Saturday, July 22, 2006

Smokey Sings The Standards

My friends at NYCD urged me to give a listen to "Timeless Love," a new album of standards by Smokey Robinson. After the Rod Stewart nightmare, it's hard to approach any aging pop star who unexpectedly tackles the Great American Songbook. But this one is good, they insisted. So I listened. I always try just to watch a movie or read a book or listen to a CD or watch a show as simply as possible. I don't spend my time listening for lines to quote, I never take notes -- I'm not a critic. Just a fan who hopes what I'm experiencing is good. On the other hand, I'm not an automaton, and music more than most art let's you make song-by-song snap judgments. I had an insight, I thought, during the first tune, "You Go To My Head." Smokey sang a phrase or two -- "You go to my head/ My head/ My head" -- in a way that sounded to me like a pop song. He wasn't going for jazz phrasing, I imagined, but just treating these tunes as great pop songs, which they obviously were before being enshrined as standards. And of course, Smokey is attentive to the lyrics (like most great singers) so it wasn't a dumbing down of the songs, just an approach that fitted his style. That thought faded from my mind as the album went along. The arrangements were tasteful, acoustic and jazz-y with some strings. The songs were well sung, though in the middle I grew a tad impatient with one too many ballads. Things picked up again with (ironically) a very slowed down take on Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" that helped me hear the lyrics again, followed by a finger-snapping "I Can't Give You Anything But Love (Baby)." So just as I accepted the album for a pleasing, jazz-y take on the standards with happily unembellished vocals, Smokey began "I've Got You Under My Skin" with a wicked bassline. Then came some nifty keyboards that created a distinctive early 70s soul vibe. Here was a jazz standard recast as a soul tune so effectively I was thrilled. Now it wasn't just the vocal approach of that first tune, it was the arrangement, the instrumentation, EVERYTHING combining to turn this standard into a classic soul number. That was followed by the finale -- a Slow Jam take on "Tea For Two" that was similarly daring in its musical approach. It's got to be the most radical approach to that tune since Anita O'Day swung it at the Newport Jazz Festival. So we have a fine, mellow album of standards that finishes off with a flourish -- and those final two numbers are frustrating, because they point in the direction Smokey might have gone. He might have done a truly original, refreshing spin on the classics that respected their lyrics but provided ideal settings for his voice. Many singers can provide tasteful versions of "Fly Me To The Moon." But not many can do what he did with those last two songs. Here's hoping he goes "All The Way" the next time. (Hmm, and surely that song could be done with Marvin Gaye-like fervor....)


NYCD Online said...

Nice review. I am pleased that you are pleased. Of course, this CD will sell 491 copies, while housewives all over America continue to swoon over Rod Stewart's "Great British Hackjob" series.

Michael in New York said...

I can't WAIT for his Greatest Songs of the Sixties covers album. The franchise continues! It only took critics thirty years to realize Every Picture Tells a Story was a fluke.