.

Updates from the road as possible forthcoming, most of them, with any luck at all, less gripy than this one...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pretty Lady

I'm honestly not sure if this is an easy one or not - but I'm sure, darlings, you'll quickly let me know. Anybody recognize this dusky charmer?

Meanwhile, at the Film Festival...

Since it's been a rather ... trying week or so (more of that, perhaps, anon), let's just jet away to somewhere lovely, shall we? How about the south of France?

And what better company in which to go than with Latifa, the Tunisian-born pan-Arab diva (not to be confused with the Queen of the same name, of course)? In this scenic little psychodrama, bitch has it all: yacht, red carpet triumph at Cannes, sumptuous villa, servile backup dancers - and a mysteriously here-and-gone-again hunk. Fortunately, it all ends well, 'cause Madam looks like she could whip up a little temperament. I know how she feels.

The song is her big 2003 hit "Ma etrosh ba'eed" ("Don't Go Far"), but it remains a staple of video channels and clubs across the region. I can personally attest that if you want to get a roomful of Arab guys out on the floor, this is the song to do it. And, yes, they do know all her moves...

Bathtime Beau

You know, I never really got the whole bubblebath-candles-sexytime thing. But if anyone could change my mind (Mr. Muscato aside, of course), I suppose it would be dear Mr. Upen Patel. Although I find the sculpture just over his shoulder potentially unsettling...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dammit! Start Again

A pleasant reminder that our Hollywood idols were all too mortal, with the added surprise that the often foul-mouthed Miss Francis was by far the most demure of these befuddled thesps. Miss Davis gives us the very edge of an F-bomb, and the future Mrs. Reagan I has a moment or two. And, of course, this being Warner's, it's a cavalcade of characters, mostly in the house urban-prole mode.

I somehow can't imagine a Breakdowns of 2009 being nearly as amusing, but that's just me. Or perhaps just because it would likely feature rather more literal breakdowns.

Party all the Time

Da, da, my darlinks - it's the return of our favorite Soviet teens! Amazingly, in this shot, they've scared up enough casual outfits that no one's sharing, but I think that groaning buffet tells us all we need to know about entertaining à la Khrushchev.

One couple might be dancing to the micro-hi fi, but I think Boris is actually measuring Svetlana for a blouse. Why Mamushka is dressing like a retrograde bourgeois French maid I can't fathom, but Ludmila appears to have had just about enough of it and is preparing to denounce her halfway 'til Tuesday.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Great Lady of the Theatre

This morning's rather unfortunate photo of the great Vivien Leigh left me, believe it or not, feeling vaguely guilty all day. Therefore, here we see her in full fig, painted within an inch of her life and ready for one of her later stage triumphs, just so we can be reminded what an extraordinary creature she was.

I actually like La Leigh better in her last few decades, when her perfect prettiness (which was never really quite monumental enough for beauty in the Garbo sense) deepened into something bitterweet - a combination, perhaps, of something sharp and observing in her expression and the physical effects of smoking and the not-so-occasional drop.

It's why I feel she was never more interesting than in her final films, which are cruel about her but over which she triumphs with a kind of greatness of dignity that not even being paired with a very faux-Italian Warren Beatty or mauled by Lee Marvin can mar...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Propping up the Bar

I wasn't there, of course, and so can't be entirely certain, but I'm going to guess that this little group was snapped sometime not too early in the evening. Not too late, of course - they're all still presentable - but in that sometimes dangerous stretch when everyone is still more or less coherent, but it's not at all clear that things are going end well.

Miss Kendall, for example, would appear to have had just about enough of whatever it is Miss Bacall is going on about, and there's something ominous in Viv's (surprisingly jowly) look of discontent. Were I Noël Coward, I might suddenly remember an appointment, or perhaps claim to spy poor Princess Margaret all on her ownsome on the other side of the pub. However charming, individually, the ladies involved, this is one conversation from which the getting is good.

Beauté Sauvage

You know, I wouldn't half-mind having a Grace-Jones-shaped retractable supervillain's lair. That's the problem with Real Life - it's never as good as '80s Citroën ads.

But then again, what is?

Queens For Just One Day

...And of some mighty strange realms...

Say what you will about the scantiness of jungle fashions - this is one queen who's found a volumizer that really works for her.

As for this one, I have no idea what's going on, but I really, really want to see it. If nothing else, the "proudly presents" is both a jaunty and a slightly pathetic touch.

Another fine release from the good folks at AIP, although I find the theming here a little muddled - is she the Queen of Blood, somehow arachnid, or the centerpiece of a disturbing circus acrobatic act? Perhaps Basil Rathbone knows, but I sure the hell don't.

Here we have one of the screen's less memorable pairings - if they had dumped Reagan for Joan Crawford, that would have been a picture to put Johnny Guitar to shame.

Of course, we couldn't get away without including this one in any roundup of Queens - although I have to say I don't think it holds up terribly well. Fab alternate poster, though, no? And not an outfit I remember, either, although it's been a while.

Here's anothing almost insanely obscure one. You know what I really want to see? Barbara Stanwyck Battle an Army of Savage Midgets. With Joan Crawford as the Terrifying Lady of Snakes.

Any rumours that this is the next Johnny Depp pic should be swiftly put to rest.

As should any idea that this picture is as much fun as either the title or the prospect of the sheer Gaboriness of it. On the other hand it does have the fabulous "I hat zat Qveen!" moment. A line for the ages.

I hate it when the skull-candlestick gets all chatty, don't you? Between that and the visibly bored, dagger-wielding Michael York impersonator there on the right, I'm not encouraged.

After everything from the Amazon to the lands of the undead, the Yukon seems practically as prosaic as - well, as a Stanwyck-Crawfordless Montana. But not nearly as prosaic as Monogram - how did genteel leading lady Irene Rich end up there?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bathing Beau

On the rebound from the unfortunate Lord Philo, I'm afraid I went to the opposite extreme; if nothing else, Mack looked spiffy in his trunks. Frankly, if it hadn't been for his penchant for wearing small household items as sunhats, we might have made a go of it...

Friday, October 2, 2009

By the Beautiful Sea

A Maxfield Parrish moment, right here just off the coast of our little Sultanate. There are, one must remember, some consolations to life here, the scenery at times chief among them.

Now if the heat would just decide it's had enough for the season, we'd all be that much happier...

You Can Always Catch Her Act at the Met

For no particular reason I woke up this morning thinking of one of my favorite people, the delightful all-American mezzo Marilyn Horne. Then I found this, which does rather tie in with yesterday's Barbra-effusion.

While the details of this particular episode of The Odd Couple elude me, it finds our diva outfitted for Carmen and accompanied by Mr. Tony Randall en toreador. It also reminds me how sad I find it that this kind of high-middle-low-culture crossover has gone the way of ... well, of opera singers appearing on hit sitcoms.

Dangerous Liaison

Oh, I think Jill can take care of herself. After all, we've all run into the occasional phony Prince along the bumpy road to love, haven't we?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Just One Someone, Happy

So, for the first time in a long time, I'm the proud owner of a hot new record. It's kind of fun. I've gotten so used to buying oddities, old favorites, and lounge/chill/Arabesque collections that it's been a while since I've sat down to sit and really listen to something new.

Of course this something, La Barbra's Love is the Answer, is in many ways not entirely new; few voices are more familiar, of course, and the material is drawn from the heart and edges of what people have taken to calling, loosely, the Great American Songbook (which appears to be a flexible enough term to fit Bernstein, Bergman, Kern and even Brel equally comfortably).

So what of it?

As became clear in the New York Times' recent excellent feature on her, much of what Streisand does remains, even after nearly 50 years, both mysterious and counterintuitive: one of the most purely musical singers around not reading music; one of the world's most notorious perfectionists "never" thinking about technique or the physical side of her instrument; and, in the case of this record specifically, a star who for decades has relied on the glossiest of production values and showiest of arrangements going for something, to put it mildly, rather different.

So the first and so far to me biggest shock of the new record is the voice itself: exposed, imperfect, immediate, and, as you might expect, all the better for it. Whatever wizardry actually went into the sessions, the result is something that sounds like a woman, and even a woman of a certain age, sitting with musicians up against a microphone that captures every whisper, rasp, breath. She sings carefully, often staying in the conversational middle-range in which she's obviously most comfortable. When necessary, though, the power and range are still there, and almost invariably they're used to great effect, in the service of the songs. That, and the restraint of the accompaniment, are to me the two most obvious signs of the fine hand of the record's producer, Diana Krall.

One of the touted features of the album, in its "Deluxe" version, is the inclusion of two versions of each song (except for the wistful Bergman/Legrand "You Must Believe in Love"), one orchestral, one with only a backing quartet. I expect future listens will start to sort out which I prefer, but at the moment there are things to find in each. They are not, by the bye, as some reviewers are saying, all drawn from the same vocal takes.

But what of the songs, and what of the singer? These are mostly works which both the audience and the performer are likely to have encountered before. Some, such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Some Other Time," are classics; others - "Where Do You Start?" and "Here's to Life" - are cabaret and lounge-act staples. They are all excellent showcases for a singer like Streisand (is there really such a thing? Okay, they are excellent choices for Streisand). She sings with intelligence and passion, with real attention and warmth; blessedly, there is none of the showboating and mannerisms that were both the worst things about, say, the second Broadway album and the only interesting things about her pop/rock work of the last twenty years.

Still. These are songs that, often, we associate with other veteran performers. What separates Streisand from other, in Mabel Mercer's phrase, saloon singers, is her exalted status: superstar, diva, movie star, pundit, activist, legend. All fine things, but all of which means that she hasn't spent all that much time, comparatively, since her own club days, actually singing. Especially singing things like this. I think that's what adds something of a hothouse air to her versions of, for example, "Here's to Life," a song that for me is inextricably linked to Eartha Kitt, who turned it into an anthem of survival and passion. The song is fine, even brilliant, in Streisand's hands - but she hasn't sung it in a hundred different rooms, to a thousand different sets of listeners. I don't mean, somehow, that she hasn't earned it, in her interpretation - but rather that there remains something, in the voice and the singing, of the prodigy rather than the survivor.

Singers like Kitt - and like Mercer, Barbara Cook, Peggy Lee, Julie Wilson, Karen Akers, Andrea Marcovicci - wield instruments of varying power and elegance, with only Cook's and Lee's on a par with Streisand's in a purely technical sense. But they were or are all working singers, on stage and singing, communicating, interpreting, constantly. Out of that comes a finesse, a directness of impact, and an understanding of how to wring the last bit of meaning out of every phrase and syllable that, I think it could be argued, for all her extraordinary gifts and achievements, Streisand has never reached.

What strikes me in this album's most successful moments is how much they directly recall the strongest moments of her early recordings, which relied on a similar songbook and, to an extent, a comparable production milieu. She is supremely an artist of instinct, most thrilling when she takes an unexpected chance. When she second guesses that, overthinks, overproduces, goes all pop star on us, you get dreck like her 90's Bryan Adams duet "I Finally Found Someone." When she cuts loose and lets that instinct take over, the way that the dreamy young girl up above did, you get her wrenching "Ne me quitte pas," which comes close to reaching Mercerian heights even with its schoolgirl French, or her magisterial "Here's that Rainy Day."

I can't help wondering what wonders she might be creating today if this is what she'd been doing for all the years since Stoney End. In the absence of that, however, Love is the Answer is a very satisfying set, one that we can fervently hope will be followed by more such goes, rather than something on the order of a techno-house duet with Lady Gaga or whatever other nonsense seems (based on history) just a tad too likely...

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

This vignette of Cairene nightlife was likely created, given its age, as a cinema short, showing that ads at the movies are a longtime, international phenomenon. Even in the days of King Farouk, things do go better with Coca-Coooooooola.