New Spins on Standards
By Caroline Horn
Songs link us to special moments, events, and even historical eras. They root us in time. How, then, do some songs become timeless?
Fine craftsmanship is a large part of the answer. A classic song, often called a "standard," begins with a strong, distinct melodyone that is easy to learn and singaligned gracefully with lyrics that touch on some universal theme or feeling. These elements, along with a compelling debut by a popular singer, produce a song that will be sung by many generations, whether it is Rogers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" (1937) or the Beatles' "Yesterday" (1965).
The original recordings of classic songs have a period charm that can enrich our modern lives, much like that of an old movie or an antique desk. But to some people, these recordings may feel dated or seem uninteresting. Classic songs needn't sound passé, howeverwhen reinterpreted by contemporary recording artists, they can surprisingly fresh and sophisticated New versions often provide an updated context in which to appreciate timeless music, and can introduce us to songs that may not have caught our attention when played in their original form.
The results can be striking. One example is Red Hot + Blue (Chrysalis), a collection of rock and pop remakes of Cole Porter's music chosen for its broad appeal and recorded by such artists as U2, the Neville Brothers, and David Byrne. The compilation was produced as an AIDS-benefit album. Porter's songslike those of George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlinbegan as "show tunes" because, like most popular music before the rock-and-roll era, they were nearly always introduced in the theater. The electrified versions on the modern collection not only leave behind the coy style of early musicals but would also be right at home in the background at an up-to-the-minute party. The Glory of Gershwin (Mercury) brings together Sting, Cher, and Meat Loaf in a tribute that is equally novel.
Standards are periodically rediscovered, as performers search for new creative directions. Mining vintage material provides them with opportunities to experiment with different phrasing and styles. This is also the chief way for old repertoire to find new audiences.
Elvis Costello came to the fore more than two decades ago as a new-wave artist, but turned to Burt Bacharach for a collaboration titled Painted From Memory (Mercury) in 1998. Bacharach, a sixties composer had had a strong influence on Costello's singing style and well-shaped melodies; the work they did together reflected that influence, and also helped revive Bacharach's popularity. An album of various artists reinterpreting his pop gems (Burt Bachrach: One Amazing Night; N2K Encoded) was released later that year.
Likewise, Natalie Cole was known as a singer of soul and rhythm-and-blues singer until, in 1991, she released a duet of the classic song, "Unforgettable," (on the album of the same name; Elektra) that blends, through studio technology, her vocals with those of her late father, Nat "King" Cole. The success of this album launched a whole new career in standard repertoire for the younger Cole.
Reinterpretations can also reveal new facets of great songs. Aretha Franklin's recording of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (on Aretha Franklin: 30 Greatest Hits; Atlantic) is a fine example. In contrast to Simon and Garfunkel's ethereal 1970 original, her gospel rendition has an earthy passion. Gruff-voiced Tom Waits unexpectedly does something similar for "Somewhere" on Blue Valentine (Elektra). One of the most well-known musical selections from West Side Story, this song originally expressed the yearning of star-crossed lovers. But alongside Waits's own compositions about characters on the fringes of society, and sung with a hoarse desperation, the song and its line "there's a place for us" take on a darker poignancy.
Jazz artists routinely put their creative stamp on standards, relishing the form, melody, and chords of a good song while displaying their improvisational talents. A notable example is pianist Keith Jarrett's rendition of "My Wild Irish Rose" on The Melody At Night, With You (ECM). An old standby of elevator music and children's choirs, this song has become a cliché. But Jarrett infuses the melody with so much tenderness that, even performed without words, it blooms as an ode to love.
Songwriting is a remarkable gift, but people tend to forget that interpreting music is a talent in itself. Artists who are known for their songs often find that recording standards allows them to reveal a new side of their artistry. Rickie Lee Jones does this on her touching album of classics, Pop Pop (Geffen). And Joni Mitchell, one of our most respected pop composers, uses standards on her most-recent release, Both Sides Now (Reprise), to trace the path of a romantic affair from the initial flirtation ("You're My Thrill") to the aftermath ("I Wish I Were In Love Again"). Both artists phrase time-honored ballads with elegance and originality as though they had been singing them their whole lives.
A reinterpretation may also pay homage to an artist's early influences. Eric Clapton, for instance, is a rock legend who got his start by playing the blues. On From the Cradle (Warner Brothers), his album of blues standards, Clapton celebrated that heritage. Similarly, James Taylor (whose songs are standards in their own right) occasionally performs the work of fifties R&B artist Sam Cooke, honoring the master who inspired his casual, sincere delivery and rock inflections. Listen to Taylor's take on "Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha" (on New Moon Shine; Columbia) and "What A Wonderful World, a trio with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (on Garfunkel's Watermark; Columbia)
The revitalization of standards crosses genres and styles; even songs from classic Disney filmswhich many dismiss as children's dittieshave inspired memorable tributes. A collection of that music, Stay Awake (A&M), is an engaging album for listeners of any age.
Despite its novelty, any reinterpretation sets off nostalgic echoes. A familiar song transports us back to where and when we first heard it. In the end, that is the hallmark of a standard: it moves us again and again.
A Starter Collection
The following albums provide a varied introduction to reinvented classics.
Red, Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter
Various artists (Chrysalis)
Vibrant takes on Porter's witty, ironic songs. Pop innovator David Byrne makes his own wild anthem out of "Don't Fence Me In;" Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop personify today's blasé party-goers in their humorous update of the 1939 song "Well Did You Evah."
Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films
Various artists (A&M)
Songs that delighted us as children acquire grown-up personality. Bonnie Raitt's "Baby Mine" (from Dumbo) is full of heart; Peruvian singer Yma Sumac's "I Wonder" (Sleeping Beauty) and James Taylor's " Second Star to the Right" (Peter Pan) are transcendent.
The Glory of Gershwin
Various artists (Mercury)
A terrific tribute by contemporary musicians. Sting's frolicking "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is fun; Lisa Stansfield brings shades of her pop-and-R&B vocal style to "The Can't Take That Away From Me."
Both Sides Now
Joni Mitchell (Reprise)
Jazz-influenced stylings of standards, along with two of Mitchell's finest originals, are elegant against an orchestral backdrop. It is moving to hear her mature, sultry voice singing old-time standards "At Last" and "Stormy Weather" alongside her own "A Case of You."
I Am Sam: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture
Various artists (V2 Records)
Beatles songs instantly became classics. Here, they are lovingly redone by other voices. Howie Day slows down "Help!" to give it genuine poignancy, Grandaddy modernizes "Revolution," and Sarah McLachlan's hushed "Blackbird" feels like a lullaby.
Rickie Lee Jones (Geffen)
Evocative interpretations from a poetic singer-songwriter. This quiet, graceful album includes a heartfelt take on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" as well as an endearing version of "I Won't Grow Up" from Peter Pan.
© 2002 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.