Barb Jungr – The Men I Love: The New American Songbook

January 01, 1970

(Naim Label)


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


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?


Barb Jungr’s interpretations of songs by male songwriters on
her new album The Men I Love: The New American Songbook won’t be
forgotten anytime soon. 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 (unlike, say, opera singer
Renee Fleming’s recently released Dark
; see review here). 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.


Standout Tracks: “Once
in a  Lifetime,” “My Little Town” BY STEVEN ROSEN



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