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...


  1. Muscato, Jann Wenner is on the phone about a job for you...

    Though I'm not a particular Streisand fan (save her turns in What's Up, Doc?, The Owl & the PussyCat and even, god-help-me, For Pete's Sake), I certainly appreciate the instrument and love all the good things I've heard about the album.

    I was however a bit ticked at Babs on Oprah when she introduced "Make Someone Happy" as a Jule Styne song. I swore I heard Comden and Green roll over in their respective graves.

  2. If only all music reviewers were this eloquent.

    Thank you, Muscato.

  3. i love what you wrote....just not sure if i'm on the same page. growing up, no one adored BS more than i, but i've been hard on her in recent years. where a rosemary clooney or shirley horn excelled as the years passed, i don't get that from barby. personally, i think it's because she's such a remote individual. maybe her stardom forced this upon her, but it's never been attractive & (i think) a metaphor for the singer she became. when young, she was full of abandon, artistically. she reined that in years ago.

    of course, i still adore her & will probably buy the CD. i've no backbone.

  4. Your essay puts Miss Streisand into a remarkable perspective. It's been too easy for others to write her off;and admittedly, her histrionics grow tiresome on occasion. Yet after reading your piece along with that of Anthony Tomassini in the NY Times, I'm genuinely intrigued. The concept of Streisand returning to simplicity and directness (ie, orchestration that is
    understated) is downright refreshing.

  5. I think we're closer than you think, Norma. I agree that after her dazzling first decade or so - sometime after The Way We Were and vocally by the time of Streisand Superman - she went off the rails. A naturally great comedy actress decided to become a tragedy diva, and a singer of unlimited personality and enormous interpretive gifts decided to follow fashions rather than set them. Together, that created the Barbra who was sort of a parody of the original. This record isn't a revolution, but it's a turn in the right direction.

    And Bill - on C&G. Definitely some history there. Never learned what it is, but on the whole they were rather cool about the lady. Maybe she turned down A Doll's Life? Who knows...

  6. The music to Make Someone Happy WAS written by Jule Styne with lyrics by C& maybe they only rolled over halfway.

    Her best recording in twenty years! Sublime.

  7. Exactly, Ryan. Jule Styne did compose Make Someone Happy. He also made this memorable statement:
    "Barbra Streisand. Great singer, terrible person."