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Singing Other People's Songs
by Gregg Shapiro
2004-01-07

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Pictured Isley meets Bacharach.

Several singers have delved into the past for the songs on their most recent CDs. Ronald Isley, of the legendary soul group The Isley Brothers has also done the same with Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach (DreamWorks). At a recent taping of the PBS Soundstage series, in which Isley and Bacharach performed together, Isley pointed out that he'd been waiting some 40 years to have the chance to record 'Make It Easy On Yourself,' and he does so on this album of lushly orchestrated Bacharach covers. Isley opens with 'Alfie,' which asks the eternal question, 'What's it all about, Alfie?' 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head' is given a refreshingly soulful new reading and Isley takes up residence in 'A House Is Not A Home.' Knowing that instantly recognizable Bacharach (and Hal David) tunes such as 'The Look Of Love,' 'This Guy's In Love With You,' 'Close To You,' and 'Anyone Who Had A Heart,' will now be introduced to an entirely new generation of listeners is an exciting prospect. Two more recent Bacharach (and Tonio K) compositions, 'Count On Me' and 'Love's (Still) The Answer,' are heard for the first time on a domestic release, and Bacharach himself sings the introduction to the pertinent 'Windows Of The World,' before Isley assumes the lead.

Just a few years shy of his sixtieth birthday, Rod Stewart is attempting to age gracefully with As Time Goes By … The Great American Songbook Volume II (J) the sequel to his unexpectedly popular 2002 album of standards, but all that really happens is that Stewart's shortcomings are magnified. The production values are impeccable and the orchestrations are befitting the material. Sadly, it's Stewart who sounds of out place. 'Time After Time,' 'I'm In The Mood For Love,' and 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore' are relatively harmless, although Stewart performs them at a distance. The first misstep is the Cher duet, 'Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered'—duets are tricky. The same can be said for the duet with Queen Latifah on 'As Time Goes By.' It's admirable for Stewart to embrace these songs, I only wish he didn't sing them as if they smelled funny.

Rebecca Spencer, a soprano who has had an impressive career in the realms of musical theater and in opera, has recorded a collection of 'art songs.' The CD, Wide Awake and Dreaming (LML), features Spencer's renditions of songs from musicals and operas, including 'Solla Sollew' (Seussical), 'The Willow Song' (The Ballad Of Baby Doe), 'Home Sweet Heaven' (High Spirits), 'Where I Want To Be' (Chess), and 'Moon Fall' (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). She also touches on the work of a variety of songwriters ranging from Judy Collins ('Houses') and Michel Legrand, Alan & Marilyn Bergman ('On My Way To You') to Cole Porter ('I've Got You Under My Skin') and Sammy Fain ('I'll Be Seeing You').

Because it lacks the focus of El Baile Aleman, an album of Kraftwerk covers interpreted in a tongue-in-cheek Latin fashion, Fiesta Songs (Emperor Norton) by Senor Coconut pales in comparison. Some of the cover material, from the '70s and '80s, works better than others. 'Riders On The Storm' (The Doors), 'Smooth Operator' (Sade) and 'Beat It' (Michael), already had vague Latin beats, so they make the transition better than, say 'Smoke On The Water' (Deep Purple) or 'Blue Eyes' (Elton John). As a novelty album, Fiesta Songs is more office party than frat party, but there is still fun to be had.

Arabesque (Narada World) by Jane Birkin, ex-wife and protégé of the late Serge Gainsbourg, is a concert recording in which the actress and singer pays tribute to the exotic and erotic tunes of the French singer and songwriter. It's especially fascinating to hear Gainsbourg's songs, many of which were sexually suggestive, interpreted by a woman, and one with such a firm connection to him.

The Wayfaring Strangers are a kind of bluegrass supergroup comprised of Tracy Bonham, Ruth Ungar, Aoife O'Donovan, Laszlo Gardony, Matt Glaser, Tony Trischka and others. With assistance from guest musicians, they revive a variety of traditional tunes on This Train (Rounder). Fans of Americana, insurgent country, contemporary folk, bluegrass and even gospel and klezmer will appreciate the spirited interpretations.

Whether she's performing solo or with her band Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh inspires all sorts of devotion, especially from her queer fans. Some of those fans are also musicians and on Hot Hands: A Tribute to Throwing Muses and Kristin Hersh (Kuma-Chan), they get the opportunity to give Hersh her due. With at least one song from all eight of TM's studio discs, this thorough tribute also dips into Hersh's solo work, making it a serious salute. Inspired interpretations are performed by Sharashka, The Blood Group, Flying Winnebago & Annie Hayden, Dirty Power, Kuma-Chan label founder Phil Locke, Hypofixx (an electronic reading of 'Bright Yellow Gun'), Flare, Paul Durham, Rose Polenzani & Sharon Lewis, P D Sexton and John Ashfield (the recent 'Portia'), to mention a few.

A 1999 recording of Pansy Division covering 'I Can Make You A Man' is one of several highlights of The Rocky Horror Punk Rock Show (Springman), a glittering compilation of punk rock bands. The marquee also includes Alkaline Trio ('Over At The Frankenstein Palace'), Groovie Ghoulies ('The Time Warp'), Apocalypse Hoboken ('Sweet Transvestite'), Swinging Utters ('Eddie's Teddy'), and The Ataris ('Science Fiction Double Feature – Reprise'). Nearly as fascinating as the compilation itself are the liner notes on the project by Shawn 'Eddie Migraine' Browning.

Several mostly Canadian artists pay tribute to legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot on Beautiful: A Tribute To Gordon Lightfoot (Borealis/Northernblues). Those paying homage range from Lightfoot's contemporaries such as Jesse Winchester, Bruce Cockburn, Maria Muldaur, and Sylvia Tyson (as a member of Quartette on 'Song For A Winter's Night') to contemporary Canadian acts such as Cowboy Junkies, The Tragically Hip and Ron Sexsmith.

The latest Latin music revival focuses on the music of Brazil. I have received at least half a dozen compilations featuring this genre. On Obrigado Brazil (Sony Classical), cellist Yo-Yo Ma visits the works of Jobim, Villa-Lobos, Mariano, Pixinguinha, and others for a classically engineered celebration of Brazilian culture. Joe Doggs, whose vocals are vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Scott, joins Hammond B-3 organist Joey De Francesco on his album of standards covers Falling In Love Again (Concord Jazz). George Bugatti applies his smokey baritone to nine standards, a U2 cover ('Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad') and a pair of originals on A Night For Romance (Fynsworth Alley).


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