(Sub) Standards

american classic

Here’s an example of why I’m really growing weary of the so-called Great American Songbook.

One of the all-time great singers and original outlaws of country music, Willie Nelson, recently released a new album, called American Classic. It’s just the latest example of a great vocalist squandering his talent on tepid renditions of over-played hotel-lounge pap– or Rod Stewart Syndrome, if you prefer. That Nelson would choose to record an album of pop standards at this point in his career is unsurprising– after all, he did it once before, and the resulting Stardust remains one of his biggest hits. Besides, in recent years, Nelson has shown a willingness to try just about anything, and the results have ranged from the sublime (Songbird, his terrific collaboration with Ryan Adams) to bewildering (Countryman, his ganja-toting reggae album), but they’ve never, ever been boring.

Well, at least not until now. Perhaps it’s time for Nelson to start being just a bit pickier about the kinds of projects he takes on. For the first time in a long time, Nelson has made an album that’s simply a big, dreadful bore. Unless you’ve never heard of Cole Porter before, or have never listened to any jazz-lite standards albums, the songs on American Classic will offer zero surprises: “The Nearness of You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Always on My Mind,” and so on. They’re not necessarily bad songs, mind you, but they’re vastly overexposed, and Nelson doesn’t do anything even slightly original with them: The performances here are the stuff of polite, cocktail part ambience, all tinkling pianos and lightly brushed percussion.

I’m not sure why a singer and songwriter as great as Nelson would waste his time on something as useless as this. But then, I’m not sure why anyone still thinks these songs have anything new to offer the world. What’s especially frustrating is that there are talented songwriters in the world who are writing brand new songs that deserve to become new American popular standards– including a couple that I’ve been talking about quite a bit recently. Paul Burch, the honey-tongued crooner with a penchant for honky-tonk and parlor songs alike, has a new album out called Still Your Man, and all of its fourteen songs sound so timeless that it isn’t hard to imagine them becoming staples years and decades down the line: His “Still Your Man” is funnier and more charming than anything on Nelson’s album, and “Falling” is so simple and effervescent that it makes you wish Sam Cooke would rise from the grave to perform his own version of it. Meanwhile, I dare you to find a song as devastatingly sad as Richard Hawley‘s “Valentine,” a booming break-up ballad that could have been a career-maker for any pop vocalist of the 1940s or 50s.

But aside from the songwriters themselves, no one is singing those songs. Instead we get rehashes of tired tunes, like Nelson’s album, or the recent offering from vocalist Jaimee Paul. Her At Last is essentially the same song, second verse of Nelson’s American Classic: If you’ve ever heard the Etta James warhorse that gives the album its name, or songs like “Cry Me a River,” “What a Difference a Day Makes,” or “Summertime,” her sleepy, elevator-ready arrangements will immediately fade into the background. And then there’s her closing selection, “Over the Rainbow,” which could legitimately be termed Judy Garland karaoke.

But in the interest of fairness, I should point out that, tired though they may be, these old standards do still– rarely– yield some stirring results. Earlier this year, an up-and-coming jazz singer named Melody Gardot released a very fine album called My One and Only Thrill, which mixed orchestral pop with folk and jazz traditions. She also concluded her record with “Over the Rainbow”– only she transformed the song into something entirely different, the best rendition of the song in years precisely because it sounds different from all the others. It’s not just a cover– it’s an interpretation. We could do with more of those. Now, somebody get her Paul Burch’s phone number, and maybe Gardot herself will end up being the next American classic.

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  1. Willie Nelson: “Country Music” « The Hurst Review - April 19, 2010

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