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Friday, October 19, 2012

Free Again! Barbra finally reopens her vault...

It is fifty years since the incomparable voice of Barbra Streisand was first committed to record on the Broadway soundtrack for I Can Get It For You Wholesale, where she stole the show in the minor role of Miss Marmelstein. From such humble beginnings she has gone on to become the best selling female artist of all time. What many people may find surprising is that Barbra does not consider herself a singer, but rather "an actress who sings". She has admitted to only singing when in the recording studio or her famously rare concert appearances. Barbra is also a legendary perfectionist and over the five decades of her recording career has often rejected or abandoned songs because they fail to meet her exacting standards, or they no longer fit her vision. This has naturally led her fans to salivate at the prospect of what treasures might be lurking in her vaults, with some gaining legendary status. Only once in her long career has Barbra allowed the release of these "lost" songs and that was over twenty years ago on her box set Just For The Record... .



In light of this you can begin to imagine the excitement that greeted the announcement that Barbra's latest album, Release Me, would be a collection of eleven unreleased songs from all stages of her career. Now that the album is here, some of the missing puzzle pieces in Barbra's recording history are falling in to place. Unlike many such compilations of studio rejects, when you can often hear the sound of a barrel being scraped in the background, the quality of the tracks is truly astounding. They also show how Barbra's voice has changed and developed throughout her career, as well as how she has adapted her style and musicianship to match the changing times. The album includes informative sleeve notes that explain the reasons these recordings lay gathering dust for so long and for a fan this is just as fascinating as hearing the music.

When Barbra first emerged on the music scene in the early sixties popular music was still a strange hybrid of crooners, rockers and poppers. The British Invasion was appearing on the horizon, middle America was still sheltering from Elvis' pelvis and mainstream pop music would as often feature full orchestras as it would guitars and drums. Barbra began her career as a nightclub singer and her early albums were filled with standards and popular songs from her live shows. Her voice on these early recordings is crystal clarity and her delivery was full of sensitivity or drama, as the song required. I adore Barbra's voice on these early recordings, for me it is at its most pure, as she seems to be testing her limits and abilities and constantly pushing herself. It is indeed the voice of an actress, but one so gifted that the listener has no trouble buying every syllable she utters. Eventually popular taste and her record label would force Barbra to begin recording more modern pop albums, but one of the lost tunes on Release Me was due to appear on her last hurrah as a standards singer, Simply Streisand, released in 1967. Willow Weep For Me was written in 1932 by George Gershwin's squeeze Ann Ronell and has subsequently been recorded by just about every great jazz artist. Barbra's version is as classy as you would expect, the arrangement and orchestration is lush and full of detail. Her vocal is exquisite, but maybe lacks a wow moment, which she so frequently delivers. Perhaps this is why she abandoned it when selecting the final tracklisting for the album.



A year later Barbra was looking for a way to connect with the zeitgeist and so she tried her hand at the trendy new musical fad, bossa nova. She recorded one of the lesser known of this new breed of songs by the leading bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, Lost In Wonderland, possibly for inclusion on her first pop album. However, while an interesting experiment, it is clear why this track hasn't seen the light of day until now. While Streisand has mastered many genres, bossa nova is clearly not her forté. Technically she just about stays with the beat, but she is clearly struggling. Barbra also lacks the necessary languidness to pull off the inherent coolness that bossa nova demands. Let's face it, Barbra likes to be in control and she sounds as if she is fighting her instincts here. It is to her credit that she has included the track on this collection, as it a fascinating piece of history for the Barbra fan, if unlikely to make many lists of favourite tracks.

Barbra's first pop album, 1969's What About Today?, was not a major hit, but she knew that she had to continue to modernise her sound if she was going to remain relevant as a recording artist. In 1970 she began work on an album that was to be entitled The Singer. One of the tracks recorded was the Jimmy Webb composition Didn't We, which has all the trademark subtlety and depth of the best Webb songs. Barbra clearly connects with the song and produces a sterling vocal. However, the record company persuaded Barbra she needed a harder pop sound, so she abandoned the album to begin work on what would become her pop breakthrough, Stoney End. Naturally fans mourn this lost album, although a few tracks  recorded were released on The Way We Were album a few years later, this is another glimpse of what might have been.



Another lost track from this era is the standout on Release Me, Randy Newman's poignant I Think It's Going To Rain Today. Barbra recorded the track with Randy on piano as a test recording while they were working on potential Newman songs for Stoney End. The track is a revelation, in one breathtaking take Barbra completely nails the melancholy and honesty required to make this song live. The sparse piano backing allows full focus to be given to that unique voice. Again it is a gift to Streisand fans, an extremely rare opportunity to hear a relatively unvarnished performance from Barbra, instinctual and natural, it is a moment of true greatness. You can also detect here Barbra's voice in transition, from the "stagey" quality of her early works to a more fluid pop sound. For me. this is Barbra in her prime, and her next pop album, Barbra Joan Streisand is in my view the pinnacle of her vocal prowess. What a thrill then to be gifted this performance from that era of one of the best songs ever written by one of the best singers that's ever lived.

Another lost project is the intriguing Life Cycle Of A Woman, which was intended to be a concept piece following a woman's life story from cradle to grave. Despite developing the idea for a number of years and finally recording five songs in 1973, the album was never completed and Barbra eventually abandoned the idea altogether. Two of the five songs destined for the album were released on Just For The Record... and now a third is revealed, the mother/daughter duet Mother And Child. Barbra sings both roles, repeating a self-duet technique she used to stellar effect on A House Is Not A Home/One Less Bell To Answer on her Barbra Joan Streisand album. While the song is lovely and a genuinely touching portrait of the bond between mother and child, I'm not sure the duet part works as well here, as it takes a while to realise Barbra is playing two parts. It may have been more successful if Barbra had recorded it with a child. The overall album concept is definitely intriguing and we can only wonder what the final album would have been like. Excitingly, the final two missing songs are promised to us on a second volume of Release Me, hopefully scheduled for release before 2032!



Of the remaining tracks, there are three that were intended for one of Barbra's hit albums of Broadway songs. When she decided in 1985 to release The Broadway Album she faced intense resistance from her record company who did not believe there was still a mass audience for such material. How wrong they were, the album went to number one on the Billboard charts and was an international smash hit. The opening track on Release Me was intended to be the opening track on The Broadway Album, but when it came time to sequence the record, Barbra plumped for her remake of Sondheim's Putting It Together, which she felt perfectly articulated her artistic struggles in getting the album made (particularly as she got Stephen to rewrite most of the lyrics for that purpose). The losing song, Being Good Isn't Good Enough, is taken from the musical Hallelujah, Baby!, which depicts the civil rights battles of African-Americans. The song highlights the truism that minorities need to be twice as good as the majority to achieve the same success, something that the kooky Jewish girl from Brooklyn could perfectly understand and identify with. It seems a shame that this track was left off the album completely as it is the equal of those that made it, but it also shows Barbra's skill as an editor. Including two tracks with the same theme would have been superfluous and change the overall tone of the album, but it must have been a tough decision to leave it off. All's well that ends well, as we get to enjoy it now.

The Broadway Album was to include a mix of standards, highbrow fare and more pop-oriented material, but as work progressed Barbra decided to omit the pop tracks she had recorded in favour of the more revered material. One of those pop rejects was the showstopping ballad Home from The Wiz, the all-Black version of The Wizard Of Oz. We get to hear it now and while Barbra does a great job with it, I believe she chose wisely. Part of the magic of The Broadway Album is that it takes theatre songs and makes them accessible for a pop audience, Home, though strong, is not in the same league as the songs of Sondheim, Gershwin, Bernstein and Hammerstein.

In 1988 Barbra began work on Back To Broadway, an irresistible follow-up, but was unhappy with the balance of material, so set it aside. The album bearing that title that was released in 1993 was very different from these early plans. Two songs were recorded, including a medley of How Are Things In Glocca Morra?and Heather On The Hill, from Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon respectively. The combination is magical and this is a standout track on the album. It is another sign of Barbra's artistic integrity that she walked away from such strong material to wait for the timing to be right to complete the project. It would have been easy for her to plunder the Broadway goldmine ad nauseum, but Barbra is always more interested in stretching herself as an artist than constantly repeating the same formula.


Few artists could afford to have such high quality rejects sitting gathering dust for decades, thank heavens that they were saved. Release Me works as an album in its own right, but it is also a documentary of pop music history. The limitations of an LP record were a real restraint on artists in terms of editing their material, meaning that albums included the best tracks, with real thought having to be given to what was included . In my view this is something sadly lacking in the digital age. Just because you have 80 minutes available doesn't mean you need to fill it with every doodle and demo in your head.

One of the most charming aspects of Release Me is the little interludes from the recording sessions that feature on some tracks. They make you feel like we are actually there picking through the vaults and uncovering the riches within. Whether it was turning 70 (hard to believe) or a desire to control her own legacy, Barbra is finally beginning to curate her career with an eye to posterity. As well as another volume of songs from her vault, we are promised a 12-disc DVD collection of her musical career. This is not to suggest that she plans to wrap up anytime soon, there is also a brand new album of duets coming, which will include one with her son, Jason Gould, who has later in life decided to launch his own singing career. I'm not surprised it has taken him this long: look who he has to follow! So while this is far from the final chapter in Barbra's career, it is an important one, like the coda to a mystery novel when most of those nagging questions are finally answered.


If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at divasblogger@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter. Release Me is out now on Columbia Records.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Little Earthquakes: the arrival of Tori Amos

This week Tori Amos released Gold Dust, a lush orchestral reworking of selections from her back catalogue designed to mark twenty years since the release of her first solo album, the remarkable Little Earthquakes. While not Tori's first release (there was the album with the now never mentioned pop band Y Kant Tori Read), Little Earthquakes is effectively Tori's debut as the artist she always wanted to be, rather than the cookie cutter poppette the record company envisioned. So confused were Atlantic, her label, when Tori presented Little Earthquakes to them, they initially rejected it. Tori not only saved her record and turned it into one of the seminal albums in pop, she launched herself as one of our most unique singer-songwriters with a truly devoted following only a few special artists achieve. Here's how she did it.



Nothing I do is good enough for you...

Part of the record company's problem with Tori was her musical style. Tori was a prodigy pianist, winning a place at the renowned Peabody Conservatory of Music at age five, where she was classically trained. However, her inability to sight read (she plays by ear) and burgeoning interest in rock music led to her departure six years later. In the early nineties all the cool kids in the music industry were into grunge and Tori's piano-centric compositions and arrangements seemed completely out of step with current trends. When Tori bravely refused to replace the piano parts on Little Earthquakes with guitars (she was two albums in to a six-album deal with no sales to show), she found an outside buyer for the album who would take it as it stood. Rather than risk someone else being right, Atlantic caved and Tori was allowed to proceed on the basis she would write some new songs to bolster the album. When she released her retrospective box set A Piano: The Collection in 2006 she revealed the album tracklisting that Atlantic rejected. Fans were astonished that even at this point it contained some of Tori's most beloved songs, proving without doubt that she had faced a real uphill struggle to maintain her vision for the album against executive interference. Eventually Tori provided a tracklisting the label accepted, but they were still uncertain how to market her. Tori had relocated in this period from LA to London to finish work on the album and the record company thought that a British audience might be initially more receptive to such a kooky artist. In fact it might be posited that either Tori or the label took inspiration from another singular female artist for the imagery and buzz created to promote Little Earthquakes.



Excuse me, but can I be you for a while...

It is pop lore that a young Kate Bush fought with EMI to ensure that Wuthering Heights was released as her debut single, while the record company wanted a more conventional song. Kate prevailed and the rest is, of course, history. Ever since any female singer-songwriter who fails to fit into a neat box has been lazily dubbed "the new Kate Bush" by music hacks, creating a categorisation where none could exist. It seems that either Tori or her record company decided to take this inevitable comparison by the horns and create a direct resonance with images of Kate, signalling to the audience that here was another original, slightly quirky, piano-playing female artist, so if you like Kate this could be your cup of tea. Don't believe me, then I submit the following exhibits for your consideration.











Before the hate mail starts I want to be clear about something; I am not suggesting that Tori ripped Kate off, in fact I think any musical similarities between them are superficial at best. What I believe is that faced with a tricky sell, Tori and/or her record company deliberately echoed Kate's imagery to signal to record buyers that if they liked Kate, then they should give Tori a try. Anyone around at the time will be able to attest that the Kate/Tori debate loomed large for a time, not least over the fact that Tori played live, something deprived Kate fans could only dream about. Having attended Tori's early concerts I can attest that a large proportion of the audience were Kate fans who saw in Tori a kindred spirit, a unique talent and an artist they could see and even touch, unlike the increasingly reclusive Kate. This strategy succeeded in launching Tori in the UK and after an initial stumble with her first single, Tori became a regular fixture on the UK top 40 during 1992.

She's been everybody else's girl, maybe one day she'll be her own... 

Putting aside the record company battles and the marketing campaigns, what about the actual music Tori created on Little Earthquakes? The song most people heard first was the confessional Silent All These Years, a track Tori originally began writing for folk singer Al Stewart before her producer Eric Rosse convinced her not to give such a great song away. It is a song of great complexity and lyrical ingenuity that is hooky enough to grab you on the first listen, but requires repeated attention to uncover all its layers. It is the song of a woman breaking free from mundanity and social restraints and finally finding her own voice and in that way it is a metaphor for Tori's own struggles to find her true artistic expression. Tori has revisited the song on Gold Dust, barely meddling with the original arrangement, so well executed was the original. It is a defining moment in Tori's career and still stands as one of her most successful compositions.

Little Earthquakes is without question one of the boldest assertions of female sexuality ever committed to record and subsequently it has been adopted as a feminist totem. There is one track in particular that commands attention, Me And A Gun, an a capella where Tori recounts the true life story of being raped. It is hard to listen to and certainly uncomfortable to consider as entertainment, but the power of this song has given strength to many other victims and would eventually lead Tori to co-found RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organisation, which provides a helpline. A quite remarkable piece of music.



The album is truly an embarrassment of riches and picking out individual songs for particular praise seems churlish when together they form such a coherent piece. However there are two other classics on the album, both of which Tori has included on Gold DustPrecious Things erupts with all the pent up frustration of adolescent sexuality, the insistent piano backing holds the tension throughout proving that Tori was right to fight for the retention of her chosen instrument. The lyrics are biting and provocative, ripping apart the pretence of social niceties and laying bare the sordid and often uncomfortable truth of early sexual encounters between boys and girls. Of all Tori's songs this is the one I love to hear her perform live, as she really commits to every syllable and note, wringing every drip of emotion out of the song.

Then there is my personal favourite Tori song, the stunning Winter. It is a tale of memory, parental love and the pain of unavoidable change. It also has one of the prettiest melodies I have ever heard, which only further underscores the heartache at the song's conclusion. Tori's vocal is unbelievably great, especially as her voice almost cracks under the pain of the final chorus. It reminds me a little of early Joni Mitchell, who for me is a much better comparison for those wanting to find a lineage for Tori's compositions. The new version on Gold Dust makes the most of the full orchestra to create a subtle soundscape allowing the song full room to breathe and captivate the listener once again.



So twenty years on and Little Earthquakes has undoubtedly stood the test of time. It remains a touchstone album, as original and special today as it was on first hearing. Having found her voice at last Tori would go on to forge a unique path, putting to rest for all time any suggestions that she was derivative. I have been mesmerised by her talent for two decades, both by her deliciously difficult songs and her electrifying stagecraft, but I will never forget the thrill of excitement and astonishment that I felt when I first discovered her all those years ago.


If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at divasblogger@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter. Gold Dust is out now on Deutsche Grammophon. Little Earthquakes is available on Atlantic.