December 27, 2011

Tony Bennett, Timeless and On Top of the World

Tony Bennett (photo courtesy of Josh Cheuse)
Tony Bennett doesn’t like to talk about his legacy. Maybe it’s just the humility in his character, but even after 60 years in the music business he continues to look ahead. “You’re only as good as your next show,” he likes to say.

In other words, the best is yet to come.

Truth be told, Bennett, 85, is too busy these days for any such reflection. He’s got a hit on his hands, Duets II, the first Number One album of his prolific career.

It’s also one of the few unqualified blockbusters of 2011… and maybe 2012, as the all-star collection—which features collaborations with the likes of Carrie Underwood, John Mayer, Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, and Amy Winehouse in what turned out to be her last recording—has garnered three nominations for the upcoming 54th Annual GRAMMY® Awards, including Traditional Pop Vocal Album.

Such achievements and accolades are but the latest testaments to Tony Bennett’s timeless, seemingly universal appeal.

“It’s always about growing with your audience,” says Danny Bennett, son of Tony and, in matters pertinent to his father’s career, his manager. “We don’t feel like we’re cranking out toothpaste,” he quips about the notion of marketing one of popular music’s all-time greats. “We’re helping propagate the art.”

And yet even a legend as renowned as Tony Bennett needs a game plan when it comes time to release an album. For Duets II, Danny explains, “We started [planning] in February 2010, strategically thinking, How do we make this different from Duets I? [Who] are the artists that we’re going to [use]? What does the marketplace look like? How is it different from when we were successful with that first record so we’re not just sitting on our laurels?”

Danny Bennett (photo courtesy of Kelsey Bennett)
Indeed, a host of factors and circumstances were considered—and as he recounts some of them in detail Danny makes his father’s offer 30 years ago to handle his business affairs seem like the wisest move in the world—but of most importance was that the album complement the current musical landscape without compromising the integrity of its artist. “It’s a balance between art and commerce,” he adds, affirming a philosophy he's found truth in despite musical trends and, on occasion, because of them.

In the mid-‘90s, an era in music which is often most associated with the propagation of grunge, Tony Bennett gained perhaps unlikely favor among Generation X, which embraced him as an elder statesman of hip. He was on MTV, appearing at the Video Music Awards and recording a performance with his quartet on MTV Unplugged; his LP of the latter won the GRAMMY© for Album of the Year in 1994. “If you think about it,” Danny says, “Tony in the ‘90s heralded in the iPod generation by presenting music and saying, ‘Guys, it’s okay. You can listen to Nirvana and Alice in Chains, but also Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett.’”

Such inclusive musical appreciation is not only supported by the diversity of artists on Duets II, but specifically, Danny maintains, by those who “grew up with hearing about Tony Bennett and learning about him through MTV Unplugged, not through the ‘50s or the ‘60s. So there are artists, like John Mayer and Carrie Underwood and Lady Gaga, who [have] looked at him as a role model.”

Duets II remains a bestseller over three months now after its release, which just goes to show that great music will never go out of style. Then again, neither will Tony Bennett. “How many artists, their greatest accomplishments are towards the end of their career as opposed to the beginning?” Danny reflects, sounding less like a business executive and more like a proud son. “I mean, that’s a pretty huge accomplishment.”

December 25, 2011

Album Review: James Morrison - The Awakening

From the 2007 release of his debut album, Undiscovered, British singer/songwriter James Morrison’s breakout hit “You Give Me Something” was a refreshing reminder that pop music could do with a little bit of unaffected soul among its more plastic-sounding concoctions. Singing at once raspy and rich, Morrison soon earned comparisons to a young Rod Stewart—in fact Morrison helped induct Rod the Mod into the now-defunct UK Music Hall of Fame in late 2006, singing “The First Cut is the Deepest” in his honor—which perhaps underscored what potential and emotive power lay in his voice. 

Morrison forged a comparable soul/pop sound on his 2009 follow-up, Songs For You, Truths For Me, but there were neither any indelible nor enduring standouts with anything near the conviction of his first single. 

However, a whole slew of highlights grace Morrison’s current LP, The Awakening (Universal Island Records), which is easily his strongest, most rewarding effort to date. Subtlety in this music is crucial—whether in the throwback R&B vibe of “6 Weeks” and “In My Dreams,” or in the solemn, gospel flavor of “Right By Your Side”—as the best moments are when the arrangements inspire Morrison’s vocal rather than define its course. “I Won’t Let You Go” is perhaps the prime example of this, as the song finds Morrison working for that proverbial supper, pushing and reaching not to hit a pitch-perfect note but rather some universal, gut-wrenching truth. 

The natural impulse of any ambitious artist is to take risks, to intentionally step out of their comfort zone. That Morrison challenges himself here, particularly with song structures and styles, is admirable even if some results don’t resonate as strong as others. Tracks like “Slave to the Music” and the reggae-styled “All Around the World,” for instance, are just too busy and distracting to the vocal altogether. 

Morrison is certainly not a complacent artist, though, and that not only serves him quite well on this latest album but should do so for ones to come. 

December 16, 2011

Adele's 21 is Album of the Year

“Rolling in the Deep” changed the game. The first time you heard it you just knew that this song – that voice – was going to be a big deal. Adele is sirenic and sexy, her will-not-be-denied resolve striking a visceral blow to every self-absorbed, woe-is-me lament clogging up millions of iPods around the world.

As an album, 21 achieves much the same impact. Many of its songs have become so familiar now that they risk sounding cliché – a mere 12 months after entering the pop landscape. Yet it continues to sell like nothing else in contemporary pop, further illustrating the extent to which this music resonates with people. Popularity doesn’t equate to quality, of course; longevity will speak more to that. But it’d be churlish not to recognize that with this album Adele has tapped into the universality of heartbreak in ways that are at once intensely personal and timelessly profound.

December 06, 2011

Album Review: Live LP Makes Sinatra's Best Even Better

Very few artists could inspire a retrospective called Best of the Best that actually lives up to its title; that actually comprises the creamiest cream of the crop. Then again, very few artists compare to Frank Sinatra.

Marking the first time such a compilation includes material from both Sinatra’s years at Capitol Records and at his own Reprise Records, the primary disc offers a most-gratifying overview of what is arguably the legend’s most fruitful periods. Twenty-three songs, this has, and not a dud in the bunch.

What makes this deluxe edition the one to get, though, is its second disc, '57 In Concert. Originally released as a live album and long since out-of-print, it boasts a complete performance recorded on June 9, 1957, at the Seattle Civic Auditorium. With Nelson Riddle conducting the orchestra, Sinatra is exquisite, delivering one highlight after another—“It Happened in Monterey,” “One For My Baby,” and “The Tender Trap” are but a few outstanding moments—with supreme cool and command. To say the man could work a room is an understatement; and listening to him here, engaging the audience with off-the-cuff asides between songs (and sometimes during them), is a real treat. That the gig sounds so well-preserved and pristine now only makes it all the more essential.