It's very clever that Barbra Streisand's "new" album, Release Me (available on vinyl September 25th and digital formats October 9th) opens with a song called "Being Good Isn't Good Enough," as most of this collection is material that Streisand deemed "good, but not good enough" for placement on the respective albums they were recorded for.
Upon hearing "Being Good Isn't Good Enough", held back from Streisand's 1985 masterwork, The Broadway Album, listeners will undoubtedly wonder why such a stunning, passionate and inimitable vocal performance, with an arrangement to match by Peter Matz, sat in a vault for over 25 years.
To quote a lyric from the song, "I'll be the best or nothing at all!" And so it was with this music, at least in Streisand's judgment ....until now.
Release Me is a fascinating showcase for the limitless range and breadth of Streisand's recording career. Covering a forty-five year span from 1967 until 2011, the album is a cornucopia of musical styles Streisand has sung from Broadway and pop to country and jazz.
Given the varied genres, great care has clearly been taken to sequence the album so it flows as well as it possibly can. It plays like a collection of "greatest hits you never heard." It's also a compelling reminder of why Streisand, who has had a number one album in each of the last five decades, has always been musically relevant.
Part of the fun of Release Me on initial listen (and before reading the liner notes), is speculating on why any of this material was deemed "flawed". If one is familiar with the albums some of the music was intended for, it is easy to judge where a song might not have fit that album in terms of melody or arrangement.
However, any vocal imperfections will not be readily apparent. Although some instrumentation was re-recorded for the last track on the album (a powerful "Home" from the musical, The Wiz), none of Streisand's vocals were corrected from the original sessions.
Here are some highlights in addition to the two already mentioned.
"Willow Weep for Me" was cut from a vastly underrated 1967 album, Simply Streisand, completely arranged by the legendary Ray Ellis. Ellis is perhaps most noted for his work with Billie Holliday on Lady In Satin, and his orchestrations on Simply distinctively evoke breezy summer or autumn evenings. "Willow" is no different and could easily be reincorporated into the flow of that album. It's a classic, timeless vocal interpretation and arrangement.
"Lost in Wonderland", recorded in 1968, is already "controversial" amongst those in Streisand's fan circle who have heard it. The song adds English lyrics to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Antigua" and will either be considered brilliant or dismissed as "strange."
Following the structure of Jobim's original composition and expanding on it with full orchestra, the Peter Matz arrangement bounces back and forth between a sexy samba and a descending, almost hallucinatory, second melody. It's challenging; avant-garde in feel. Some may find it bizarre, but it works perfectly if you picture Streisand the actress reveling in playing "Alice in Wonderland" in song.
Given the intensity of the arrangement and the tongue-twister lyrics, Streisand could have easily gotten "lost" here, but she doesn't. It's the artist at a risky, complex best.
In 1988, Streisand recorded several songs for a planned sequel to The Broadway Album. The 1988 sessions were scrapped, and Streisand recorded all new material for the 1993 release that made it to market.
Somehow, rather scandalously (but fortunately for fans) audio and video from the 1988 "Broadway" sessions made their way into the world as bootlegs. The absolutely sumptuous "How Are Things in Glocca Morra / Heather on the Hill", arranged by Rupert Holmes, was one of those songs.
From the first ten seconds alone, fans were left scratching their heads as to why this was left behind. It is a bravura vocal performance and the epitome of why Streisand is beloved as a singer. Were we still in the days where you had to buy a whole album to hear a song, this medley would make Release Me worth the price.
Another song made the rounds on the fan bootleg circuit for years, often on barely audible, wobbly cassettes. Even in poor quality, the tender and compelling nature of "Mother and Child" was apparent. To have it here in pristine shape is a most welcome treat.
"Mother and Child" features Streisand in duet with herself from the points of view of the title; lullaby and counterpoint. The moving piece is taken from a Michel Legrand / Alan and Marilyn Bergman song cycle composed specifically for Streisand in 1973.
Commonly referred to as "Life Cycle of a Woman", the songs would have traced the life of a woman from birth until death. It's been said that Streisand found the concept "too deep", so it was never completed. A few songs from the cycle have been included on other Streisand albums through the years, and some ideas from it were further explored in Streisand's Yentl.
Also of note is Streisand's pure vocal on the lyrically, if not melodically, heartbreaking and country-tinged "Try To Win A Friend", cut from 1977's soft-pop classic, Streisand Superman. Additionally, the most recently recorded song "If It's Meant To Be" (penned by the Bergmans with Brian Byrne), features one of the best theatrical lyrics Streisand has ever entertained. Gentle and haunting, as a fresh piece of material it commands attention.
Release Me is quite the jailbreak from Streisand's musical vault. Word from the artist is that at least one, perhaps two, more volumes may arrive in the future. If they are anything like this collection, they will certainly be more than "good enough."
Barbra Streisand is about to embark on a small tour of the United States and Canada in October and November of 2012. I highly encourage anyone who has never had the opportunity to witness Ms. Streisand live in concert to treat themselves and go.
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