On Holiday: A Tribute to Billie Holiday
Tony Bennett has nearly always been an anachronism. His career began just as his brand of sophisticated Tin Pan Alley melody was about to get swallowed up by the passionate rhythms of rock 'n' roll; a half-century later, with all of his most popular peers either washed up or dead, he finds himself the last of the great jazz-pop singers, the only still-mighty giant within a tradition that's included such revered names as Sinatra, Eckstine, Vaughan, Crosby, Fitzgerald, Cole and, of course, Holiday.
Bennett's new Billie Holiday tribute points out another way he stands apart: While most of his peers have been known for their songs of heartbreak and loss, Bennett has been drawn to songs of unabashed hope. His best-known hit, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," is about a man who's gladly returning to his home and his love, and Bennett has routinely recorded pop standards of unironic joy such as "Smile," "Keep Smiling at Trouble" and "The Best Is Yet to Come." Even when he tackles seemingly sad songs about lost love, he chooses those that emphasize the sweet memories instead of the loss itself. On Bennett's recent Sinatra-tribute album, even the weeper closer "One for the Road" gets turned into a contented, cocky kiss-off.
In the throat of a lesser singer, this optimistic approach could come off as superficial, if not downright silly. But throughout On Holiday, Bennett sings so remarkably that he makes you gulp with every beaming face and swelling heart. Predictably, Bennett's classy rasp turns out to be the perfect match for the more hopeful Holiday standards included here, and longtime compatriot Ralph Sharon's piano-only accompaniment on the giddy "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and the nearly Zen "Laughing at Life" swings more than well enough to get things cooking (even if it isn't the equal of Lester Young's sax on Holiday's originals).
The best moments, though, come when Bennett reinterprets Holiday's darker repertoire. Coming from a male singer, "When a Woman Loves a Man" could easily look down its nose at women and the stupid things they'll do to keep a guy. But--never the heel--Bennett simply sounds as if he empathizes, as if he knows all too well what it's like to be heart-over-brain in love. Instead of Holiday's earthier setting, Bennett fills his sweet-stringed "Willow, Weep for Me" with a delicate, ethereal quality that's almost like magic. In truth, this entire disc is magical. On Holiday is as good an album as any Bennett has recorded in 25 years. Even the necrophilic closing cut, with Bennett's voice digitally added to Holiday's on "God Bless the Child," can't break the happy spell.
Tonic's debut CD says almost nothing about anything except the propensity of the music industry to regularly spit out gobs of test-marketed mediocrity--but what's left to say about that? This band's a perfect example of the Dishwalla Principle. To wit: Write a song bursting at the seams with sonic and lyrical cliches, then settle back to wallow in its fleeting hit royalties.
Tonic's entry in the radio sweepstakes is "Open Up Your Eyes," a swaggering piece of arena crock that speaks for the album surrounding it by being a thoroughly homogenized malt of Led Zeppelin and Live. Competence is the best thing Tonic has to offer, and the band confuses it with profundity on every track. Any tune, for instance, that begins "She came down the mountain" had better follow up with something heavy, quick--but "Mountain" turns out to be a rather pathetic mole hill.
It's always been the goal of cover bands to sound as much as possible like the musicians they mimic, but Tonic's only original and not particularly welcome trick is making original music that sounds like someone else's generic cover tune.
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Red Red Meat
There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight
Play that clunky music, white boys! Unlike label mates the Grifters, whose music always teeters on the edge of falling apart but magically never does, Red Red Meat sounds like a bunch of guys slamming the ham in hopes something swells up. The title cut is interesting, but only because it manages to make the banjo sound like an exotic Indian instrument. In truth, the Hollies managed that same trick with "Stop Stop Stop" in 1966. Anything else that sounds like mildly adventurous experimentation the first time around will reveal itself as self-indulgent flap-doodling every time thereafter. Star above the manger notwithstanding, this ain't the Nazz, it's just a buzz. And an irritating one at that.