Renee Fleming – Dark Hope

January 01, 1970

(Decca)

 

www.deccarecords-us.com

 

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 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.

 

Standout
Tracks:
“With Twilight As My Guide,” “Stepping Stone” BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

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