Top critical review
11 people found this helpful
There have been better days
on 1 March 2003
So what would a music fan make of this collection of standards who approaches the album from, say, the jazz world? Many of these ten tracks are as meat and drink to that fraternity. "Where or When" and "You've changed" are part of the territory that jazzers have roamed over and reinterpreted ever since those songs were written. And it is increasingly common among jazz vocalists to incorporate recent material from pop and rock into their jazz repertoires. It's said that the attraction of these songs is timeless and crosses generations. George Michael is welcomed on to a well-trodden route because there are musical riches there. How does he do?
My verdict is that his is a fair to middling stab, overcoming my initial deep misgivings. You see, I first sampled "I Remember You", a beautiful melody which here is a dreadful track. It displays one shortcoming of this selection, namely that George and his co-producer, Phil Ramone, can view music from the past as a period piece, requiring lush arrangements from a bygone age: there's a harp on this track, for goodness sake. In his liner notes, Ramone writes "The song is the survivor". Not here, Phil: it sank in treacle.
Another flaw in their treatment is evident in "My Baby Just Cares For Me"; dating from 1930, it is the oldest song from the last century on the album. The best-known version is Nina Simone's arrangement of a quarter-century later: audiences in clubs clamour for it. And George Michael obliges, as if this Walter Donaldson melody cannot be done any other way. (In fact, it is written with a natural swing feel, rather than Simone's famous clompy rythym.) The same goes for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" where George sticks close by Roberta Flack's seminal reading rather than looking afresh at Euan MacColl's folk original. And Simone is the source again for "Wild is the Wind". Just be grateful, however, that he steered away from the siren-call of Frank Ifield's 1962 take on "I Remember You". The first song in Britain to sell a million copies, it yodelled Mercer's lyric straight on to the rocks of a Tyrolese nightmare.
None of this detracts from the quality of either singing or instrumentation. The adjective "nice" applies itself quite naturally to many tracks. George's tenor voice is appealing, disciplined, and his phrasing - crucial in this kind of material - is quite interesting. But revelation there is none: he hasn't really seen anything new in these songs. Although they stretch from the 1930s to the 90s, only with the two most recent tunes, "Roxanne" and "Ms Sarajevo", does George feel able to pull away into something a bit novel. "Roxanne" becomes a medium swing number, and the musical intelligence that could have done so much elsewhere, presents this Police number very nicely.
The recent forays into the Great American Songbook by artists as different as Rod Stewart and Kiri te Kanawa reflect its enduring appeal among musicians. But the commercial success of Norah Jones and Eva Cassidy with modern songs in the spirit of standards shows not only that the public retains an appetite for well-crafted songs. It also shows that the quality lies in the way they are handled, not in the concept. On this hoary old route into the past, the market rewards the artist who takes the path less travelled. George Michael et al, take note.