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).