Taylor Swift completes her (not so drastic) makeover with ‘1989’

The streets of Nashville must be littered with the country music personae that stars shed like old skins, when they reach for crossover pop appeal. It’s a right of passage for most country singers to abandon the honky tonk for the spangly pinnacle of Hollywood. Country music legend Dolly Parton based her whole middle phase of her career to that ambition. Others, like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, or Faith Hill, followed, eschewing steel guitars and fiddles for crashing power chords and the ubiquitous Diane Warren pop ballad. The shift from country to pop is so prevalent in music that Taylor Swift’s wholly predictable embrace of pop music with her great new album 1989 seemed inevitable.

For some time Swift showed us signs of unrest with Nashville. Her last album, 22, was country only by a mere whiff of an acoustic guitar or a banjo. It was firmly a pop album with skittery beats, wall-to-wall synths, orchestras, and anthematic vocals. On 1989, the singer pushes that transition forward, enlisting the help of Max Martin to unearth her inner Britney. The results? Mostly excellent. 1989 is easily one of the best pop albums this year – the songs are insanely catchy, and Swift’s light, easy vocals makes her an ideal pop diva. Along with Martin, Swift has also brought on Imogene Heap, Ryan Tedder, and Shellback, along with other high-price producers to help with the sound redo.

The song that’s getting the most attention (besides the album’s hit single “Shake It Off”) is “Welcome to New York,” which is getting a lot of unfair negative publicity. Many call the song naive or silly, and yeah, it won’t replace Kander & Ebb’s classic paen to Gotham, but it’s a decent ditty sung from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a new New York, one that isn’t defined by the righteous rebellion of Lou Reed or Debbie Harry, but a safer, more PG New York, that’s designed for the Glee set. While purists shake their heads at this Disneyfication of New York, Swift does make a goofily sweet carpetbagging ambassador for the city.

“Shake It Off” the albums first single (which already went number one) is another good song that plays with Swifts song. A swipe at her critics who dismiss her as empty-headed or shallow, the song is an easy, breezy four minutes of pop bliss, helped by uplifting beats and a crazy saxophone. In fact, the best of 1989 follows the template she established with “Shake It Off” – 80’s-inspired synth pop. “Blank Space” sounds like a vague Tears for Fears copy while. “I Wish You Would” also mines the current 80s nostalgia with aggressive drum machines that recall Phil Collins “Take Me Home.”

Aside from the 80’s echoes, what makes 1989 enjoyable is that Swift’s malleable voice makes it a perfect instrument for this kind of music. Because a lot of country singers’ voices are very distinct – either twangy, nasally, or gospel-drenched – putting them in a shiny, polished soundscape can make those voices sound lost, strident, or just plain silly (dance outfit KLF exploited that sonic dissonance to its full effect with Tammy Wynette in the freaky house hit “Justified & Ancient”). But Swift’s voice isn’t a particularly distinct or notable voice – it’s very pretty, but sounds like a lot of other above-average vocals on pop radio. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because it does make her foray into pop music credible, and she sounds completely at home singing over the clattering drums and the yawning synthesizers.

What does get lost though is the songwriting. Swift gained some minor notoriety as the ultimate revenge singer-songwriter. If a guy burns her, she’ll set pen to paper and write a top 40 hit about the scrub. While she’ll never be heralded as our generation’s Carly Simon, she does have decent songwriting chops that are augmented by some pro collaborators. Unfortunately, because the sounds of the record are so loud, bright, and sparkly, it’s easy to ignore the lyrics which tend to be relegated to slogan-like choruses and catchphrases. Even a ballad like “This Love” is awash in reverb and programming which distracts listeners from the lyrics. Some may point out that given the puddle-deep depth of “Welcome to New York,” that may not be a bad thing, but it would be nice if Swift pushed herself as a songwriter.

Still, these quibbles are minor, because pop music is hardly ever about the lyrics – it’s not even about the singer. If 1989 is firmly entrenched in the sounds of the 1980’s, then it owes a lot of its sound and success to Janet Jackson’s 1986 classic Control. Like Control, Swift’s album is a showcase for the production values, which are a perfect fit for the somewhat anonymous vocalist. As the aforementioned Dolly Parton returned to rootsy country after years of pop experiment, Swift may also tone down the gloss (after all, there’s not a trope more popular in country music than the “going back to my roots” album that follows a string of pop records). But for now, she’s found a sympathetic niche and sound that fits her like a sequined glove.

Click here to buy Taylor Swift’s 1989 on amazon.com.

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Jim Carrey hosts an underwhelming ‘SNL’

Jim Carrey and Iggy Azalea Bumper Photos

This saw comedian Jim Carrey return for the third time to host SNL, and though he’s not a former cast member, he was a cast member of the SNL-rival In Living Color, so sketch comedy isn’t something new for the comedy legend. I was looking forward to this episode and was very disappointed by his hosting duties – not only was the writing off, but for the most part, Carrey’s performances were also rote. The 40th season is interesting so far, because all of the hosts were comedians and not the usual mix of starlets, movie hunks, athletes, and pop stars who want to moonlight as sketch comics. Not, it’s only a few weeks into the season, but so far it looks like whatever plagued the mediocre 39th season is still hanging around, because this season has been a disappointment, so far.

As usual, the show opened with a cold open that touched on current affairs: this week, we’re still thinking about Ebola, what with a New York doctor being diagnosed with the disease this past week. Again, Jay Pharoah trotted out his technically brilliant, if by-now soulless impression of President Obama. The joke of the sketch had Obama try to distract the media by highlighting the administration’s failures in dealing with the ISIS crisis, the Obamacare rollout, the economy, so that the reporters won’t harp on the administration’s dropping the ball on the Ebola crisis.

Then Taran Killan pops up as Obama’s choice for Ebola czar Ron Klain. But he’s quickly shunted aside for Kenan Thompson’s bewildering performance as Al Sharpton.

The cold open’s problems are exactly what’s the problem with the show’s current quality: it hasn’t found an identity yet, despite a large, sprawling cast of talented performers. When George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Hillary Clinton were relevant political figures, they were easy to lampoon: they had idiosyncrasies and lampoonable quirks. Obama’s so expertly smooth and polished, it’s hard to find something to joke at; while Thompson still chooses to play Sharpton as a seemingly senile buffoon (which, he’s not, so I don’t get the joke).

For the monologue, Jim Carrey marched onto the stage dressed like a devil Elvis – Helvis. Carrey’s impression of Elvis Presley is good -very good, actually. Unfortunately, his good impression is sunk in a weirdly so-so song (yup, another musical monologue) about Presley’s penchant for pecan pie. I wasn’t sure what the point of the monologue and it’s weird to see a gospel choir with the singers wearing devil horns. Bobby Moynihan shows up towards the end of the song with a pan of the titular dessert, and steals the scene with some silly mugging – though, this is more a statement on how “eh” the song is, and not on the quality of his performance.

The first sketch was a recurring one for the evening, spoofing Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln ads. Carrey’s a good mimic, so he’s able to get McConaughey’s strange, spacey, dude-bro cadence, but the show already has done McConaughey jokes, so this feels a bit warmed over.

After the commercial break (and after seeing the trailer for Dumb and Dumber 2 – which looks very depressing, by the way) We get to the Carrey Family Reunion – probably one of the most tedious and arduous sketches to sit through, ever. The whole point of the skit is to have the cast members do impressions of Carey’s famous characters – Ace Ventura, Fire Marshall Bill, the Mask, the Cable Guy, etc. It’s a terrible, terrible sketch to sit through, enlivened a little bit by Carrey’s Dumb and Dumber costar, Jeff Daniels who pops up and gives a so-so impression (the only performer who does a decent Carrey is, predictably, Killan). Pete Davidson pops up at the end for a family photo, squeezed into a Riddler leotard (remember Batman Forever – yeah, I forgot, too), which was good for a sight gag. Essentially, the sketch could be reduced to the cast members grimacing furiously and shouting out Carrey catch phrases.

We then get a decent Halloween sketch – another musical number – that is a Tim Burtonesque musical number with Davidson and Sasheer Zamata wandering into a cemetery, only to be serenaded by frightening goblins and ghouls. The creepy song is constantly being stolen by Carrey and Killan as Paul and Phil, a pair of genial, jovial ghosts who are super nice.

Unfortunately, after the Halloween musical number, we moved on to the Weekend Update. I no longer think it’s going to be good, I just hope it’s not going to be crap. Colin Jost is still awful, but Michael Che is becoming a stronger and stronger performer, and is settling in well. He had a great bit, poking at the racial implications of the current Ebola panic – but unfortunately, SNL isn’t known for its trenchant humor, and the pointed comedy is pulled back for safer quips and puns.

Then things start to get good: Vanessa Bayer comes on as Daisy Rose, a romantic-comedy expert, who is called upon to give her thoughts on the trend of rom-coms on TV. It’s a funny bit, with Bayer doing a mad dash through all of the tired rom-com tropes while sparring flirtingly with Che, who has some great comebacks to Bayer’s starry-eyed monologue, delivered over a power-pop ballad. Che’s a brilliant straight man and needs more to do.

After Bayer, we get Moynihan’s return as Drunk Uncle, the racist, xenophobic throwback who hates anything new. After giving Che the stink eye, he scoots with suspicion over to Jost’s side of the desk, and displays some of his awful knee-jerk politics that reflect some of the kind of reactionary crap the Right Wing loves to shovel. Though the character’s one-note and starting to grate a bit, I still like Moynihan’s performance, which takes a lot of commitment and work – it’s real character work.

We get another nothing sketch, spoofing reality television (really?) with Carrey in old man drag, spouting off crazy old coot ramblings.

The next sketch is a ghost hunter show spoof with Killan playing a ghost hunter, who with his team, is wandering through the halls of a Southern mansion, hoping to find ghosts. Leslie Jones, the newest cast member is on hand to essentially play a stereotype, and I’m a bit worried, because Jones has been badly used so far, and she’s a treasure.

The zombie apocalypse sketch was also terrible – Carrey was delivering his lines in a lazy Southern accent, and a bunch of the cast were playing disaffected teens. Davidson was on hand to growl like a zombie (he’s way too talented for this kind of nonsense). And the sketch didn’t feel like it had a strong end.

The next sketch finally gave the show some life: an office costume party with Carrey and Kate McKinnon killing it, as two office workers dressed up as Maddie Ziegler from Sia’s video “Chandelier.” It’s a funny sketch and one that really uses Carrey’s physical comedy prowess (and what current SNL cast member is more like Jim Carrey than Kate McKinnon?). The two are done up in flesh-toned leotard, as they gyrate wildly, aproxmiating Ziegler’s athletic (and beautiful) dancing – they even break the fourth wall, and dance around through the audience and rehearsal spaces (even musical guest Iggy Azalea gets into the act). While McKinnon and Carrey are easily dominant, Aidy Bryant has a fun moment announcing that she’s “Just a woman trying her best,” because the party hosts guessed her costume as either a red marble or a meatball, when she was simply dressed in a red suit (she forgot to get a costume). The sketch was very good and energetically-performed, and it’s a shame it was buried so late into the show.

Speaking of greatness being buried late, Cecily Strong and Bayer closed out the evening in a potentially-hilarious sketch as bored coworkers starring in an ad for Geoff’s Halloween Emporium, a sad costume shop. Both Strong and Bayer are wonderful, performing with the kind of dead-eyed deadpan of a terrible, if bored, actor with no discernible TV charm. They even have the flat Wisconsin tang down. Unfortunately, Carrey’s presence as the creepy Geoff feels intrusive and silly and takes away from Strong and Bayer.

The Jim Carrey episode was pretty disappointing, considering the oversized talent involved. While a little bit of Jim Carrey goes a very long way, he’s still capable of so much more than what he did last night. As seen in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he’s able to combine both strong character acting with high comedy, without resorting to the cheap, exhausting mugging that he’s popular for. Though last Saturday, he wasn’t given any opportunities to show any vulnerability with his comedy, and was merely a harsh parody of his public persona.

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Aretha Franklin appears reinvigorated on her new album of covers

Aretha Franklin’s later career has to be one of the most frustrated in pop music. Never has such a gigantic and prolific talent wasted her gifts on such undeserving material. The soul legend has been in the news of late more for her personal and health issues than her music, which is a shame. Her new album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics won’t return the singer to her peak years, but it is a remarkably consistent set of covers that make up one of her most solid releases in years.

The biggest noise from the record came from her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” – and she does a fine job. The song is still so fresh in our minds, that the cover feels more like a stunt to grab attention from potential new buyers, but Franklin more than sells the song. Another youngun, Alicia Keys, has one of her songs – “No One” on the set list, as well. The reggae/dance hall-lite treatment works in the song’s favor, as does Franklin’s playful singing.

And while it’s nice that the diva considers Adele and Alicia Keys as “classic divas” what we’re really looking for is Aretha’s take on her peers: Barbra, Diana, Gladys. Well Streisand’s classic “People” is given Franklin’s patented torchy interpretation, giving more gravitas to the song than it really deserves (I never was a huge fan of the song). Diana Ross, possibly the only true stylistic, cultural, and artistic rival of Franklin’s, gets two inclusions: on “Rolling in the Deep” Franklin mashes up Adele’s hit tune with Ross’ classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and takes her listeners to church. She also covers “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Ross’ number one hit with the Supremes. Instead of faithfully recreated the Motown sound, Franklin chooses to remake the song as a brisk dance number. This is actually Franklin’s second recording of the song (the first time she sang the song was an aborted track on her 1970 Spirit in the Dark album).

I’m glad Franklin is looking to dance music, a rarely explored genre for the singer, but on this album, she’s embracing her inner disco diva with some choice club numbers including her cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” which sounds very much like the late Whitney Houston’s house remake (which is appropriate as Franklin was Houston’s godmother). And even if Franklin is paying homage to her fellow divas, she never pretends to be self-effacing, and mashes “I’m Every Woman” with an unnecessary redo of her classic hit “Respect.” Her take on “I Will Survive” is good, though, the song has been covered too many times, and Franklin’s voice has noticably aged and fails to convey the camp hysterics of the song’s lyrics, but she does sell some attitude when she includes a silly snippet of Destiny Child’s “Survivor” in the song (it appears as if she loves to pair up songs with similar themes).

As credible as her dance forays are, it’s when she turns to true soul and jazz that the album is at its strongest. No one will forget Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” but Franklin’s version is suitably soulful (though the backup singers sound strangely tinny). The highlight of the album is a beautiful version of the standard “Teach Me Tonight,” which has a gorgeous bass and string percussion, and Franklin’s performance is masterful (here’s hoping that for her next venture into the studio, she records a whole album of pop/jazz standards). While initially jarring, her supper club take on Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a silly one-off that feels like a novelty (and rides roughshod over the song’s devastating lyrics), but it’s very well-performed, and the singer sounds right at home in front of a lush orchestra.

For a singer of Franklin’s age, her voice remains strong. Time, wear, and a reported chain-smoking habit has thinned and wizened her instrument, and at times it takes on a harsh, shrill tone, but overall, Franklin’s still masterful at marrying that sweet spot of secular and sacred, when pop and gospel join together to create that unmistakable voice.

Click here to buy Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics on amazon.com.

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‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ is the best dramatization of ‘Pride & Prejudice’

lbd cast posterI always thought the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice – you know, the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle would be my favorite, but that’s before I discovered the Web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries - a modern take on Jane Austen’s classic romantic comedy of errors about class, gender, and love.

The 100-part series of short episodes (each is about 5 minutes) follows the plot of Pride & Prejudice faithfully: the Bennet household is all a tizzy because a handsome young man moves into town, and the Bennet matriarch hopes to marry off her beautiful daughters. The modern twist is the conceit: Elizabeth Bennet is transformed from a headstrong, intelligent young English lady to a headstrong, intelligent young grad students, studying communications. As part of a school project, Lizzie shoots vlogs about the various dramas that befall on Elizabeth and her family and friends. The inclusion of the Internet brings up questions of public vs. private, and fits seamlessly into the narrative.

What I liked about the A&E version of P&P is the lavish costumes and sumptuous sets. On TLBD, the drama is contained in one room, as Lizzie and her friends report on various goings on her vlog. And in a great running joke, Lizzie plays the part of the other characters, and will often rope her friends or sisters in to play parts as well.  Even though one would think the brief duration of each episode would make things feel rushed, it doesn’t – instead, it works to the show’s advantage. Part of the reason why it works is because the writers are able to condense episodes in Austen’s flawless plot into quick passages by having each vlog post deal with an issue, whether it be a romantic dilemma or tension among friends and family. In P&P, the Bennet family’s honor is put into question when the flirty Lydia is potentially “ruined” by the dashing George Wickham. On TLBD, the writers take on the issue of sexting and revenge porn and make the series topical and socially relevant.

Often when people debate the merits of various versions of P&P, the deciding factor is who plays Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are legendary, and though I think Kiera Knightly richly deserved her Oscar nomination for her turn, it’s clear that Ashley Clements is easily the best Elizabeth Bennet. The actress has crack comic timing, but is also good for the more emotional moments, as well – and even though she’s often called upon to display a range of emotions in a span of just five minutes, she’s more than up to the task. As Darcy, Daniel Vincent Gordh is a find, as well, playing the vulnerability behind the pompous facade of the character. The rest of the cast is populated by some great performers, and it’s nice to see just how the characters have been adapted to the 21st century. Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles) is a study in the pitfalls and reductive limitation of slut-shaming. Instead of judging Lydia, which Austen does on TLBD, we see the genuine depth and complexity of her character (and in her own spin-off, The Lydia Bennet, Lydia’s further rehabilitated as a character and given tragic and heroic character traits). And while Jane can be seen as insufferable because of virtue, she’s given a strong core, without forsaking the character’s innate sweetness.

Because the show is set in the 21st century, there’s a healthy diversity on TLBD. Bingley is turned into Bing Lee, a handsome Asian-American medical student (and his sister Caroline is still the steely villain). And Charlotte Lucas is turned from a practical if somewhat sad character from P&P into the smart and lovely Charlotte Lu, a computer whiz who edits Lizzie’s vlogs, and often acts as a much-needed reality check (Elizabeth Bennet’s almost-blind pride, self-regard, and self-righteousness remain). I always found the friendship between Charlotte and Elizabeth in Austen’s work to be very sad – the two young ladies are very close, at times closer than sisters, and yet once Charlotte marries the ridiculous Mr. Collins (who appears on TLBD as the entrepreneurial Mr. Ricky Collins), the friendship essentially ends. On TLBD, the two young characters go through even worse conflict that leaves a rift that is just as sad because of how close the two are.

I can’t wait to see more takes on Austen’s works (I’ve just started Emma Approved, based on my favorite book Emma) in this format. As television evolves with these new ways of bringing shows to viewers, it’s clear that Web series is more than capable of telling engrossing stories (and the brevity of the episodes in no way get in the way of depth and development). Fans of Jane Austen may balk at such a drastic retelling of the story, but they should give The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a chance – because the key to Austen’s genius was that she told tales that were timeless.

Click here to watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube.

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Let’s calm the f*ck down about Renee Zellweger

So I’m sure a lot of you have heard the Renee Zellweger jokes before – that she was puffy, she looked like she was on crack, she resembled a blowfish, etc. These were all mean-spirited, cheap, and lazy jokes told at the expense of a talented actress whose biggest sin was starring in a sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary (I’m still mad about that, by the way).

Zellweger has disappeared for a bit, popping up occasionally in the gossip rags, but staying MIA for the most part, until a few days ago when the world lost its collective shit because Renee Zellweger peeked her head out in public – surprise! Her head looks somewhat different than what we remember from the Cold Mountain era.

And predictably the sniping began, and predictably my eyes started to roll, over and over and over again. The Renee Zellweger jokes were tired before, and they’re tired now. The collective gasp at her supposed transformation brought to mind when we collectively acted like a major asshat and shat on Kim Novak during her Oscar appearance, because it looked like the movie vet had some major work done.

I really scratched my head over that one, and I’m commencing the scratching of my head over the Renee Zellweger fracas. Firstly, I wonder why we even feel the need to comment on her face (I know, I know, by writing this post, I’m commenting on it as well – I’d argue that I’m commenting on the commentary, but you’re free to disagree with me). Why the interest, nee, the need to immediately tear someone down? And for what? Because she did something that millions of us would do in a split second if we had the money?

Renee Zellweger is a millionaire, and therefore she operates in the world with privilege. That’s clear. But even her money, status, and fame doesn’t make her immune to a culture that is increasingly hostile to older women. Because she understands that to avoid being typcast as mothers and grandmothers (we live in a universe where Marisa Tomei was cast as Jonah Hill’s mother. Let’s let that sink in for a second), she has to look youthful and beautiful (which she does, by the way), because she’s competing for decent roles (which are scarce) with women younger than she. None of this is new, but still even if we’re aware of this sick system, we still prop it up. How? By going to comment threads to crap all over a woman (who’s a stranger, by the way) because she had the temerity to allegedly have plastic surgery (after getting shit unlimted for years). There’s a razor-toothed glee to the way some Internet zealots leaped in line to take a swipe at Miss Zellweger (I won’t give them extra publicity by reprinting some of the less-than-chivalrous comments), a cliched “taking down the rich” which really isn’t directed solely at Zellweger. Because here’s the thing, when you crap on one woman for getting older, then you’re crapping on all women who get older. And I know we’re supposed to say “what about aging gracefully?” or “What about aging naturally?” Well, I say f*ck that noise, because we all will age how we age – some of us will dye our hair, some of use will get our teeth fixed, some of us will get our brows lifted, some of us will get our noses slimmed, some of us will get our breasts enlarged, and some of us will get our butts lifted. No option is invalid if it comes from a place of authenticity. I’m starting to think that the reason we love carping on aging women’s beauty is because it reminds us that we all get old, and we don’t like to have that reminder staring back at us from the cover of US Weekly (and some of it is that we’re pissed that we can’t go off and disappear to some high-end clinic in Sedona, only to emerge fresh-faced and rejuvenated).

Look, my point is, Renee Zellweger has an Oscar on her mantle, so she doesn’t really need to prove anything to any of her detractors. She’s probably not losing a whole lotta sleep over some creepy trolls who think they’re bad ass because they have an avatar, a screen name, and a keyboard. She’s not the only victim in this obsessive desire to cut women down – all women are because we don’t only shit on Renee Zellweger exclusively. Think about: when at the grocery store or market, if you see an older woman wearing something revealing, do you say or think something biting and catty? When at a bar and a girl comes in with ample cleavage on display, do you immediately think something bitchy? If you see a lady with freshly-plumped lips, or a smooth-as-ice forehead, do you want to say something cutting (no pun intended)? Let’s relax on the trashing because we have lots of other things we could be doing with our time.

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Divas covering other divas: Aretha Franklin does Adele, Bette Midler does the Ronettes

This season sees the return of two larger-than-life female vocalists, Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler, both of whom were missing from the recording studio for a while now. For their comeback projects, both Franklin and Midler are putting out cover records – Franklin’s will be a collection of classics from fellow divas, while Midler’s album is a set of girl group numbers.

Midler’s cover of “Be My Baby” is a very faithful remake of the Phil Spector classic. It’s not surprising that she’s successful in her homage to the Ronettes – Midler’s always been a nostalgia artist (she practically is Sophie Tucker and the Andrew Sisters combined). Her expressive voice hasn’t changed much in her absence, and is still appealing and distinct, but the best thing about the song is Midler’s empathy and ease with this kind of material.


Aretha Franklin takes on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and also does some great work. Her voice has taken on bruised quality – a combination of age and a life-long addiction to smoking. But no worries, it’s still the most soulful voice in pop music. Like Midler’s cover, Franklin also is pretty faithful to Adele’s original, but manages to imbue some of her legendary tics like the vocal sweeps, dips, and wails. And if covering one postmodern diva isn’t enough, she mashes “Rolling in the Deep” with Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that works surprisingly well.

If these singles are any indication of their parent albums, both Franklin and Midler have some big hits on their hands.

Click here to buy/download Bette Midler’s “Be My Baby” or the full album It’s the Girls! from amazon.com.

Click here to buy/download Aretha Franklin’s “Rolling in the Deep” or the full album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics from amazon.com.

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Legends Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand find continued success with a little help from some (famous) friends

Ah, the duets album – a popular career route for a veteran musician to pick up some new fans by featuring trendy, popular artists of the day so that youngsters can say, “Hey! This old fogey is singing with [insert YouTube pop sensation here]. He must be cool!” Frank Sinatra’s legendary Duets album set the standard for icons to share the mic with the latest thing to show off a versatility and hipness.

Tony Bennett has been able to find renewed success on top of his late-career renaissance with a series of duets album, starting in 2006 with a pair of duets albums as well as a Spanish-language version with Latino artists. On Cheek to Cheek, the legend is paired with with dance-pop diva, Lady Gaga (who appeared on Bennett’s successful 2011’s Duets II), on a collection of jazz and pop standards.

Barbra Streisand, unlike Tony Bennett, is not a singer known for her willingness to share the spotlight. Though she released a duets album in 2002, it was merely a hodgepodge collection of tracks available on other albums. On Partners, Streisand finally records a proper duets studio album with a long list of singers – young, middle-aged, and old, that will undoubtedly please her past, present, and future fans.

On their album, Bennett and Lady Gaga (should I refer to her as “Gaga”) share a surprising chemistry that isn’t as forced as one would expect. Obviously the song selection skews to Bennett’s comfort zone: Great American Songbook mainstays like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Billy Strayhorn, and Jimmy Van Heusen, are among the songwriters whose work was selected for the project. But that’s okay, because these are easily some of the best songs of the 20th century, and deserve a second, third, or fourth listen. And at 88, Bennett’s still a charmer. Though age has wizened and truncated his range and lung power, he makes up for it with a swinging ebullience and a verve that belies his age. Lady Gaga has a surprisingly large and supple voice, but at times, she sounds like an American Idol contestant (a good one, though) with her belting and hammy showbiz mannerisms. But together, they manage to overcome any weird Odd Couple-like issues and put together a very solid album.

The best moments on the album allow for the two singers to interact playfully. The sprightlier numbers work better than the jazzy ballads (which show that Lady Gaga, while a good stylist, has still some learning to do). Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Firefly” is a great vehicle for the two to spar with each other, as does the album’s single “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” which has a great bass and a jazzy beat. Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) has a fantastic, breakneck pace, and a beautiful horn solo in the bridge. The title track is also a corker of a number with a nimble string bass and both Bennett and Lady Gaga give sly, mincing vocal performances.

Not all of the album works – this isn’t a classic recording, and Lady Gaga’s solo number disappoints because it strays from the gimmick of the album, because let’s be clear, this is a very well-made, and very classy novelty record. Still, it’s commendable that both artists reach out to bridge the yawning chasm between them.

Unlike Bennett, Barbra Streisand doesn’t settle on just one duet partner, instead she sings with a diverse group of performers including Michael Buble, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Billy Joel, Blake Shelton, John Legend, and even a musically-resurrected Elvis Presley (we have Natalie Cole to thank for the “duetting with a dead singer” trope). And the songs listed are a mix of some of Streisand’s classics and pop standards that show off her still-vital and gorgeous pipes.

As Bennett has, Streisand looked to the current pop charts for some of the guys she tapped – her duet with neo-Sinatra Buble, “It Had to Be You” is predictably excellent. Both singers have a great ear for this kind of music. You know who doesn’t? John Mayer, who intrudes on the “Come Rain or Come Shine” with a faux-blusey guitar riff that reeks of white-breadness. A pleasant surprise is how pleasant Streisand’s son, Jason Gould sounds singing with his mom on the old chestnut “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

Singing with a singer like Streisand can be daunting because in the past, she has a reputation of steamrolling over her duet partners (just listen to poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, and gasp – Don Johnson, who wither on vinyl when trying to match voices with her). It’s when she’s matched up with an artist comparable to her stature that she gets a lot of good work done. Soul star John Legend redoes the Bee Gee-penned “What Kind of Fool” and transforms it into a gorgeous, lush ballad. Lionel Richie’s beautifully smooth vocals complement Streisand on her monster hit “The Way We Were.” And on “People” Stevie Wonder does, well, wonders, turning the simple ballad into a please bossa nova number. Babyface, who had production duties on the record, transforms Streisand’s “Evergreen” into a Whitney Houston-style pop ballad (I’m wondering why the two hadn’t worked on an album before – they seem perfect for each other).

As with any Streisand album, some bombast is expected – no it’s required. She still has the lung capacity to pull off those diva high notes. On West Side Story‘s hopeful ballad, she trades Broadway belting duties with Josh Groban, and Andrea Bocelli proves to be an ideal partner on the ridiculously swooning and overproduced “I Still Can See Your Face.”

Not all of Partners works – Blake Shelton proves to be a forgettable partner, and it feels like he was added because of his high profile due to The Voice. Also Billy Joel – not a personal favorite of mine – shows up to pretend that his “New York State of Mind” is a good song (and yeah, ending the song with a tiny riff from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” shows just how sucky his song is in comparison). And I wish Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand got together when he was alive, because that would’ve been awesome – the creepy, from the grave performance of “Love Me Tender” is unsettling.

Still, despite these minor bumps, Partners is yet another solid triumph in Streisand’s discography, and it edges out Bennett’s Cheek to Cheek because while his album feels like a gotcha gimmicky grab to entice curious listeners, Streisand’s album feels pretty organic (though some of the duets were recorded separately).

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Partners from amazon.com.

Click here to buy Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s Cheek to Cheek on amazon.com.

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