Here's to the Ladies
Tony Bennett's unlikely ascent from has-been to hipster continues to be one of the coolest, if most puzzling, success stories in pop. Somehow, Bennett has gone from one of mom and dad's favorite artists to a fave with the kids, without appreciably altering his sound or his style. It seems that the sharper Tony hones his suave persona, the more adoration he receives from croon-happy boomers and Generation Xers.
Bennett's climb to the top was hoisted, inpart, by shrewd marketing. His son Danny started managing Dad's career back in the early '80s, and it was the younger Bennett who pointed the aging crooner away from the Lawrence Welk demographic and toward the Letterman crowd.
The plan was to make Tony Bennett an icon for subgeriatric music fans bored with rock 'n' roll, and the plan worked. With his easy smile and nonthreatening demeanor, Bennett slowly got in with a new "in" crowd, yukking it up with Red Hot Chili Peppers at awards shows, singing duets with Elvis Costello--winning over the kids simply by asking if he could play, too.
It also helped that pop vocalizing in general--and lounge music in particular--had caught on with the younger set, giving rise to what's come to be called Cocktail Nation--a goofy and mostly harmless trend among tres chic alternative types who like to dress up and act like their parents.
As for Bennett, his second life seemed to peak last spring, when his MTV Unplugged won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Bennett was back and, arguably, bigger than ever. He'd survived the lean years when rock was king, and had managed to infiltrate that kingdom, succeeding where others of his ilk--Perry Como, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis--dared not dream to tiptoe.
And Bennett's getting better by the disc. His latest CD, Here's to the Ladies, is another winner. It's more focused and easier to listen to than the Unplugged album, and a much better place for the curious-but-hesitant listener to discover why Bennett's become such a big deal.
The singer's attention to his young devotees is apparent--in an addled kind of way--in the CD's cover photo. This disc may be dedicated to the ladies, but Bennett has a girl less than one third his age hanging on his 69-year-old shoulders. Whatever.
Once that touch of freakiness subsides, the music takes over by way of 18 songs dedicated to the 17 women who made each selection a jazz standard in the lounge singer's songbook.
Standout cuts: Peggy Lee's "I'm in Love Again," which finds Bennett appropriately smoky and wistful (the song, like the rest of the album, is enhanced by Bennett's longtime piano accompanist, Ralph Sharon); "Cloudy Morning," a classy tune, made famous by Carmen McRae, that becomes totally Tony; and "Moonlight in Vermont," a very nice tone poem for Margaret Whiting, with Bennett's casual vocals painting pictures of "evening summer breezes" and the "warbling of meadowlarks."
Bennett's best effort, however, is "Daybreak." Dedicated to Dinah Washington, it's another soft jazz number in a smooth, swinging mode. In the liner notes, Bennett mentions how the song reminds him of the old times in Vegas, back when he and Frank and Sammy, among others, were "young and foolish" and had "jam sessions every night ... and at every early morning session, Dinah would sing 'Daybreak.'"
That nod to the past shows that, while Bennett is going after a younger audience, he's not leaving his old friends behind. In fact, the guy comes off like an unflinching cheerleader in the CD booklet, spouting praise and hyperbole for every "lady" involved: Judy Garland is "the greatest female performer that ever lived"; Lena Horne is "the most beautiful lady in the world of show business"; and of Doris Day: "Putting it simply, she has it all!"
Right now, so does Tony Bennett. He's got cross-generational commercial appeal and critical success, and now a new CD that should keep him the toast of the Cocktail Nation, among other pop fiefdoms, for many rounds to come.--Ted Simons
Made in Heaven
According to this album's accompanying press release, before retiring to his deathbed, the late Freddie Mercury directed his Queenly subjects to "write me just anything, I'll sing it. I'll give you as much material as I can." Mercury musta known he was a goner two albums before this posthumous release--he sang the final songs on both The Miracle and Innuendo as if they were his last ever.
Either of those potent anthems--"Was It All Worth It?" or "The Show Must Go On"--would have made a far finer swan song than anything on this studio sleight of hand. (The music for several of the tracks here was recorded months after Mercury died and glued to the bottom of his prerecorded vocals.)
On Made in Heaven, the listener is burdened with a man needlessly lingering in the public eye, as if he just has to tell you(again) that he's had a full life, is at peace now, and just wants to be sure the Mr.Coffee is turned off before he goes. A few moments--like the gospelly "Let Me Live Again"--build up some of the old steam, but it's nothing you haven't heard before, and better, on "Somebody to Love."
Made in Heaven is "dedicated to the immortal spirit of Freddie Mercury." But little of the fun Freddie that catapulted Mercury to stardom is on display here. "Mother Love" ends with a snippet of Mercury's first solo recording--a Gary Glitter sound-alike single that was issued under the name Larry Lurex.
Including that hard-to-find release in its entirety would've captured Freddie's immortal spirit better than the song it's tacked onto, and would have made a fine farewell bonus for Queen collectors. (The surviving band members are probably hoarding that chestnut for the inevitable boxed set, now that the cupboard has been stripped by the Reaper.)
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Mercury does get in one final outrage: The reprise of "It's a Beautiful Day" contains a 22-minute, 32-second coda, complete with fade-outs and fade-ins that fool the listener--ad nauseam--into thinking the album is mercifully going to end. Queen's first and last foray into new-age music, "Day" is one long D chord on a string synth, interspersed with harplike guitar tinkles, triangles and gongs--and it's longer than any side of Yes' insufferable Tales From Topographic Oceans.
Apparently, "The Show Must Go On"--and on and on and on. About 20 minutes into this charade, Mercury can be heard in the background snickering. And, as it finally closes with him saying "fab," one can only guess at whether he intended to pull a prank from the great beyond or just wanted to keep the tape rolling 'til his dying breath.
Do yourself a favor: Treat this one as a closed-casket funeral, pop A Night at the Opera into your CD player instead, and remember Freddie Mercury the way he was in life--fab.--Serene Dominic