Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Rod Stewart, “Fly Me to the Moon: The Great American Songbook, Volume V”
It’s been said that no other artist in rock and roll has squandered as much talent and good will in search of widespread popularity as has Rod Stewart. I cannot disagree. Want to hear some great Seventies rock—classic songs that fuse the best folk and blues influences with a Stonesy swagger? Go find the first four Rod Stewart albums (and, while you’re at it, grab the first three records he made with Faces). Want to hear a handful of awesome songs, expertly played, though mixed in with some iffy filler? Go find the next four Rod Stewart albums—from Smiler (1974) through Foot Loose and Fancy Free (1977).
Want to hear a smattering of decent singles surrounded by hours of formulaic shit? Go find the 11 studio albums Stewart released from 1978 through 2001. With all due respect to my colleague Matthew Bolin (he of the fine Redeeming Rod column), I hear very little to recommend any of those records (even Vagabond Heart, which so many claimed was a return to form). Granted, the aforementioned decent singles tended to be quite decent indeed—the two he did with Jeff Beck (“Infatuation” and “People Get Ready”) and his Power Station-wannabe move “Lost in You” were splendid. I even have a soft spot for “Young Turks” and “Baby Jane,” though I fear I am very much alone in that regard.
Want to hear Rod Stewart in the most incongruous setting imaginable, his voice employed with minimal subtlety to material that begs—no, demands a gentle hand? Then give a listen to the inexplicably popular Great American Songbook albums he’s crapped out at the behest of the rock and roll crypt keeper himself, Clive Davis. There is nothing quite so exquisitely wrong as hearing Stewart trying to croon something like “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” (from the second volume, As Time Goes By), in a duet with Cher, ferChrissakes. Or “My Funny Valentine” (on volume 4, Thanks for the Memory), which he turned into “Mah Funneh Vahlintahn” in that same, inimitable hoarse, Kim-Carnes-gargling-razorblades manner with which he tackled the dozens of other standards Davis lined up for him like so many bowling pins, only these bowling pins were created by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and other nearly sacred figures of American song craft.
Stewart will release the fifth volume in the series, Fly Me to the Moon, tomorrow, and had my evil editor Jeff Giles (y’all) not compelled me to listen to it, I would have dismissed it completely. Since I can’t say no, though, I did my best. Typically, when I review a record, I listen to it anywhere between three and five times at least before I even begin to write about it. I made it through this record exactly once, and it was like forcing down a plateful of beets, which, as longtime readers know, I detest.
Not only can I not bear to hear it again, I cannot bring myself to write a whole lot about it. I wonder how much time Stewart actually spent in the studio making this record; I imagine him coming in for an afternoon, listening to the professionally played (and, to be honest, occasionally lovely) orchestral arrangements, and laying down a vocal in a single take, one song after another, like some retirement home karaoke contestant. Once again, his voice is simply not built for these wonderful songs; it’s built for the boozy, amplified rock of those Faces albums, of his first four studio records. He’s betrayed his gifts for so long, though, I doubt he’ll ever find his way to engaging with that kind of material again. This record (like Stewart’s other standards albums before it) is mere product, a mere object—music made for the Home Shopping Network and little else.
So, instead of spending another 400 or so words slagging off Stewart and Davis and anyone else connected with this project, I would like to provide the curious among you with links to superior versions of the songs on Fly Me to the Moon, and, if you are moved by the songs, encourage you to seek out the artists who truly knew/know their way around the great American songbook. Enjoy.
“That Old Black Magic” (Sammy Davis, Jr.)
“Beyond the Sea” (Bobby Darin)
“I’ve Got You under My Skin” (Frank Sinatra)
“What a Difference a Day Makes” (Dinah Washington)
“I Get a Kick Out Of You” (Tierney Sutton)
“I’ve Got the World on a String” (Bing Crosby)
“Love Me or Leave Me” (Ruth Etting)
“My Foolish Heart” (Joe Williams)
“September in the Rain” (Jo Stafford)
“Fly Me to the Moon” (Tony Bennett)
“On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Dean Martin)
“Moon River” (Andy Williams)