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Monday, 15 August 2011

When Barbra Streisand Sings "What Matters Most" Is A Consummate Collection

By Allison Waldman - Barbra Streisand Examiner

With her last studio album, "Love Is the Answer," Barbra Streisand not only delivered a beautiful song set and re-embraced the jazz-cabaret clubs of her youth, she also achieved the kind of legendary success that's made her the star of stars. "Love Is the Answer" debuted at the top of the charts, giving America's First Voice the distinction of having had number one albums -- not songs -- in five decades, from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Well, it's now the 2010s — and if there is any justice, Streisand's new CD, "What Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan & Marilyn Bergman" will equal or surpass the success of her last number one. Quite simply, Streisand has delivered a ten-song collection of the work of her dearest friends, the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, with the kind of respect, love and passion that imbues her best work.

"What Matters Most" comes as almost a surprise; an album of songs which she's never sung before. A gift that was meant as a tribute to the Bergmans, but becomes a treat for the listener. If you love good music, if you long for songs that say something about life, love, relationships and what is this thing called love, if you want Streisand in her balladic best tradition as an actress in song, then don't wait. Go now online and buy "What Matters Most" and be good to yourself.

Produced by Barbra herself, "What Matters Most" shows us that she continues to possess the voice of a wondrous Stradivarius, the skill as a consummate actress and the intelligence of a fine director -- all wrapped up in one amazing package. Song by song, she's both the character and the music, essaying the Bergmans deceptively straightforward lyrics with a depth that few singers can match.

Therefore, let's take it song by song:

"The Windmills of Your Mind" -- How do you start an album like you never have before? For Barbra Streisand, that's a tough question. But the answer is the audacious, a cappella opening to "The Windmills of Your Mind." Do you wonder about the Streisand voice, how it sounds as she approaches age 70? Listen to this song and be prepared to be wowed. Pure, strong, tone intact, subtle and vibrant, Barbra has retained the diamond quality and enveloping tone that we have loved since "Happy Days Are Here Again." This Oscar-winning song by Michel Legrand and the Bergmans has been sung and recorded by countless other artists. And yet, Barbra waited to do it now and, thus, it sounds completely new. The lyrics to "Windmills" are like a Salvador Dali dream, what do they mean? What are the images evoking? Barbra's interpretation punctuates the words that are the most important like the way she says "over" in "When you knew that it was over." And on her lips, "the color of his hair" is an allusion to Steve McQueen who starred in the film for which the song was written, "The Thomas Crown Affair." Another point to admire in "Windmills" are the specific choice of words the Bergmans use; in "the world is like an apple, whirling silently in space," it's not spinning, it's whirling. And "pictures hanging in a hallway in a half-forgotten dream," it's half-forgotten that's haunting in its wordplay. By the end of Streisand's almost minimalist approach, "The Windmills of Your Mind" has become a song of profound sadness that you will not soon forget.

"Nice and Easy" -- With the wonderful "Nice and Easy," Streisand wisely applies her take on a song that's completely Frank Sinatra's domain. In Old Blue Eye's version, the song is about falling in love; it's bright, bubbly, finger-snapping and playful. In Streisand's reading, "Nice and Easy" is about making love…from a woman's point of view. If Frank was singing of a date, Streisand is singing of a seduction. He was dancing, she's in bed. The difference only makes the song that much more fun. Two masters who've given the same lyric completely viable renditions -- and then sang them beautifully. Barbra's emphasis on certain words and phrases, take on new meaning, like "hold your horses" and "falling into place." And her warm, rich vocal is, well, just like buttah! And if you don't think she's having fun with it, listen close to hear her vamp with the horns. That's a singer at home with the music.

"So Many Stars" -- So many popular singers just don't take to singing in a different language, but for Streisand, it's just another arrow in her quiver, another way for her to elevate a song to something more. With the Sergio Mendes tune "So Many Stars," Barbra's in a Brazilian beat, swaying to the enchanting music, and going for the gusto as she takes the Bergman lyrics into Portuguese. Just for the record, that makes eight different languages for Barbra music; she's already sung in English, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian, German and Hebrew. But it's not the foreign phrases that give "So Many Stars" its élan. It's the almost "Yentl-esque" quality of the Bergmans and Barbra's collaboration. Singing "Which star is meant for me" Barbra reminds us of Yentl questioning the universe as she prayed in "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" But here, the song is not a prayer, it's a dance. Streisand glides. She's so fluid and into the beat… she must do an album of samba music.

"Something New In My Life" -- Bergman songs have heart. They mean something. As sung by Barbra on this CD, "Something New In My Life" becomes a love song to a child. It may not be what Streisand will confess, but this is a love song to her son, Jason Gould. It is hard to not imagine that words like, "Whatever else I may do in my life, you'll always be the something new in my life, from now on…" are not her dedication to him, the most constant love of her life. In a lifetime of accomplishment and great works, to this day, Streisand will point to Jason as her grandest feat. That's love, and "Something New in My Life" is her way to say it with music.

"That Face" -- Just like "Nice and Easy" will always be Sinatra's, "That Face" is just so Fred Astaire. But Barbra finds herself right at home in Fred's jaunty idiom. "That Face" soars. It swings. It's buoyant and fun and "intox-ox-oxicating" on many levels. Again, the song may be about nobody in particular; she's a singer and may simply be imagining what Alan was thinking when he used the song to ask Marilyn to marry him. And still I think the face in Streisand's song is Jim Brolin's; the face she sees on her pillow every night.

"Alone In the World" -- Love songs are a Barbra stock in trade, and in "Alone in the World," she shares with us another relationship of want and need and connection. Accompanied by trumpet soloist Chris Botti, Barbra takes us to that secret place where we can pretend we're all alone in the world with one special person.

"Solitary Moon" -- Another gorgeous love song, another undiscovered gem. With that soulful, samba beat, Barbra seduces us with this one, teasing with the words as she sings of romance like few singers can. There's a joyful, sensuous quality here that calls for rapt attention.

"I'll Never Say Goodbye" -- You can almost imagine that Barbra Streisand heard "The Promise" ("I'll Never Say Goodbye") and stashed it away as a song to do in the future. The future is now and here it is, a big fat great love song. It's intense, romantic and deeply satisfying. Barbra pushes a bit, and doesn't have super radial-tire strength to belt at the top as she did when she was singing about parades, but the emotional kick of "The Promise" packs a wallop when sung through her prism. She makes you believe with the actress she is. She is in the moment. It's the right effort. "I'll never say goodbye…" and she holds the note — on an octave leap —as if forever.

"The Same Hello, the Same Goodbye" -- In many ways, this is like "Where Do You Start?" another wonderful Bergman lyric, another examination of how hard it is to stay in love and not just fall in love. This song was going to be Sinatra's, but as much as he loved it, he never got around to singing it. For Barbra, it's another showpiece moment, a chance to give the Bergmans words resonance, as there's so much more to the words than just what's being sung. With a beautiful John Williams tune, Barbra takes us into the heart of a complicated relationship where there are no easy answers.

"What Matters Most" -- There was nothing subtle about the over-emotionality of the Jon Voight film "The Champ," which is where the song "What Matters Most" derives. But here, Barbra's take on "What Matters Most" is a paean to friendship. This one is truly for the Bergmans; this is their journey. And in the 50 year collaboration, encompassing 63 songs, "What Matters Most" is not the hits or the awards or the fortune they've shared together and singer and songwriters, what matters most is that they loved each other through it all. The Bergmans were there when Barbra was 18; they're there for Streisand now at 69. But in between has been a lifetime of love and collaboration and accomplishment. "What Matters Most" sums it all up and, as Barbra hoped, it leaves us with the lingering thought. That is, all great friendships should be like theirs.

And for me, my final lingering thought… how lucky we are that we live in the time of Barbra Streisand, an artist who continues to grow, evolve, entertain and illuminate. I can't wait to hear and see what she does next…but until then, I'll be playing "What Matters Most" again and again.

On my rating scale, "What Matters Most" is an "A" all the way.

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