The Curmudgeon: Lowering One's Standards

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The new Annie Lennox album is just the latest underwhelming recording of classic pop standards by an aging rock ‘n’ roll star. Joni Mitchell, Bryan Ferry, Linda Ronstadt, Jeff Lynne, Glenn Frey, Sinead O’Connor, Smokey Robinson, Dr. John, Diana Ross, Art Garfunkel, Cyndi Lauper, Boz Scaggs and, most notoriously, Rod Stewart have all tackled the Great American Songbook—that loosely defined collection of pre-Elvis show tunes, jazz perennials and Tin Pan Alley numbers—with disappointing results. Why do they keep trying? And why do they keep failing?

As an answer to these questions, the title of Lennox’s album, Nostalgia, is a red herring. These baby boomers are not fondly remembering the music of their youth; this was the music of their parents—and in O’Connor’s case, her grandparents. These standards albums represent nostalgia not for one’s own past but for someone else’s past. They are not an attempt to recapture one’s youth but to establish one’s adulthood. In other words, they are inspired not by breaking molds and baring one’s heart but by craving respectability—never a reliable motive for making art.

It didn’t have to be this way. Lennox, for example, has the vocal chops to breathe new life into these songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. On her best recordings, both with the Eurythmics and on her solo projects, Lennox builds the tension by pulling back the reins on her big voice and then, at just the right moment, letting go of the bridle and confronting the listener with not the affirmation of a gospel climax but with the challenge of an unsheathed blade. You keep waiting for that moment to arrive in Nostalgia, but it never does.

It’s as if she’s trying to live up to the expensive, floor-length black gown she’s wearing in the album photos, as if she doesn’t want to mess up its elegant lines by cutting loose. Lennox has the rich timbre for these songs, but she never shifts out of second gear. And she gets caught in a rhythmic no man’s land, abandoning the driving 4/4 rock of her past and tentatively fingering a jazzy swing without quite grasping it. Some syllables slide past their syncopated appointment, and thus no momentum ever develops.

But the same problems that undermined her record have sabotaged dozens of others. Why does this keep happening? The facile explanation is that rock ‘n’ roll was born in opposition to the Great American Songbook and has been uncomfortable with it ever since. “Rock ’n’ roll smells phony and false,” Frank Sinatra famously said. “It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of it almost imbecilic reiteration and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics.” “I’ve got no kick against modern jazz,” Chuck Berry responded, “unless they try to play it too darn fast and change the beauty of the melody until it sounds just like a symphony. That’s why I go for that rock ‘n’ roll music.”

But this rivalry has been much overstated. If blues and hillbilly music were the father and mother of rock ‘n’ roll, Tin Pan Alley was the godfather. Elvis Presley not only wanted to be Big Joe Turner and Bill Monroe; he also wanted to be Dean Martin and recorded songs by Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Roy Turk. Brill Building writers such as Carole King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka and Bert Berns were Jewish kids consciously imitating their Jewish New York elders such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin, who also cranked out pop hits from cubicles along Broadway.

The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and the Trammps’ “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” were all pre-Elvis Tin Pan Alley tunes. The Beach Boys modeled themselves on the Four Freshmen as much as Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon, and the Beatles sang “Till There Was You” and “Besame Mucho” in their earliest days.

The Great American Songbook was a minor but undeniable part of rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning. So why do things so often go wrong when aging rockers tackle these standards now? Usually it’s because the singers and arrangers are too intimidated by the repertoire, which since they were in diapers their parents have been describing as the greatest music ever made. As a result the overly respectful interpreters put away their personal strengths and try to live up to an ideal. How could it not ring false?

Lennox’s former duet partner, Aretha Franklin, has suffered from this approach, but this year she got her revenge. When she was first signed by John Hammond to Columbia Records in 1960, Hammond mistakenly groomed her as another Sarah Vaughan or Nancy Wilson, asking her to put aside the improvisatory gospel that was at the core of Franklin’s identity. The result was seven wasted years of tasteful but underwhelming records. It wasn’t till she moved to Atlantic Records in 1967 and a gospel-soul repertoire that she was revealed as the genius she was.

The problem with the Columbia recordings wasn’t the repertoire so much as the approach. That becomes obvious on the new album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. In between songs associated with Prince, Adele and Gloria Gaynor, Franklin sings the same kind of show tunes Hammond gave her, but this time producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds gives those songs the “Aretha” treatment. Instead of a 1940s swing, Edmonds gives the arrangements a 1960s R&B snap; instead of crooning like Sarah Vaughan, Franklin goes to church on these Tin Pan Alley tunes.

You could wait forever for Lennox to cut loose on these venerable titles, but you only have to wait a minute into the first song for Franklin to start testifying on Mack Gordon & Harry Warren’s “At Last.” She scrubs all traces of Barbra Streisand from “People” and reimagines it as a slow hymn. She begins Gene DePaul and Sammy Cahn’s “Teach Me Tonight” as a polite swing number, but it doesn’t take her long to start roughing up her voice and to school the instructor on just what she needs. The result is Franklin’s finest studio effort in 28 years and a terrific example for how an aging rock star can handle the Great American Songbook.

Cheek to Cheek, the No. 1 duet album from Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, could have been another. Though the arrangements are mostly formulaic big-band charts from 60 years ago, Lady Gaga refuses to be limited by them, as Lennox, Ronstadt and Mitchell have been. No matter what you think of her single-minded devotion to self-promotion, Gaga has a great voice, and she manages to swing hard and free while filling the songs with humor, romance and sass.

The problem with the album is Bennett. No one else seems willing to say it, so I will: Tony Bennett formerly possessed one of America’s greatest tenors, but since the early ‘90s, that instrument has been in steep decline and is now thin in tone and uncertain in pitch. All that’s left is the phrasing. If you’re only hearing him now, you have no idea what a great singer he once was.

A far better example of how a rock star and a jazz star can collaborate was Kisses on the Bottom, Paul McCartney’s 2012 collaboration with the Diana Krall Quartet. That album was a masterpiece of understatement as Elvis Costello’s wife helped the ex-Beatle relax into these songs from Fats Waller, Harold Arlen and the like. McCartney never seems intimidated nor constrained by the material but simply pours his own personality into them. That’s the way to do it, and rockers should take their cues from him and Franklin when they try to sing this material.

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