Friday, December 09, 2011

Tony Bennett, "Tony Sings the Hits of Today!"

This album is supposed to be the absolute pits of Tony Bennett's career. His popularity had plummeted by the end of the 60's and someone (coughCliveDaviscough) thought he needed to sing contemporary material in order to revive his career. As the story goes, the results were the horrifically bad stuff of legend. Bennett hated making the album so much that he became physically ill while recording it. And unlike other legendarily bad albums (e.g. Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music"), this one never experienced a critical or popular renaissance of any sort. Bennett's fans still disown it, critics still hate it, it might as well have never existed.

I've never heard this album, in fact until a few weeks ago I didn't know a thing about it. But looking at the tracklist forty years after its release, I have to wonder where all the hate is coming from. Tony Bennett threw up because he had to cover songs by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder? "Here There and Everywhere" didn't move him in the slightest? And he might not have lived in the era of the "official" Great American Songbook, but who's more of a classic American songwriter than Burt Bacharach?

So let's listen and find out if Tony Bennett's "Tony Sings the Hits of Today!" is really as bad as advertised ... while reviewing the album in real time. (songwriters names appear in brackets)

1. "MacArthur Park" (Jimmy Webb). This song has been covered innumerable times, and yet you'd be hard pressed to find someone who likes it. In a 1993 survey, it was even crowned as the worst song ever. In short, "Macarthur Park" is the kryptonite that destroys even the best artists (e.g. Donna Summer). But Bennett's version isn't bad at all! It's a sweet and simple arrangement that does away with all of the lyrical silliness in the song about cakes melting in the rain, and leaves us with lines like "after all the loves of my life / I'll be thinking of you and wondering why". Cole Porter couldn't have written that? We're off to a decent start here.

2. "Something" (George Harrison). A serious misstep. Everything from the odd changes in tempo to Bennett's half-hearted attempt to emote during the refrain just don't mesh.

3. "The Look of Love" (Burt Bacharach, Hal David). Bacharach was the master of sweetness and light in pop. So who thought it was a good idea to get a Hal Blaine clone to play drums and rock the joint up a bit? It should have been a no-nonsense arrangement carried completely by the singer, instead, they tried to merge big band with a touch of pyschedelia. Someone spent too much time listening to "Good Vibrations" before entering the mixing studio.

4. "Here There and Everywhere" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney). And this ... why is this a midtempo swing tune? Did anyone bother to listen to the lyrics before recording it, or were they going for the ironic cover a couple of decades before that became a fad?

5. "Live for Life" (Norman Gimbel, Francis Lai). Perfectly acceptable pop balladry here, I think Bennett was actually trying with this one.

6. "Little Green Apples" (Bobby Russell). I'd never heard of this song, but "G-d didn't make little green apples and it doesn't rain in Indianapolis" is an awful lyric, so no wonder Bennett sings it like he's singing the weather report. There's no joy, humour, or pizzazz in his delivery at all. The only way to overcome the "qualities" of a song so charmingly dumb with lyrics this bad is with an overdose of all three. The big note at the end is haphazardly screamed, as if he just wanted it to be finally over. I concur, let's move on.

7. "Eleanor Rigby" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney). A quick check confirms that William Shatner's "The Transformed Man" predates this by two years. Shatner's attempt to act instead of sing his lyrics was at least authentic (i.e. it was all he was capable of doing, he put his heart into it, and the effort was genuine) and some of the arrangements were quirky and unpredictable (e.g. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"). But Tony Bennett lowering himself to this kind of silly dramatic reading almost gave me sympathy vomit cramps, forty years after the fact.

8. "My Cherie Amour" (Henry Cosby, Sylvia Moy, Stevie Wonder). Another no-brainer -- just play it as a string-drenched ballad. And they do. This is rather lovely, it's a winner.

9. "Is That All There Is?" (Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller). This song was very much in vogue in '69-'70, and had already been covered a few times by other adult contemporary artists in the two years previous. So it makes sense that Bennett's label would want him to record this. There's nothing technically wrong here, but maudlin black humour and Tony Bennett don't mix, although I think he could have communicated the dejected feelings of the song's narrator if he liked the song even a little bit.

10. "Here" (Gene Lees). The line "here I am all alone with a few faded pictures of you" is a heartbreaker, and this song slinks along, wallowing in its selfish misery not unlike Lou Reed's "The Bed". This is jaw droppingly great, no joke.

11. "Sunrise Sunset" (Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick). This would makes sense as an epic dramatic finishing song to an adult contemporary pop album ... but not on a Tony Bennett album. The man is many things, Broadway diva isn't one of them.

It goes without saying that any interpretive singer needs the right song with the right arrangement to succeed. Song choice is really everything for someone like Tony Bennett, especially with an experiment like this where he strays outside his comfort zone. In that respect, the album is obviously a failure. Sometimes a great singer can overcome an imperfect arrangement, but that doesn't happen even once here. I would expect that Bennett could have overcome sub-par arrangements at least once or twice on an eleven track album if he were motivated, which he obviously wasn't. It's also odd to think that there was a time when producers and bandleaders didn't "get" the Beatles and had no clue how to perform or interpret their work, look no further than this album for proof of that.

But is it the worst album ever, or even an abominable insult to human hearing, as it has been portrayed? There are at least three really good songs here, although the embarrassments do outnumber the winners. It definitely doesn't deserve to be unearthed as any kind of lost gem, but it's also not quite the disaster that I'd been led to believe it was. And I know I'll be in the minority on this, but I don't even mind the cover!

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