JUST WALK AWAY, RENEE: Renee Fleming Vs. Barb Jungr

Two famed vocalists
attempt to give the New American Songbook an upgrade. Only one of them turns
out to be successful, however.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

There really is no way to sort out whatever the New American
(or, maybe, Post-Rock Singer-Songwriter) Songbook is unless musicians who are
not performing/recording songwriters cover the compositions of those who are.
Especially needed are covers by those with trained voices, who can reveal to us
how memorable a song’s melodies and lyrical concerns are when stripped of the
vocal idiosyncrasies (or just plain limitations) of the composition’s
originators.

 

This is an old-fashioned concept, but we depend on such
singers to bestow legitimacy on pop tunes. With good reason. The financial
rewards of songwriting are so great, and the difficulty of filling up an album
so burdensome, that even the best songwriters compose and release a lot of
junk. And then marketing and hype take over, and who knows what will last and
what will be forgotten in year or two?

 

Presumably, Renee Fleming should know. An esteemed operatic
soprano, she’s already well-versed in the classical music that has lasted for
ages. (And she showed good taste in a foray into jazz and pop-leaning rock with
2005’s Haunted Heart.) So, when word
got out she was going to try to add mature-adult meaning to contemporary
indie-rock (and a few older selections) on Dark Hope (Decca; www.deccarecords-us.com), there was reason for optimism. After
all, to take a very different kind of voice as an example, isn’t that what
Johnny Cash did so successfully with his American
Recordings?
He singled-handedly made Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” a New American
Songbook classic.

 

But does Fleming actually understand these songs? More
important, does she like them – enough to offer producer David Kahne some input
into the right kind of arrangements for her? Kahne is a respected rock
producer, from Romeo Void to Regina Spektor, but producers need to understand
their artists. Listening to the cheesy, elevator-music string-and-synth
arrangement on Fleming’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a song not in
need of any more interpretations, at any rate), or the dated Laura
Branigan-style dance-pop of Muse’s “Endlessly,” and you wonder what kind of
instructions he had. Did Fleming just say, “Eh, whatever…”?

 

One asks this because it’s unclear how interested she is in
this project. As has been widely reported, Metallica’s management company came
to her with the idea. (That’s almost as strange as Gene Simmons managing Liza
Minnelli in the 1980s.)  Rather than find
songs fully suitable for her voice, Fleming lowered her range to handle the
chosen material. But she sounds outside it, turning Band of Horses’ “No One’s
Going to Love You” into something trivial and coming off disinterested and in a
hurry to finish on Death Cab For Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body.”

 

This album is more boring than kitschy – it’s no Pat Boone In a Metal Mood. Actually, one of its
kitschiest songs – The Mars Volta’s “With Twilight As My Guide” – is one of the
best, as she cuts loose to hit some high notes and Kahne finds a Goth-meets-Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show arrangement
to match. She also infuses Duffy’s “Stepping Stone” with some excitement when
she starts letting notes ascend like Jeff Buckley could do.

 

Fleming is 51, so one guesses she’s familiar with Jefferson
Airplane’s “Today,” Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your
Eyes” – all of which she covers – when they were FM-rock radio stalwarts in her
formative years. (“Hallelujah,” while from the 1980s, never really caught on
until spotlighted in Shrek and by
Jeff Buckley.) She seems comfortable
with them, but the unsympathetic arrangements weigh her down.

 

Whether or not anything here ever enters the New American
Songbook as a classic (“Hallelujah” already has), it’s doubtful Dark Hope will have much to do with it.

 

But Barb Jungr’s interpretations of songs by male
songwriters on her new album The Men I
Love
: The New American Songbook (Naim
Label; www.naimlabel.com, is going to
matter – a lot. This 56-year-old British song stylist brings the same kind of
warm, elegant clarity and effortlessly compelling dramatic intonation to her
singing as Emma Thompson does to her acting, and instantly establishes anything
she does as important.

 

Her background is varied – she is a songwriter and has
recorded tributes to other song stylists, like Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and
Elvis. But as a steadfast believer in alternative-cabaret, she has been
especially devoted to interpreting contemporary singer-songwriters in a
nightclub setting, with its emphasis on subdued and elegant, piano- and
string-based arrangements.

 

On The Men I Love, she uses that approach to show how much additional meaning (and musicality) can
be gotten out of songs by the likes of Talking Heads, Neil Diamond, Dylan,
Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Todd Rundgren, Bread and others when removed from
their familiar voices and arrangements.

 

That’s not to dismiss the originals – “Once in a Lifetime”
had a wonderful electro-tinged rock arrangement that has itself stood the test
of time.  But listen to Jungr slow it
down, almost to a hushed intimacy, caressing syllables rather than jerking them
the way David Byrne does, lowering her voice to state, “My God, what have I done,” like a confession. You will be moved by
the song as if it’s brand new.

 

The Men I Love isn’t searching for hipster cred in its song selection as Fleming’s album can
be accused of. Not with Bread’s “Everything I Own” or Diamond’s ancient “Red
Red Wine” (joined with Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”). Rather,
Jungr chooses songs because she believes they deserve a long musical life. Her
version of the David Gates-composed Bread song is straightforward, a good
chance for her to demonstrate the softness in her voice in its higher range,
and showcases the song’s stately simplicity.

 

She is also neither rock sentimentalist nor ironist. The
appeal to her of “The River” and Simon & Garfunkel’s anti-nostalgia “My
Little Town” is in the poignant melancholy of their stark portraits of America’s dying
industrial age. And she nails it.

 

“The River” always had one of Springsteen’s best bridges
(“but I remember us riding in my brother’s car…”) and Jungr handles it with
tremendous empathy and insight, without choking up or losing control or doing
anything that could be interpreted as playing for  listener sympathy.

 

“My Little Town” is a particular revelation, with its
opening piano chords sounding like tolling bells, because the song is so
underrated. When Simon & Garfunkel released it in 1975, part of a
short-lived reunion, it seemed like Paul Simon was trying to ruin the
excitement of the “comeback” by writing a downer song about a lifestyle he
didn’t know or like. But Jungr makes it so real, and the piano’s jazzy twists
emphasize how sturdy a melody the song has.

 

These two songs, Jungr’s interpretations establish, belong
in the New American Songbook not because they carry on the traditional song
craft values of Cole Porter or  Irving
Berlin, but because they told the truth. They got it right. And Jungr, as one
of our very best contemporary song stylists, indeed gets the truth out of
them…as she does with everything she sings.

 

[Photo of Renee
Fleming (L) by Andrew Eccles; Barb Jungr (R) by Steve Ullathorne]

 

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