Review: Barbra

Streisand's album of standards confirms her as the last of the great balladeers.

By Paul Lester, October 1, 2009
Who needs edginess? Streisand is reassuring fare for her millions of fans

Who needs edginess? Streisand is reassuring fare for her millions of fans

Love Is The Answer
Sony Music

With 140 million records sold, Barbra Streisand is the world’s most popular Jewish entertainer. She is also arguably the most popular entertainer among the world’s Jews. For a generation of a certain age she is unquestionably the last word in class and sophistication, and she has endured because she has continued to release music of quality and distinction without pandering to trends. Anyone expecting an album of high-tech R&B should probably alight here.

Streisand is her own market force — Love Is The Answer, her 32nd studio album in a recording career that reaches back to 1963, features just her first name on the cover above the title, but it could just as easily have been her surname only. None of today’s artists — not even Madonna, Britney or Beyoncé — could get away with that. Would you rush out to buy a CD bearing the moniker Ciccone? You would have no idea what you were getting.

You know what you are getting when you buy a Streisand LP, and Love Is The Answer does not disappoint in that respect — it is reassuringly familiar while being enough of a departure to warrant purchase. It is an album of jazz standards produced by Diana Krall, the contemporary jazz musician (and wife of Elvis Costello), and so, in a sense, it has one foot in the past and another in the present, with potential appeal to both young and old.

The album comes as a two-disc set, with the same songs on each, in the exact same sequence, only with different treatments.

On the first CD, the songs — evergreen classics such as In The Wee Small Hours, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Some Other Time from the musical On The Town — are afforded discreet, elegant orchestral arrangements by Johnny Mandel, who has worked with everyone from Count Basie to Frank Sinatra, with a little help from younger arrangers William Ross and Anthony Wilson, an up-and-coming jazz composer.

The second CD features quartet versions of the tracks, stripped down to a piano and guitar, bass and drums accompaniment, on which Streisand, already up close and conversational, achieves a delightful warmth and intimacy.

The composer credits read like a who’s-who of 20th-century songwriting legends: Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Jacques Brel, Michel Legrand… The album was recorded at the famous Capitol Tower, a venue synonymous with artists such as Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. In fact, it is the memory of Sinatra’s vaunted late-’50s albums of melancholy, lovelorn ballads for the Capitol label that is most obviously evoked here.

Without forcing the point, what Love Is The Answer does is remind listeners that Streisand is the last in that lineage of post-war stylists who took the best songs of their era and made them their own. By revisiting these standards, previously sung by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, she picks up the torch from the all-time great torch singers.

A bit like the recent LP collaborations between Neil Diamond and hip hop/heavy metal producer Rick Rubin, which reaffirmed Diamond’s worth by removing all vestiges of showbiz glitz and camp, on Love Is The Answer producer Krall takes Streisand back to her roots so that she might make sense to a young audience. It is less a reinvention, more a restatement of first principles.

And she goes all the way back — Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most is a song that Streisand first sang when she was 18. But unlike the latterday work of, say, Judy Garland, with Streisand you never get the sense of an artist in decline. There is pathos here, but she is never pathetic; even the closest microphone work reveals a woman who has lived life, but not been ravaged by it.

As ever, you are startled by the clarity of her vocals and the richness of her tone. Her lower register is perhaps mellower, but that has given her an even greater resonance. Streisand has clearly taken care of her voice during her 50-year career. But then, that is precisely why she has lasted. She has never succumbed to the usual showbusiness temptations.

What is reassuring about Streisand is her comforting lack of daring. She was always too much of a professional to risk it all then, and she is not about to do so now.

Last updated: 2:54pm, February 18 2011