Monday, September 26, 2011

Tony Bennett Pops in on Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse on "Duets II" (Single/Album Review)

Tony Bennett is one of those pop legends whose enduring success effectively takes many of the usual complaints about pop music of the day levied by the elder generations and renders them hooey. (I can't believe "hooey" is in this dictionary that can't even handle "texting.") He rarely if ever wrote his own music; his style neither approached any bounds of tradition nor bothered to evolve in any notable way for the past half century. Perhaps his appeal is of a similar sort as that of Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Michael Feinstein, Barbra Streisand or even Susan Boyle and Norah Jones, singers who tap into the nostalgia of the folks who still do backwards things like buying CDs (yes, like actual hardware! I know! It's totally nuts!) and have musical tastes to match.

This is all well and good, of course - consumers are happy to buy albums by the truckload (this is very good for our struggling music biz), and Bennett and Bublé and Babs get to reap the benefits of being alive and able to tour, which is where they have a serious leg up (about six feet or so) on Ella and Billie and Sinatra and others who first brought many of the same tunes to popular life. And while the standards might keep some modern pop artists a rung or two lower on the Billboard 200 album charts for a week or two, that doesn't mean actual sales have been hurt (if anything, the impact is positive - think of how many Boyle fans also picked up the new Rihanna or that Lady Gaga album everyone's talking about as Christmas gifts for the young 'uns, seeing as they were right there and that knocked off a store stop later). I suppose the only vague element of harm the classics ever do to the modern pop camp is their annoying tendency to win a lot of Grammys they don't really deserve. But who has ever won a Grammy that was deserved? Esperanza Spalding, maybe? Winehouse and "Rehab," definitely. Britney Spears, for "Toxic." That's all I have, how about you?

Luckily, once in a while the dinosaurs of pop past manage to give a little something nice to the pop music legacy, as Tony Bennett has done on his latest album Duets II, released last week. The entire appeal of the seventeen-track album of standards (and  I mean standards - "The Way You Look Tonight" and "It Had to Be You?" How unexpected.) lies not in the songs nor even, really, in Bennett, but rather in the eye-catching and aggressively contemporary cast of supporting players, a list that makes David Guetta's recent star-studded crossover LP look like the junior varsity second string.

Cleverly, Bennett and his team have brought in a consistently familiar but generically diverse bunch, which means there's a bit of something for everyone, or at least a lot of folks from all over. Because those names most familiar to one's own genre preference are the ones that jump out most and assuredly prove a major factor in the decision whether or not to put down for the set, the eclectic guest list primarily allows marketing to cast a wide net to begin with in hopes that fans won over by one or two of the featured tunes and/or artists will therefore buy the whole kit and caboodle, and maybe even discover the merits of some of the other performers in the process. Huzzah, winners all once again...unless of course the shoppers from the biggest untapped market of modern pop, who may very well be enticed by the appearances of Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey or John Mayer but are also primarily digital shoppers, cherry-pick the few tracks they find comfortable and forget the rest (this of course does not get counted into album sales figures). Even I hereby admit to having done just that, and I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it either. But I suppose music sales are music sales when you're someone like Tony Bennett. That must be nice. (At posting time, Billboard was reportedly expecting Duets II to move 155,000 and 170,000 copies in its first week, which isn't a huge amount but is more than most albums have been moving in a week in 2011.)

Two of the tracks from Duets II are particularly relevant to the pop-minded, for different reasons although the two artists featured do have a good deal in common. Even considering the genre bias mentioned earlier I think it's safe to count the pair among the highlights of the album. Both numbers succeed largely on the merits of the featured performances, although Bennett is also at his best here, partly because his partners bring out remarkable performances from the aging crooner and partly because the selected songs so exquisitely provide fertile ground for each singer's talents, personalities and styles that two well-known, decades-old standards could almost pass as having been written directly for the duetting duo of 2011 (which reflects well on whoever was awake enough at the Bennett camp to make those calls).

The album opens on such a strong note with "The Lady is a Tramp," featuring Lady Gaga in full vamp mode, that the sixteen songs that follow are almost doomed not to measure up. It's generally easy to tell when singers are really having fun with the material, and even those who miss The New Yorker's interesting and insightful account of the "Tramp" recording session can tell the two are having a ball (Bennett and Gaga performed together in one booth, headphone-free, reportedly enjoying themselves so much they recorded a heap of takes with ad-libbing and stylistic silliness abounding, some of which made the final cut).

Frankly, I've never really gotten the song, perhaps because it's a show tune (context helps sometimes) and perhaps because Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, who popularized the tune as a pop song, weren't really delivering "irony" with a big noticeable bow large enough for me to clarify which side of the lady/tramp scale things were intended to land. Now everything is much clearer, thank you, because Gaga, a theatrical of all theatricals and practiced master of irony, delivers the song complete with blazing neon letters screaming "SATIRE! SATIRE!" but without condescending zeal that those already aware of this might react with "No duh, brainiac. *Sigh* Blondes." (or something). Additionally, although this exists outside the record itself though still within its stead, Bennett is quoted in the New Yorker and an upcoming "making of" documentary as saying that Gaga is no tramp, but rather "a lady...playing a tramp." See, Tony gets it! What's holding the rest of you up?

"The Lady is a Tramp"
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
Duets II
Columbia, 2011

Gaga, it must be said, sounds absolutely wonderful singing lightweight jazz, which seems to come so naturally to her that the more labored melodramatics on Born This Way seem even more unnecessary. I wonder what riches might emerge if Gaga relaxed a little, and instead of trying so damn hard to revolutionize pop by pounding it with a cleaver like a crazed sculptor living just downstairs from Lipschitz, whose statues always turn out ten times better, left the multiple personalities thing to Nicki Minaj or Neon Hitch (both of whom are far more skilled at it) and found another way of changing the pop world as I still strongly believe she possesses the potential to do. That Gaga has some pipes on her isn't news to anyone who's been paying marginal attention, but since a lot of the folks likely to purchase Duets II haven't, Gaga should win some new fans with this performance, or at least shed some detractors.

The best Bennett can really do is try to keep up, but he does keep up like a good, if slightly bewildered sport. The lyrics this time around are almost exactly the same as they were in 1937, but a newcomer would easily guess they'd been penned just for Gaga, and that connection brings the seventy year old show tune comfortably into the present in a way no one has done for decades. Gaga helps this along with some modernized and personalized improv ("I love the Yankees," she declares, to which Bennett replies "And Jeter's just fine."), confessional asides (Gaga somehow does not arrive tardy to the Opera, despite her tendency toward fashionable lateness in all endeavors else), and, well, irony (when she's being ironic), pride (when she's being truthful), and emphasis (when she wants to make damn sure you know she ain't joking). She's particularly emphatic, like a true New Yorker, on "I HATE CALIFORNIA: it's crowded and damp!" (Not like spacious, humidity-free New York!) It's the one truly ironic moment that's completely unintentional, but (or therefore?) it's funny, so it works. By all accounts Lady Gaga is a stellar jazz and cabaret singer, and it would be interesting to see some of that on her next album. For now, "The Lady is a Tramp" will have to suffice, and it's well up to the job.

Just two tracks later is the circumstantially poignant duet with the late soul wonder Amy Winehouse, "Body and Soul," which was the last recording the troubled singer laid down before her devastating yet not quite shocking death in August at age 27. Winehouse pours such bluesy/soul feeling into lyrics like "my life a wreck you're making" that it sounds almost like clairvoyant foreshadowing of her looming demise, except that Winehouse has been singing these blues most of her brief but brilliant career, especially on her hit album Back to Black. If anything, what saddens on "Body and Soul" is the proof that Winehouse still had it when she died, rehab, drugs, marital squabbles, mental instability be damned. No washed up has-been with instrument destroyed by years of abuse she, and so all the more is our loss.

 "Body and Soul" is again not a showcase for Tony Bennett, but unlike on "The Lady is a Tramp," the old guy doesn't sound so outmatched here - nor does his vocal come across as comfortably predictable, which is the real head-turner. Since Bennett's achievement lies in the atypical and totally fitting subtlety and tenderness of his performance, its merit is easily overshadowed, which just makes it all the more commendable, so on behalf of those who miss it I hereby say bravo, Mr. Bennett on this one. Winehouse was never known for subtlety on the whole either, although when subtlety was called for she delivered expertly, as she largely does on this track.

These two singers have none of the electric chemistry Gaga and Bennett have in spades, and it almost sounds like their vocals could have been laid separately (even though they also performed together in the studio); however, what they lack in chemistry of content they more than make up in chemistry of sound. This is different from the hegemony of sound exhibited in Bennett's pairings with Buble or Groban; in no way does Amy Winehouse - even mellow Amy Winehouse - sound like Tony Bennett - even mellow Tony Bennett. But I'll be darned if these two unique voices don't somehow fit together gorgeously, for no discernibly obvious reason, like Ella and Louis Armstrong, or Christina Aguilera and M.I.A. It's a neat moment, not to mention a fitting and sufficiently accomplished swan song for a remarkable artist gone far too soon.

Of course, these two tracks, interesting and worthy of lengthy discussion as they apparently are, take up about five minutes of a lengthy set, and they're over and done before ten minutes have passed. Yes, you could stay to see how Willie Nelson and Carrie Underwood fare on seemingly foreign turf, or to get a listen to ho-hum but competent cuts of great old songs like "The Girl I Love" (Sheryl Crow) or "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road" (John Mayer), or because a little Queen Latifah in your life is never a bad idea. But even for me, there were insufficient incentives for me to part with nearly fifteen bucks (it's a recession people!), so I only poured around six or seven dollars into the Bennett coffers from Duets II.

Then again, I am but one sole consumer and by no means do I represent the be-all, end-all, or typical habits of consumer activity, so I can't (and won't) really fault Mr. Bennett for failing to live up to my standards when my standards (based as they are on the specifications of modern pop) are irrelevant to the purpose and intended audience of Duets II in the first place (listen up NPR, Rolling Stone and all you generalized "music critics"). If I were to assume any advisory role in the matter, as I suppose I ought to do if I'm going to present myself as someone whose opinions you ought to consider, I would suggest that these two tracks at the very least are well worth purchase, and if in the process of following that advice you happen to explore more of Bennett's new collaborative album, or even to buy the whole enchilada, I'm okay with that. (Mission accomplished, Tony.)

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