Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Two Great Singers: Adele and Darlene Love

Yin and Yang – 
One’s an unlikely superstar, 
the other a legendary heroine

     Doesn’t everyone love Adele?  Would she have taken off in the U.S. if not for an appearance on Saturday Night Live in late 2008 and a profile on CBS News Sunday Morning in 2009?  That combination is one of the best arbiters of the next big thing and it’s aimed squarely at the middlebrow that will take a chance on something new.  19 quietly built a major audience and 21 (2011) became a phenomenon.  Not only did she possess an instantly identifiable contralto voice with the phrasing of a mature jazz singer, she also wrote her own 
Adele's More
Vulnerable Side
songs.  After people realized she could be simultaneously bawdy and shy, she became a superstar.  If only Sam Smith had a sense of humor, the hype about him would make a little more sense.  

Adele's 2015 NBC Special
     Adele’s pre-eminence was evidenced in her Holiday special from Radio City Music Hall this past December, which backed up 25, the biggest selling album of the year and the fastest selling since electronic tracking began in 1991.  That special lived up to its name; she held an audience in her palm by remaining almost completely still.  It was also the perfect length – one hour – for presenting her strengths.  It’s obvious from that show and from her liner notes that Adele loves her fans.  25 provides just what her many fans want:  mid-tempo ballads about break-ups, getting over break-ups, hoping for another guy that are delivered by a big voice with scrupulous production, whether it’s in a symphonic pop setting or in a grittier R&B one.  She’s sort of our contemporary Dusty Springfield.  It’s a shame that the famously insecure and generous Springfield couldn’t have had a major popular success like one of Adele’s.  

     When I first saw the video “Hello,” I thought it was amazing there were still the traditional scarlet phone boxes in England.  If there aren’t, then perhaps Adele is so big a star they found her one.  She sounded great, though the song is a little mopey.  Even though SNL did a funny “Thanks, Adele” skit, I had to agree with the woman working at the BMV who said, when the song came on the radio, “this is the song you hear as you’re jumping off a bridge,” then immediately apologized because she hadn’t meant to say it aloud.  

Adele 25
     Perusing the album’s song titles made me wonder if Adele needs to talk with someone because things don’t sound good for her (“I Miss You,” “When We Were Young,” “Water Under The Bridge,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Why Do You Love Me”).  The gorgeous “Million Years Ago,” reminded me of Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” in terms of its theme and lyrics and the time signature.  She sings it with ferocious regret, however, which is nothing like Aznavour, but does recall Shirley Bassey’s cover.  Okay, I realize for Americans Aznavour and Bassey are – at best – footnotes, but they’re enormous in Britain.  In some ways, Bassey is to the British what Aretha is to Americans as a representative cultural icon, though their repertoire and styles of singing have little in common.  I’m certain either Adele or her intriguing mother are acquainted with Bassey’s work, though she doesn’t list her as an influence.

     Adele will continue with a great career, there’s no doubt about it.  That voice is still maturing and she has developed an even richer tone since recuperating from surgery.  Her songwriting has also grown over the past eight years.  However, I wish she’d try different types of songs in terms of tempo and lightness; there’s never a throwaway track on her albums, which means there’s never a moment for a listener to catch a breath.  Fourteen tracks on the Target version of 25 is generous, but three could have been cut.  There were a number of producers and it amazes me that they were able to maintain such a consistent tone.  Did they have to subsume their individual artistic personalities to the juggernaut that is That Voice?   Perhaps, but the album would have been stronger if someone had said, “No, let’s keep this for the next album or let’s not use it.”   

     The most exhilarating album I heard this year was Introducing Darlene Love, which covers a range of genres in American pop since the late ‘50s by one of the great voices of the last sixty years in an electrifying collaboration with producer Steven Van Zandt (yes, the guitarist of the E Street Band and Silvio Dante from The Sopranos).  To anyone that 
Christmas on Letterman
loved the girl groups produced by Phil Spector in the early ‘60s or Letterman’s Christmas shows from 1986 on, Love needs no introduction.  But radio, streaming, iTunes, and media publicists aren’t too interested in a 74 year old with a clear mezzo chest voice, which is a shameful indictment of American popular culture.  “Still Too Soon To Know,” a duet with The Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley should be a new standard if those running the music business had any memory or sense of excellence. 

     Love’s career has been about resilience and an optimistic attitude.  She could have settled many scores (especially with Spector), but has refrained from doing so and has always taken the higher road.  Most tellingly, she first thanks her backup singers in the liner notes.  On disc and on screen, she emanates warmth and genuine humanity. There’s a smoky tone to Love’s singing that’s reminiscent of Etta James, but without the baroque phrasing that James employed in her later career.  Rather than calling her a soul singer, I’d say she’s of the Spirit – her roots in the church as a minister’s daughter played into the call and response that Spector was the first white guy to turn into top 40 pop in the late ‘50s in New York while Berry Gordy was doing the same thing at the same time in Detroit.  

     Van Zandt’s three decade long friendship with Love has resulted in a work that moves from gospel tinged pop to an evocation of Spector’s Wall of Sound, R&B, ‘80s rock, contemporary rock, contemporary covers of some Brill era songs (where most famously Otis Blackwell, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, composed) and closes with traditional Gospel.  I’m not certain how Van Zandt did it, but he’s somehow reproduced the Wall of Sound, which involved recording all the musicians and singers on mono because recording technology did not involve multiple tracks until the mid-60s.  However, the clarity on that Mount Everest of Brill Building songs “River Deep, Mountain High” indicates that he must have employed multiple tracks; I’m just not certain how many.  

Darlene Love
     The list of great songwriters on this collection beside some of the Brill geniuses includes Springsteen, Joan Jett & Desmond Child, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb, and Van Zandt himself.  Love does justice to all of them especially the generation that came of age after Glam Rock.  She has the power and emotional range to actually find what Costello writes, but cannot quite sing himself and on Springsteen’s songs she sounds like the older sister who taught that scrawny white boy teenager from the Jersey shore what he needed to know about women. 

     I felt the natural ending point for the album was “Last Time,” a passionate and elegiac maybe farewell to a friend or lover or even life itself.  However, as Neil said, “they’ll pull this full circle.” They do and it’s by emphasizing the importance to Gospel both to Love and, more broadly, to American music.  I realize that the electronic chatterers are obsessed with the semi-talented, the pre-pubescent, the badly behaved, and some performers that combine all these qualities.  Therefore, whatever else happens with Introducing Darlene Love, I’m grateful that it was released at all.  And I hope that this review influences someone to try out something new that’s simply GREAT.

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