September 24, 1998|By GREG MORAGO
When America sees Bette Midler perform, it’s usually in stage and TV spectaculars that capitalize on her big, bawdy, naughty audaciousness — or should we say bodaciousness. Flash, trash and slash (the claws always seem just a tad too eagerly positioned), the Divine Miss M often comes off as a jeweled confection, albeit Pop Rocks.
What gets lost in these Vegasy endeavors is Midler’s keen musicality — her deep appreciation of the lyric, her actorly sense of timing, her emotive ways with the ballad and the sublime tenderness she confers on the love song.
“Bathhouse Betty,” Midler’s first album since 1995’s winning “Bette of Roses,” offers a telling glimpse into the softer side of what she calls her “cosmic fabulosity.” “Bathhouse” finds Midler leaning toward the wistful, melancholy, even fragile with the pretty “Song of Bernadette,” “That’s How Love Moves,” “Laughing Matters” and a slowed down “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.” In these numbers Midler inhabits the material with seductive grace and pop knowingness.
Still, the album is curiously packaged with each song coming off as a solo production number. There is no fluidity between the tracks, nothing to take you from the disco-tinged rap for white girls (“I’m Beautiful, Dammit!”) to the summer camp revue (“Ukelele Lady”) to the big band session (“I’m Hip”) to the oddly likable story song (Ben Fold’s “Boxing”). In the end one wonders if the material, some of which she’s performed live, exists to prop up the beautiful ballad called “My One True Friend,” groomed to championship finish for the score of the movie “One True Thing.”
Whatever, it’s always a pleasure to discover the depths of The Divine One, however fabulously scattered they may be.