Side one of Bette Mildler’s second Lp makes a strong case for the Divine Miss M’s pre-eminence as a torch singer nonpareil. Yet her approach, while reverent, is thoroughly modern. As a result, wrenching and beautiful piano-led (pianist: B. Manilow) takes on songs by Carmichael, Mercer, Brecht-Weill, etc. sound of a piece with those by contemporary singer-songwriters. (I wonder what the woman could have done with a set of Randy Newman covers?) Admirable diversity comes in the form of a funky “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” and a soulful “I Shall Be Released”, demonstrating what Rolling Stone called her ability to find the “emotional center” of the song, even while the latter is marred by some too-jaunty piano fills and breathy over-emoting during the final third. The second side, however, trades in the parched nostalgia of an arch Ethel Merman that I, for one, can do without.
An interesting illustration of the contrasting American and British approaches to art in general can be gleaned by comparing Bette Midler with Bryan Ferry’s no-less-camp first solo album, “These Foolish Things”, which came out the same year. Both albums contain tunes from the Tin Pan Alley-era songbook, some soul covers, teen angst and a Dylan. Yet, conceptualised in a way born of decadence and a tremulous, limited singing ability, Ferry brutally (and often hilariously) recasts his covers program with a high degree of personality and perversity; whereas Midler, hampered by a reverence and technical finesse beyond Ferry, renders her version of the oldies artifice stale, at least on side two. Put another way: Americans use technique to arrive at a style and the British follow the precise opposite route, delighting in an aesthetic frivolity opposed to exacting and sentimental recreation. Why this is broadly (though, obviously, not always) so probably has something to do with the conditions of our respective empires, i.e. faded (UK) and just peaked (US), but that’s for another article.
While it has been argued that Ferry’s approach serves to diminish “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “These Foolish Things” to the level of “It’s My Party” (rather than Midler’s converse but likewise bold elevation of “Da Doo Run Run” to the status of “I Shall Be Released” and “Skylark”), I still know which album I’ll be listening to more often.
Spotted at Lord Whiskey in Rhodes Minnis yesterday as I cycled back from dropping off the car for servicing in Elham, I was moved, for the second time in three days, to buy based on the presence of Arif Mardin behind the producer’s desk.