Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Can't Hear You

In theory, music reviewers approach every new album as a piece of freshly created art, with no preconceptions about the quality of what they are about to hear. And if you believe that, I have a stupendous new Christmas album from Barry Manilow to sell you. The reality is that we bring all kinds of preconceptions and life experiences to the proceedings, and sometimes they mess with the music. Sometimes it’s impossible to hear the new notes because of the racket from the past that is playing in our heads.

Take Shelby Lynne as a case in point. Shelby Lynne is a fine singer and songwriter, and I’ve enjoyed her previous albums, which have featured a heady mixture of counry, folk, blues, and Southern soul. But when I heard that Shelby Lynne was going to release a covers album featuring the songs of Dusty Springfield, the alarm bells went off in my head. Dusty Springfield meant Burt Bacharach, and Burt Bacharach is the single most wretched songwriter in the universe. Yeah, I know. A lot of people love Burt Bacharach. He’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an award that is mystifying on several fronts, not only because he’s the King of Schlock, but also because he was almost always paired with a lyricist who routinely came up with gems like “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near,” a sentiment so ludicrous that I want to sic Alfred Hitchcock on him every time I hear it. The roster of singers who have had hits with Burt Bacharach songs is enough to send me into a full-fledged depression: Dionne Warwick, Christopher Cross, Neil Diamond, B.J. Thomas, The Carpenters, The 5th Dimension, Perry Como, Tom Jones, and Herb Alpert. And yes, Dusty Springfield, who made the most of the mediocre material. But, by and large, it would be difficult to come up with a more wretched list of “artists” to represent what is, or has ever been, wrong with popular music.

So, back to Shelby. It’s possible that Shelby’s new album, Just a Little Lovin’, really isn’t a ploy for future work in Vegas if this singer/songwriter thing doesn’t pan out. But I can’t really hear her. The din is too loud in my head.


Natsthename said...

So, how did you feel about Elvis Costello doing that record with Burt? BARF?

just scott said...

Oh...I thought that "Painted from Memory" record they did wasn't too bad. I have a feeling Andy may disagree though :)

Anonymous said...


Hmmm... This blog really got me thinking. I know the appreciation of music is always subjective, but..

Even though I grew up with my parents playing Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach records, I believed for decades that Bacharach was the King of Schlock, because the text books said so. (I was fooled about Jimmy Webb, too.)

I've greatly revised my opinion since then. I now believe he's a composer of great complexity and
subtlety and beauty, and he's directly or indirectly responsible for some of my favorite music
of the last few decades. His songwriting has had a huge impact on High Llamas (one of my fave groups) and Elvis Costello, who was subversively employing Bacharach-like time signatures and chord changes in songs like "Accidents Will Happen", during the heart of the punk movement (I have to add that Bacharach and Costello's album "Painted By Memory" is one of my favorite albums of the
last five years - I just listened to it again three or four times recently).

I'm (ashamedly) not familiar with Dusty Springfield (except as one of hundreds of names of past
artists I want to check out, but haven't had the time yet), but now that I know she sang Bacharach
songs, she's moving up the priority list. (After I wrote that last sentence, I picked up a
Dusty Springfield album at Ace in the Hole Records - only one Bacharach song on it).

In all fairness, Bacharach seemed to lose his talent for a decade or two (as did many great '60s
artists, only to make grand critical comebacks recently). "That's What Friends Are For" is exceptionally wretched; friends don't let friends listen to "That's What Friends Are For".

Having said that, his soundtrack to Lost Horizon has to be one of the best scores written for
one of the worst movies ever made. Yes, Hal David's lyrics weren't necessarily profound. I don't
mind. They can be fun if you can enter the spirit in which they were written.

The roster of singers who had hits with Burt Bacharach songs are the most wretched list of "artists" to
represent popular music? Excepting Perry Como and Christopher Cross, I can think of "artists" much
worse: The Starland Vocal Band, America, Air Supply, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Jimmy Buffett, Barry Manilow, Tony Orlando, Wham, Dan Fogelberg...

You'd be hard-pressed to find any great artist whose works weren't covered by bad artists. Consider
who has covered most of The Beatles' songs. And if you haven't heard the Carpenters in several decades (as I hadn't), you might want to give "Superstar" a spin and reappraise it (or listen to the cover by Sonic Youth, coincidentally discussed in the recent movie Juno). Neil Diamond's early work had at least glimmers of goodness (my personal rule of almost-law is "UNI label/1960's = good").

Lastly, you might want to listen to Dionne Warwick's '60s hits fifty years after the fact. (There's a great CD compilation out there, The Dionne Warwick Collection). Beautiful voice and arrangements, passionate melodies, the Sceptre label sound: pure musical heaven.

- Michael Neno

Andy Whitman said...

Michael, I appreciate your extensive comments. Thanks.

I don't really dispute what you're saying. Obviously many people (including you) love Burt Bacharach's music. And I'm fine with that. My broader point, and one that perhaps I didn't elaborate on clearly enough in the original post, is that sometimes my reactions are colored by factors that have little or nothing to do with the music itself. That's almost certainly the case with Burt Bacharach.

In my case, my memories are permanently tainted by countless weekends working a dead-end job, listening to a bad lounge singer coo "On the day that you were born the angels got together/And decided to create a dream come true/So they sprinkled moondust in your hair of gold/And starlight in your eyes of blue." I will never live this down. Curse you, Burt Bacharach.

I actually went out yesterday to the main Burt Bacharach website. I thought that perhaps I had exaggerated my response (who, me?), and that refreshing my memory might provide some perspective. Nope. Along the side of Burt's website there is a long, long list of the songs he's written. And it is a roll call of some of my least favorite music.

Who knows why these things work the way they do? I can listen to some of the "Old Fogey" music I hated as a kid -- Frank Sinatra, in particular -- and realize that my view of that music has changed completely. I love Sinatra, although I couldn't stand him when I heard my parents' albums, over and over again. But for whatever reasons that hasn't happened with Burt Bacharach. I couldn't stand his songs forty years ago, and I can't stand them now. Things could change. I really do revise my opinions on a fairly frequent basis. But don't hold your breath.

Brian Estabrook said...

'.. what the world needs now.. is love, sweet love.. it's the only thing that there's just too little of..'

Andy Whitman said...

Brian, yep, that's a great example of a song that makes me want to declare a jihad against Burt Bacharach. Although it makes for a fine Coca Cola commercial.

Anonymous said...

I understand your broader point. Hearing, while working at Burger King, bland women's voices singing "Rollin' down the river" on a Muzak tape over and over and over made me never want to hear or like CCR.

Anonymous said...

Wait a second. Are we in Alice's Looking Glass world here -- where everything is backward? Surely Michael Neno is the professional music critic. He is a splendidly precise and convincing writer with knowledge, flair and impeccable taste. And surely Andy Whitman is one of the clueless clods who mar the comments section of Neno's reviews with conventional wisdom and thoughtless slurs.

Ah, well. In a perfect, not a looking glass, world, someone would now come along and lock Andy Whitman up in a room full of old Lou Johnson 45s until he knows "There's Always Something There To Remind Me" backwards and forwards. (And knows who Lou Johnson was.) And did I say slurs? Instead of Whitman's list of Bacharach acolytes, let us merely note that Burt has been interpreted by everyone from Costello to Cooder, from Bill Frisell to the Five Blobs, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles (yes, the Beatles), from the Drifters to the Stylistics. "Walk On By," "Painted From Memory," "Check Out Time," "Baby It's You," "My Little Red Book" -- oh, God give me strength: the chords on those numbers! Brian Wilson hears them and... Smiles. (And as for Dusty Springfield, whose body is barely chilling, has Whitman ever listened to a little item called "Dusty in Memphis"?)

Andy Whitman said...

Anon, it's a crazy, unjust world, all right. For what it's worth, I think Michael Neno, who is a friend, is indeed a splendidly precise and convincing writer with knowledge, flair and impeccable taste.

I still don't like Burt Bacharach or Dusty Springfield much. I just don't like the songs. I don't like the melodies. I don't like the arrangements. I don't like the lyrics that Hal David wrote, either. Some of the titles are okay. Michael probably thinks I'm crazy, too. But what can you do? At least in our case we can enjoy one another's company, where we can sometimes be found listening to old 45s together.

Anonymous said...

Andy, it is nutty news that you are friends with Michael Neno. Perhaps HE will be the one who locks you up in that room full of old Lou Johnson 45s (once he finds some) & there will a little bit of hope for this world yet!
Because I'm a drag, I still wish you would answer two of the questions asked by him, me and others:
1. Have you ever listened to the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach album "Painted From Memory"? Would you be willing to do it if Michael brought it over? Would you at least check out "God Give Me Strength"? (I saw BB & EC on the tour together. A wow -- but I will never forgive BB for submerging into a medley "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," which is as great a Western song as John Ford's movie of the same name is a great Western movie. Please tell me you have heard THAT. It's by Gene Pitney. If you know who Gene Pitney is, you probably don't like him. Sigh.
2. Have you ever listened to the album "Dusty in Memphis"? Warren Zanes (ex-Del Fuegos, saw 'em live once) wrote AN ENTIRE BOOK about his "love affair" with THIS ONE ALBUM. Worth reading. (Accurate official synopsis: "'Dusty in Memphis,' Dusty Springfield's beautiful and bizarre magnum opus, remains as fine a hybrid of pop and rhythm and blues as has ever been made.") If you like pop or rhythm and blues, perhaps you might take a chance on it? This is the one with "Son of a Preacher Man" on it, if that helps. And if it doesn't, I don't know why I am bothering. (I thought of two MORE Bacharach fanatics who practically could not exist without him: Aretha Franklin & Smokey Robinson. Count for something?)
And finally, here are two new questions, the first multi-pronged:
4A. Ever heard the Beatles' version of "Baby, It's You"? If you received the new Beatles CDs from the company (lucky you!), check it out (preferably the mono mix). Can you dig it? I have never heard anyone deny that this is one of the great John Lennon vocals.
4B. Ever heard Smith's huge hit version of the same number, supervised anonymously by Del Shannon? (That was their whole name: Smith. Everyone thought it was Janis Joplin.) Can you dig THAT one? Can you think of any other song so solid that it could inspire two such incredibly divergent interpretations and still come out sounding so proudly magnificent? (And go on to inspire a wonderful John Sayles movie called, naturally, "Baby, It's You." Roseanna Arquette's first and best, BTW.) The same could be said about the Stranglers' and Isaac Hayes' versions of "Walk On By." Any chance at all you've heard either of those? (Bacharach, by the way, once told me that his favorite recording of the 1970s was the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Nifty choice, eh?)
5. The core question. Do you tend to dislike soft music with sophisticated time signatures and chords, such as Brazilian music, notably the samba, or contemporary (but NOT "smooth" or "lite") instrumental jazz balladeering? If so, that explains a lot, and I understand. You're the wrong cat! Samba and this breed of jazz, along with the early 20th century songwriting giants (Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, etc.) and the early rock and roll titans such as Leiber & Stoller, are the influences that Bacharach so fully integrated into his own work. (Ironic, then, but not surprising, that noisemakers from Thee Midniters and Vanilla Fudge to Sonic Youth and the Stranglers have always loved him so much.) Tell me you don't dig samba or quiet, serious jazz, and I'll shut my yap (and my eyes to your blog) forever. And then we'll get, you know, world peace.

Andy Whitman said...

Heh. We have a serious Burt Bacharach fan on our hands.

Look, anon, I'm pulling your chain just a bit, and really, I think it's fine that you like Burt Bacharach. Certainly I like The Beatles, including their take on the Bacharach song you mentioned. I do like Elvis Costello, particularly when he's recording rock/New Wave/whatever-you-want-to-call-what-he-did-for-the-first-decade-or-so-of-his-career-before-launching-his-"let's-explore-every-musical-genre-ever-invented" phase. But I don't like his album with Burt Bacharach. This is mainly because I don't like Burt Bacharach.

Yes, he's written a few great songs. Yes, many people think he's wonderful. I assume that one doesn't make it into the Songwriters Hall of Fame unless this is the case. But, by and large, Bacharach's songs are associated in the popular imagination with Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, The Carpenters, Perry Como, The 5th Dimension, etc. I think the musical universe would be a better place if none of them existed, and if they had never recorded Burt Bacharach's songs. I have nothing against them personally. I don't know them. I just don't like the music.

I can't tell you precisely why I think that. As I've been trying to point out, over and over again in the original post and in these comments, much of this is a visceral, non-rational reaction based on childhood experiences. And as I've also tried to point out, some of the music I hated as a child I now love, including much of the music of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, etc., all of whom worked the Great American Songbook of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, etc.

But that hasn't happened with Burt Bacharach, and my mind still boggles that annoying jingles that include lines such "Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?" and "Raindrops keep fallin' on my head, but that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turnin' red" should be considered in the same sentence as the great songs of Cole Porter or George Gershwin.

But look, that's me. I don't like Vegas schlock and Holiday Inn lounge music, and a lot of Bacharach sounds like that to me. Yes, I realize that many people (and you, I have no doubt) disagree with that assessment. As is true of any songwriter with any degree of longevity, Bacharach has his hits and misses with me. But the misses far outnumber the hits.

I'm not a fan, and I suspect I never will be. And just to further boggle your imagination, here are a few other certified musical greats that I can easily live without: The Doors, Lou Reed, The Moody Blues, The Bee Gees, Elton John (post 1971, anyway), Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac (post 1972, anyway), and any single-moniker band from the mid-to-late '70s, including Kansas, Journey, Rush, and Boston.

Finally, there is a huge subjective element in all of this, and there always will be. I can and will write about music that delights me, and there is a lot of it. But this isn't algebra, and we can't plug in values for all the variables and reach some sort of universal understanding of musical greatness. It's not going to happen. Really, I think it's fine that you're so passionate about Burt Bacharach. But I'm not. And I think it's okay to leave it at that.