SOUND OFF: Barbra Streisand & WHAT MATTERS MOST
Only once in a lifetime does a talent like hers arise and only one in a billion of us ascends to this level of legendary as far as history is concerned - yet, here with an anomalous, unique new album to go with the seventy that have come before it is the voice of a generation, Barbra Streisand. The new album, WHAT MATTERS MOST: Barbra Streisand Sings The Lyrics Of Alan & Marilyn Bergman, is as much a touching tribute as a touchstone in her unparalleled career in the recording industry. Never before - not even on GUILTY or WET - has Barbra sounded this lush, loose, relaxed and, well, sexy. There is a mood to this album that is entirely unique in her catalogue and the ebbs and flows and waves and crashes and climaxes are all here to hear and experience. It is a romantic getaway of an album- a weekend, alone, off the grid. It would seem impossible for a performer of Streisand's stature to do something new while carrying it off so effortlessly - as with almost all aspects of her multi-dimensional talents - but she does so on this album. It is elegant, carefree, yet passionate and moving. It has moments of playful courting, coursing emotions and some off-the-course frolics. While Disc 1 is superb, the true experience comes along with the Deluxe Edition with Disc 2 and all of the classic Bergman tracks she has recorded over her forty-year-career. Once is not enough for so many of these classic songs. You'll want to hear them repeatedly- and the first disc is the ideal companion. Together? An ecstatic coupling, if ever there were any.
What We Were & Are, Again & Again
Once is not enough. When you are the singular musical talent of your generation you have no one to impress anymore. It has been a particular joy since the turn of the century to see Barbra Streisand begin to reveal her laid-back, relaxed side on albums such as A LOVE LIKE OURS and last year's simply flawless double-disc LOVE IS THE ANSWER, as well as her endearing appearances on OPRAH, LARRY KING and elsewhere. Yet, after last year's beyond-reproach Diana Krall-produced collection of jazz and Broadway standards, we are lucky enough to have ten new tracks to go along with ten classic tracks from the pens of the married friends who happen to have been dear friends of Ms. Streisand's for many years, the Bergmans. Believe it or not, an album so seemingly spontaneous in its conception, while absolutely pristine in its polished, precise delivery on record (as is always to be expected, though Barbra sounds the best she has since BACK TO BROADWAY nearly twenty years ago here, which is certainly saying something significant in and of itself). Lest we forget, THE WAY WE WERE album, not to be confused with the soundtrack of the motion picture of the same name though they both share the Marvin Hamlisch/Alan & Marilyn Bergman title song, was originally intended to be a concept album of sorts with music entirely by Michel Legrand and lyrics entirely by Marilyn & Alan Bergman. While the grand collaborative project of their dreams would not be realized until YENTYL, the album yielded a handful of the most lushly romantic and eerily evocative album cuts of her entire career - the majority of which have been ported over to this new release's second disc (although, to be perfectly honest, I would have liked "Summer Me, Winter Me" to be included in lieu of YENTYL material or "The Island"). From the very first moments of Disc 1, it seems clear that the idea of a concept album tracing a relationship from its first glances over candlelight through the entire journey of a relationship to its eventual end has finally been enacted. Evidently, the first track states the theme - as happens in many great symphonies - and then the story the songs tell reveal their ecstasies as the album plays out to its conclusion.
Song order is surely essential to the listening experience, and hearing the entire two-disc set as summer comes to a close like I did and it is - particularly with the aforementioned first track surprise stand-out stunner, along with the haunting Legrand composed "The Summer Knows" playing out near the end of Disc 2 as its parallel, in its way - it feels quite like a summer romance always destined to be. Just like this. And, like all great affairs: doomed to end, as well - with a longing, heartfelt, tender kiss goodbye. But, first: hello (gorgeous).
"The Windmills Of Your Mind" from THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR is one of the most instantly-recognizable soundtrack themes from films of the 1960s, so for Streisand to reinvent it in a stirring, dramatic and satisfying way such as this is actually merely the very first of its multitude of glories. The second, no doubt, is the sensitive, sensuous arrangement. Opening in silence; then, the word round, as the first verse plays out in a stark, nearly unadorned arrangement; the evocation is at once hypnotic and high drama. As the melody spirals like the lyrics it intones, the violins and strings work alongside Streisand's voice and they then enter into a sensual, erotic dance. Yet, above all else, it is the timbre and tone of her instrument- here and throughout Disc 1 (and the classic tracks on Disc 2, natch) - and the way she paints the surreal story of the psychedelic lyrics - what matters most to Barbra when recording a song; and, without question, what fans want most from her new recordings - is what really makes "Windmills" perhaps her finest single of the new century. It undoubtedly ranks with the very best - the highest echelon - of Streisand's work, which is to say: WHAT MATTERS MOST is one of the finest listening experiences of her recording legacy for those tuned-in and turned-on to her timeless talent. Listen to the opening track for yourself as a sample and see if you don't agree - and then let the rest arrest you with its seductive, softly insinuating songs and soundscapes. All of this adulation, and that's just the first ten percent! Unquestionably, a superlative recording as strong as "Windmills" could have been released as a stand-alone single, solo, without an album attached to it and still pack a powerful punch. More than many - maybe any - Streisand recording to date, the enunciation of every sibilance and syllable gives it the added layer of allure and sensuality. It is without a doubt the perfect introduction to the alternately moody, moving, majestic, titillating and touching material that makes up WHAT MATTERS MOST.
Equal parts arresting, assured and arousing - each track continues on from "Windmills" to illustrate a story of passion, joy, appreciation and spiritual transcendence. Following the stirring drama of the opener, the next selection sets the tone for many of the tracks to come with an impassioned and expressive rendering of the powerful "Something New In My Life". Next the mood moves to sweet anticipation and longing lust in a sumptuous and supremely sexy "Solitary Moon". Then, amidst oh-so-playful intimacy, the story's coupling reaches its apotheosis in "Nice N Easy". "Alone In The World" is the appreciation for the satisfaction gained and received and returned through love, experience and mere chance in this relationship (and Barbra‘s) - the emotion is almost overflowing, but tenderly. So tenderly. By half way through Disc 1 you realize that not only does Streisand sound the best she has in decades - which is certainly the highest compliment that can be paid to the absolute best recording artist alive, then and now - but, also, it is amply evident that she has a palpable affection for the material she is singing on WHAT MATTERS MOST and that, in particular, brings the entire affair that extra special element of magic that makes it really soar. For example, take the "Sleep inside my arms / Kiss the world away" section of the aforementioned "Alone In The World" and you have a passage to rank alongside her very finest recorded work of the last fifty years. This is a pinnacle. There are many moments of heart-stopping brilliance throughout and the entire tone and mood and theme is sustained in such a measured and exacting way as to create a real mood piece - a concept album with the emphasis on conception - particularly when taking into consideration the addition of all the songs on the second disc; each singularly masterful and singled out as such.
But, back to the rest of WHAT MATTERS MOST: "So Many Stars" displays Barbra's light, breezy side and the bossa nova beat compliments her seemingly casual but surely studied interpretation of the lyric in a particularly seductively swinging way - think chic 1960s cocktail hour. Bonus points for the caliente reading of the Portuguese lyrics! This may be many listener‘s favorite song to go along with the first. You‘ll instantly know why when you hear it - it captures, if only for a fleeting moment, the feeling of those great recordings from the start of her career - just as LOVE IS THE ANSWER sporadically managed to do last year. It‘s gold. "The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye" is the type of song only the Bergmans seem to write anymore - and who better than the prime interpreter of the Great American Songbook material to sing it? Some may snipe at the overriding saccharine sweetness, but the mature sophistication that Streisand brings to material that could so easily become treacherously maudlin in almost anyone else's hands and chords is one of the many, many pleasures that her Third Age of recording has brought. I mean, the "Must you and I / Say the same goodbye / Again?" is yet another example of a moment to stand tall, arm in arm, with the best of her catalogue. She is in it to win it this time - and you can tell. And hear it. And feel it. And, it's so exhilarating in exaction and exceptional on reflection. The close of the album comes in a triptych: "That Face" starts as a "Smile"-esque daydream before majestically morphing MGM-style into a raucously appealing cool jazz tune - with Barbra amping up the build with enough belting to buoy the notion that she is a Broadway baby, through and through, to this very day - now and forever. "I'll Never Say Goodbye" and "What Matters Most" are the thoughtful, introspectively intrinsic entities that bring the entire album all together- a bit like a chocolate box and roses unexpectedly arriving to you the morning after; love note attached - and, additionally, give it a healthy supply of spiritual and philosophical gravitas in the span of two inspiring and succulent songs. The collective impact of emotions, thoughts and ideas expressed in this exceptional selection of songs is even greater and richer and more moving than the individual parts taken together - but, oh, what engrossing and enlivening individual entities!
On WHAT MATTERS MOST, Barbra Streisand adds yet another major masterpiece to stand alongside MY NAME IS BARBRA, THE BROADWAY ALBUM, THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM, THE WAY WE WERE, and last year's deluxe edition of LOVE IS THE ANSWER, as the finest full-length albums of her recording career.
All in all, what really matters most here and now is that Barbra Streisand is back in the studio, somehow better and more committed to her craft than ever before - and making music that astounds, confounds and arouses as it wraps its arms around us. A throwback to her albums of the 60s and 70s - and something new, too.
It's an enveloping and lingering hug - made especially for those among us who are more than merely friends....