Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: Love is the answer

Barbra Streisand has been in the entertainment news a lot this past week, all in anticipation of the release of her 63rd album Love is the answer. Anthony Tommasini interviewed her in The New York Times (noting she had never before been asked about her diaphragm); they discuss the nuances of how she sings from the perspective of opera. The Today show aired Meredith Vieira's interview with her this morning. If you want to own some Streisand memorabilia, she’s auctioning off clothing, art, furniture, and other items in October to benefit her foundation (browse the catalog online). Mattel also just announced that they’re releasing a Barbra Streisand doll (Hello, Gorgeous!). But of course the big news here in NYC was that she gave a free private concert this past Saturday at the Village Vanguard club in the West Village for about 100 people. Among the VIPs were the Clintons, but most audience members were contest winners who were lucky enough to get one of the special seats. Of course I entered the contest, but, alas, I wasn’t among the lucky few. There are brief videos popping up online now, but I suspect they may release a DVD of the concert.

Her new CD, officially released today, and this concert, take Brooklyn-born Streisand back to her performance roots in NYC jazz clubs in the 1960s. In fact, when you play the album, turn down the lights and grab a glass a wine, because you'll feel like you’re in a jazz club, the sound is so intimate and her voice so crisp. The album is a masterful collection of warm melodies. The album may even surprise some people who have gotten used to her material from the past 25 years. Back in the late 1970s when she began experimenting with disco and pop, and then returned to Broadway show tunes, things took on a bigger sound that was definitely of the time and were magnificent in their own ways. Sometimes, though, I think the pure sound of the first 15 years of her career got lost in that later shuffle of music. As I grow older, I find myself tuning in more and more to that early work, listening to an effortless Streisand, enjoying her voice with its own sense of romantic innocence.

I'm pleased to say then that Love is the answer brings all of that back, but with a voice that has matured into a warm, velvety sound that still makes you tingle. The album’s title takes its name from the lyrics of one of the songs, “Make Someone Happy.” The album is available with orchestral music, or as a deluxe version with a second CD of the same recordings accompanied by a quartet. If you're not sure which one to buy, go for the deluxe set, because the second CD is even better than the first. Sinatra standards like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” get new interpretations that are exquisite. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” has an endearing quality that makes you realize her power as a contralto. The bossa nova beat behind “Gentle Rain” and “Love Song” adds extra kick to the album. “Where Do You Start?” and “Some Other Time” will bring tears to your eyes. My one disappointment was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which starts off beautifully but then modulates too erratically for my taste.

Jazz artist Diana Krall is on board with this album as producer and performer for some of the piano solos. Their collaboration is fantastic. It will capture the hearts of people who aren’t even Streisand fans. I cannot say there is one song that will stand out forever as a new Streisand classic, like “People” or “Evergreen,” but the entire album works beautifully as a way to sit back, relax, and enjoy a romantic evening. Admittedly, the cynical single side of me wants to respond sarcastically to the title of the album, Love is the answer, by quoting back an old Ziggy cartoon: "I wonder what the question was?" But the other half of me, the part that pines for romance and love, recognizes true beauty in a collection like this. That is a true testament of my feelings about this CD.

I can’t end this review without pointing out a major selling point: the inclusion of pictures of Sammie, her Bichon Frise. How could you turn away from a CD that included such an adorable fluffy dog on the back cover? Also, here’s a video interview Streisand did for Amazon.com, where she talks about how the album came about. (Or you can see it and order the CD by clicking here.)

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