Crooners get mixed results with covers
By Misha Berson
Seattle Times arts critic
Some voices are so distinctive you recognize the singer from the very first
notes they croon.
Al Green, Bette Midler, Cassandra Wilson and Ronald Isley (lead voice of
solid-soul group The Isley Brothers) each belong in that elite category of
vocal uniqueness. And all happen to have new discs out, which aim to confirm
their special place in the pop vocal pantheon, or reclaim it.
“Isley Meets Bacharach” (Dreamworks)
Many singers adore Burt Bacharach’s trademark hits from the ’60s and ’70s,
and some (Elvis Costello, Luther Vandross) have lovingly reinterpreted them
But no one invests Bacharach’s music and Hal David’s lyrics with more
aching, yearning soulfulness than Ronald Isley, the veteran R&B man who
shines throughout this choice collection.
With Bacharach at the piano, playing and conducting his own refined
arrangements, Isley wends his serpentine way through “Alfie” and “Make It
Easy on Yourself,” “The Look of Love” and “A House is Not a Home,” teasing
out and embellishing ballads first made famous by Dionne Warwick and Dusty
Biting sharply into some lyrics, lifting others into the shivery regions of
a feathery falsetto, Isley really stretches out and explores every tune. But
he doesn’t bury them in vocal bric-a-brac.
There are two new Bacharach compositions here — “Count on Me” and “Love’s
(Still) the Answer,” both with lyrics by Tonio K. But it’s the
Bacharach-David standards that make this session such a treasure. Isley even
gives that old Carpenters hit “Close to You” some sizzle and smolder.
“Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook” (Columbia)
An homage to a singer, as much as her material, Midler’s new recording
rounds up ballads and novelty tunes associated with the great Clooney, who
died last year.
It’s the latter which suit Midler most, and which should be part of the live
show she’ll bring to Seattle’s KeyArena in February.
When applying her Divine Miss M. sass and snazz to “Mambo Italiano,”
“Sisters” and “Come On-A My House,” Midler charms aplenty.
Acceptable, but blander, are Midler’s careful treatments of some tender
standards popularized by Clooney — first in her pop-star days, and later as
a jazz artist of subtlety and grace.
Midler’s mild renderings of “You’ll Never Know,” “Hey There” and “Tenderly”
are fine, but just can’t match Clooney’s warm immersions into the songs.
Then again, Rosie’s a pretty hard act for any “girl singer” to follow.
Cassandra Wilson, “Glamoured” (Blue Note)
Taking a Gaelic word for “bewitched” as the title of her new album,
Cassandra Wilson wants to sweep listeners into a state of reverie on her new
assemblage of blues, folk, pop and original tunes.
That Wilson does, primarily through the shamanic power of her husky, musky
alto. And she’s supported on this venture (recorded in the singer’s hometown
of Jackson, Miss.) by the evocative textures of the small combo backing her,
with acoustic guitar and accents of harmonica, banjo and washboard.
Especially spell-casting are Wilson’s covers of the ethereal Sting ode
“Fragile,” and Willie Nelson’s blues-tinged torch song, “Crazy.” (In her
version, crazy-in-love is a fine state of affairs.)
The results are intriguing, if less fully satisfying, when Wilson tackles
Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” (what happened to the melody?), and the
philosophical Abbey Lincoln anthem, “Throw It Away” (in tandem with acoustic
Half of the dozen cuts here are originals by Wilson, a variable lot. But
whatever she sings in this set (which recalls the smoky ambience of her
first big seller, “Blue Light in the Basement”) works its way through your
bloodstream. And Wilson’s voice can be sultry tonic for a chilly winter
Al Green, “I Can’t Stop” (Blue Note)
The Rev. Al Green is in the house, and he can’t stop cooing and crowing, in
this jubilant reunion disc with the producer-writer who first showcased his
genius, Willie Mitchell.
When Green and Mitchell teamed up in Memphis this year, to make their first
secular record together since 1976, they turned back the R&B clock.
Adorning this full slate of new tunes are all the musical hallmarks of their
early hits “Let’s Stay Together” and “Love and Happiness”: the tight,
punching horns, the hovering Hammond organ, the call-and-response backup
What’s striking on “I Can’t Stop” is that Green doesn’t sound as good as he
did in the ’70s: He sounds better. He still hollers, testifies and uncorks
that unearthly falsetto. But at age 57, his voice now seems heartier, more
The workmanlike songs he and Mitchell penned for this outing don’t match
Green’s vocal fire, or earlier smashes — though “Not Tonight” and “My
Problem Is You” are catchy enough to be potential break-out singles.
But young soul fans and elders alike can find much to love here, from a
singular soul artist who melds secular sensuality and religious fervor into