CD Review: Barbra Streisand, “What Matters Most”
Last month, I had the best weekend I’d had in months. It started off on Friday afternoon when I learned that I had gotten the job I had interviewed for the day before. I spent the next few days celebrating with some old friends who were briefly in Chicago, including a bike ride on the lakefront and seeing the excellent rockabilly singer JD McPherson. When I wasn’t with them I shopped for new work clothes (because there’s nothing like blowing most of your first paycheck before you’re even on the books). I capped off the weekend by having dinner with one of my best friends where the exploits of our stoned waiter gave us plenty to laugh at.
I started the new job on Monday and had a wonderful first day. Challenging work with smart and dedicated people who are friendly and eager to help, and an office that provides some wonderful views of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan.
Longtime readers of this site will know that Popdose founder Jeff Giles loves nothing more than bourbon and bestowing bad music upon his staff, and we have an unspoken rule that commands us to listen to it, with a review to hopefully follow. That principle has guided some of our best columns, including “Rob Smith Can’t Say No,” “How Bad Can It Be?” and “Earmageddon.” To date, I had escaped Jeff’s, um, generosity, but when I checked my e-mail Tuesday morning, all the fun of the previous four days came to a grinding halt (coincidentally, the Grinding Halt is one of Jeff’s mom’s most popular moves). Trembling, I opened the e-mail to discover my “prize:”
I’ve talked on the podcast plenty of times about growing up in a in a Broadway-loving Long Island Jewish household in the 70s and 80s, so the stereotype (pride as laid out so famously by Mike Myers) suggests that there should have been a shrine to her in the living room of my childhood home. That wasn’t the case. I remember watching her excellent comedies For Pete’s Sake or What’s Up, Doc? when they were on TV, but her music was never played in the house. Although their audiences often overlap, schmaltzy ballads and Broadway tunes are not necessarily the same thing, and my parents preferred original cast recordings to adult contemporary. To us, she was merely a very talented movie star who occasionally made albums rather than a symbol of local and ethnic pride.
All of that, I guess, makes me the perfect foil for Jeff’s prank. For the record, I paid him back with a copy of Music Is Better Than Words, an album of standards by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (yes, you read that right). Then he responded with “Bottoms Up” by Nickelback, which somehow failed to properly download to my computer, and now I have to rethink my atheism, because there had to be a higher power to prevent me from hearing that crap.
But none of this backstory describes What Matters Most. Since the most important thing on a Barbra Streisand album is her voice, her fans will be happy to hear that it is incredible shape. I couldn’t detect any studio trickery applied to it other than a heavy dose of reverb, and her control and sense of pitch are excellent. It’s deepened a little due to her age, which isn’t a bad thing at all. She doesn’t have to rely on high notes as much as she used to, so when she does, it sounds fresh rather than a well-punched meal ticket.
And then there are the songs. Alan and Marilyn Bergman are a husband-and-wife lyric writing team who, in collaboration with a variety of composers, wrote for interpretive singers from the late-50s through the mid-80s, after the decline of Tin Pan Alley and before the rise of Diane Goddamn Warren. They’ve provided the lyrics for a boatful of movie themes, most famously “It Might Be You” (Tootsie) and “Windmills Of Your Mind,” (The Thomas Crown Affair) another Oscar winner. Their association with Streisand goes back at least towards 1973 when, with Marvin Hamlisch, they wrote one of her biggest hits, the Academy Award-winning “The Way We Were.”
In many ways, this album is a great fit, and one has to wonder why this wasn’t done sooner. What Matters Most contains ten songs by the Bergmans that she has never recorded, with a deluxe edition that compiles those that she has, including her smash duet with Neil Diamond, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and, dear Lord, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”
The Bergmans’ songs sound like they were written for Broadway shows that never got produced. They work on their own, but they could use the context of an existing story to take flight. That’s probably why they’re so effective on the screen. Even Giles, that heartless bastard, has admitted to being moved by “It Might Be You.” When the lyrics are direct, as on “Something New In My Life,” “The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye,” or “Alone In The World,” the results are affecting. They capture an emotion, a moment, and provide an affirming resolution without sounding too manipulative or trite, and Streisand delivers. As schmaltz goes, it’s as good as it gets.
Less successful are the songs where they reach for more. “Windmills Of Your Mind,” probably best known to music geeks from Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis album, is hack poetry disguised as psychedelic introspection. “I’ll Never Say Goodbye” and “Solitary Moon” fare slightly better, but they’re drowned in clumsy metaphors or self-consciously clever inner rhymes that don’t rise to the level of sophistication of those who came before the Bergmans’ in the Great American Songbook. The latter is particularly egregious, painting an image of coital bliss that I found uncomfortable, but has probably made it the #1 song for booty calls in Boca Raton (which, incidentally, start around 7:00, thus giving new meaning to the term “Early Bird Special”). Naturally, there’s a saxophone solo in it.
While I wouldn’t say the arrangements are an afterthought, they’re not particularly interesting. That’s too bad, because “So Many Stars,” co-written with Sergio Mendes, would have benefitted from a true bossa nova arrangement instead of merely hinting at one. Instead, we mostly get a lush orchestra with velvety strings and occasional accents that provide just enough support and dutifully obey Diva Rule #1: don’t overshadow the star.
To her credit, Streisand does her absolute best and never once sounds detached from the material. But listening to this I realized why she’s always left me cold. She demands that you feel her emotion in every syllable rather than let the song speak for itself. A powerful line gets drawn out, while a carefree one begins with a conversational chuckle as if to scream, “LISTEN TO HOW MUCH I GET THIS SONG!”
Even worse, she couldn’t swing in a playground. Let’s compare her take on “Nice N’ Easy” to Frank Sinatra’s timeless version. Frank is laid-back, a little behind the beat, and slyly seductive. Even though Frank was a notorious perfectionist in the studio, it sounds effortless, and it suits the song beautifully. Barbra, on the other hand, is every bit as much of a perfectionist as Frank, but her phrasing sucks the life out of the song. It should be called “Slow N’ Labored.”
The only time she remotely loosens up is on “That Face,” and even there her slightly off-mic-giggles sound like she wrote them into the chart instead of being spontaneously amused by the song’s carefree nature. Yes, it’s her style and it’s made her a legend in the industry, but it’s also why adult contemporary music deserves the knocks it often gets, while somebody like Nick Lowe releases album after album of beautiful songs for adults and can’t get arrested.
That said, despite its flaws, What Matters Most is actually a pretty good record. It’s an honest labor of love, expertly performed without cynicism, and, in spots, quite moving. I don’t know how many times I’ll be listening to it again, but I won’t remove it from my iPod or skip over its best songs when they come up on Shuffle play. OK, Jeff, I’ve done my part, and it turns out your prank failed. Now let’s see that Seth MacFarlane review.