UPDATE: An edited version of this review will run in The Miami Herald's Tropical Life section Wednesday. It is also online by clicking on miamiherald.com/Entertainment.
She's not an American Idol, but, for more than 48 years, she's certainly been an American idol and her songs have featured on the popular vocal competition show. Remember season three runner-up Diana DeGarmo's exemplary run through No More Tears (Enough is Enough)?
So with that said, a review of the new Barbra Streisand album can take its place in the Idol Watch blog while Idol is on summer/fall hiatus. The CD, in regular single disc and a deluxe two-disc set, will be in stores and online sites Tuesday, Aug. 23:
Barbra Streisand: What Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman (Columbia). 3.5 out of 4 stars.
Among the many essays found within the lavish CD packaging, Barbra Streisand writes of celebrated pop music lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the married couple "have a remarkable gift for expressing affairs of the heart. To give you some idea as to how much I admire their lyrics, I've already recorded 51 of their songs ... and with this new collection it will be 63!"
There are 10 new performances of Bergman songs on What Matters Most, but who's counting?
If Streisand's math is faulty, the same can't be said of her instrument or for her taste in selecting material. What Matters Most continues the upward trend, late career artistic renaissance begun with the 2007 release, Live in Concert 2006, which was partly recorded at her BankAtlantic concert in Sunrise, the Diana Krall-produced jazz album, Love Is the Answer in 2009 and last year's Live at the Village Vanguard CD/DVD set.
As on those releases, Streisand's voice, now at age 69, has deepened and grown richer, warmer. Though the years have taken some of her top range, her expressiveness remains peerless. It can be argued that Streisand is even superior to her younger self where, on early recordings, she could be shrill and overly dramatic. (Tried to get through 1963's Grammy-winning The Barbra Streisand Album lately? Neither have I.)
That's not a problem here. The highlight comes at the top with, arguably, the finest version of The Windmills of Your Mind to date. With music from Michel Legrand and originally from 1968's original The Thomas Crown Affair movie, the Bergman's Windmills has been recorded by Noel Harrison, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Sting, Johnny Mathis and countless others. But Streisand's inherent understanding of a lyric, down to the minute detail of an accented syllable, transcends all.
She begins this version daringly a capella. A lone pluck of a Gayle Levant's harp accents and moves the melody forward as a lush orchestra politely and then commandingly joins the proceedings. One gets the impression the other musicians were so taken by Streisand's bell-like singing, they couldn't bear to join in and distract from the beauty they were witnessing in that California studio. The track brings to mind the tone and delivery of Streisand's other memorable Legrand/Bergman full-length collaboration, the Yentl soundtrack and film in 1983, and that's a fine place to start.
Nice 'n Easy she sings in her cover of a 1960 Frank Sinatra album title tune and that describes the pace of the new album. Eight of the 10 songs are ballads, but where this was a problem with previous disappointments like The Movie Album and A Love Like Ours a decade or so ago, What Matters Most thrives in this unhurried environment. The arrangements are full-bodied, artful, engaged and the album doesn't drag.
Repeat listens reveal nuances built into bossa novas like So Many Stars (a 60s hit for Sergio Mendes) and the luxurient Solitary Moon. That Face, made famous by Fred Astaire, sparks off its swinging big band tempo. But where Streisand distances herself from her competition, and slavish, non-creative upstarts like Glee's Lea Michele, is in the originality department and her smarts.
Rather than a note-for-note reproduction of Sinatra's Nice 'n Easy -- which plenty of listeners would surely have accepted -- Streisand never settles for the easy way. She refreshes the Sinatra tune by taking it at a leisurely tempo at first, accentuating the "nice and easy" command of the lyric and steadily builds the tempo until it resembles and distinguishes itself next to Old Blue Eyes' Capitol Records-era blueprint. What Matters Most is the equivalent of those great Sinatra concept albums of the mid 1950s and '60s; albums that, like fine wine and furniture, appreciate with time. No one else is doing exactly that any more.
What Matters Most also adds 10 previously released Streisand-Bergman performances on a second CD in the Deluxe version. Familiar favorites like The Way We Were, You Don't Bring Me Flowers (a 1978 duet with Neil Diamond), Papa, Can You Hear Me? and What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? will already be in most Streisand households, and the tunes don't appear to be remastered from earlier remasters. But the grouping is of value for the way it introduces overlooked material like the gorgeous After the Rain, from 1979's underrated Wet album. Plus, it's always a treat to hear the bonus disc's closing track, A Piece of Sky, to marvel at how Streisand somehow holds a belting note for a full 20 seconds over a swelling orchestra without slipping out of pitch or running out of breath. There are other Streisand-Bergman oldies she could have included, like the sublimely haunting Bergman-Lalo Schifrin ballad On Rainy Afternoons, for instance, but that's what an iPod Playlist is for.
Maybe Streisand's math is correct, perhaps she's holding on to two more new performances to bring her Bergmans tally to 63. If so, she's welcome to release them any time she wishes.
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