Barbra Streisand helped usher in the era of the 'music superstar duet' in 1978 when she and Neil Diamond recorded "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." Her streak of hit duets continued the following year with Donna Summer on "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," and the year after with Barry Gibb on the Guilty album.
The queen returns to the duets throne for Partners, an album featuring her and male singers only.
For the uninitiated, the casual, or hard-core fans with a more unbridled affection for Streisand than mine (yes, it's possible), Partners is likely to be received as a total knockout. That's not necessarily unjustified.
As someone who owns every Streisand album and has essentially studied her career since I could put a needle on a turntable, the song selection on Partners is vexing. I readily acknowledge and respect that I'm not the target audience. Nevertheless, I'm still here and listening.
I understand the reasoning behind this release. The template was set in 1993 when Frank Sinatra released Duets, an album of his classics and standards re-worked for him and other singers with (in most cases) the intention to bring a new, younger, or different audience to Sinatra. The trend continued more recently with Tony Bennett on his own "duet" albums.
Apparently it's time for Streisand to join the ranks of Sinatra and Bennett in this respect. However, the template of "revisiting the classics" didn't need to be followed.
It's difficult for this listener to get past the fact that we are hearing many of Streisand's enduring standards (especially "People," "The Way We Were" and "Evergreen") again, even if they have been altered and reinterpreted.
What makes the re-visitations more disheartening is that Barbra Streisand is in exemplary vocal shape. In fact, the voice is startlingly stronger than it appeared on her last two studio albums or during her mini-concert tours in 2012 and 2013! When she employs the belt at the top end of her range, it remains a marvel.
Given this fact, and with the utmost respect, for Barbra to be wasting her time and still extraordinary instrument on songs she's already recorded and sung live to death -- especially when she has said many times that singing these songs over and over *bores her* -- is truly unfortunate.
With each new Streisand concert outing, arrangements and vocal decisions for her classics change in order to keep the material fresh and inspiring for both the singer and her audience.
A similar "modus operandi" is in place for most of Partners. In the original or previous live versions, if a note was taken down, now it's taken up. If an arrangement was jazzy before, now it's rock; and so on. The study in opposites seems to serve only to keep Streisand interested and engaged.
The duet partners could have remained the same but an A&R representative could have gone through these gents' catalogs to find one of their songs that might have been a good fit. Either that, or those who are songwriters could have written an original to sing with her. A third option would have been to choose a standard or Broadway tune Streisand has never recorded.
I wholeheartedly believe the commercial viability of Partners would be no different had they taken one or all of these alternate routes.
Having said all of that, I can step back from the frustration to take the album for what it is. In that respect, I'm happy to report that the Streisand magic is intact on much of Partners.
Her tremendous vocal blend with Andrea Bocelli on "I Still Can See Your Face," a new and heartbreaking remembrance of departed love, brought tears and the ever-valued "Streisand spine tingle."
Of Streisand's three beloved classics, "The Way We Were" with Lionel Richie is the most completely revitalized. Conceptually, the song becomes lovers singing their regrets to each other. The re-structuring of certain melodic phrases, backing vocals from album co-producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and even a slight guitar nod to "Evergreen" 30 seconds in, all work to remarkable effect.
Whatever adult contemporary radio is these days, it should pounce on that one. It 'truly' could be a hit all over again.
Blake Shelton's country drawl is occasionally thick mixing with Streisand's more lyrical tone, but "I'd Want It To Be You" is a considerably sweet new pop tune about friendship. "How Deep Is the Ocean", Streisand's duet with her richly voiced son Jason Gould, remains poignant and affecting as it was during Streisand's most recent live performances.
I enjoy the subtle alterations to the melody of "Somewhere" with Josh Groban, and "Love Me Tender," featuring a vocal from the late Elvis Presley, is effective and striking. However, I can tell it would have been so even if Streisand had sung it alone for a different project.
A big surprise is the decision to remake one of Streisand's previous duets, especially one from Guilty, the biggest selling album in Streisand's vast catalog.
Originally sung with Barry Gibb, "What Kind of Fool" with John Legend is given a hugely dramatic and epic arrangement. The layers to the sweeping, cinematic track are dense, haunting and incredibly successful. Legend and Streisand match the arrangement with palpable passion. If you want the actress in song, here she is!
The "big" treatment isn't as kind to "New York State of Mind" with Billy Joel. Streisand is over-singing and despite echoes of Gershwin in Billy's piano playing (I assume it's Billy; I don't have liner notes), the love of New York is not as present as in Streisand's original. When Barbra and Billy banter at the end, it's cute, but doesn't resonate beyond "cute."
It's great to hear Streisand swing with Michael Bublé on the thrilling "It Had To Be You," but when the big band comes in on "Come Rain or Come Shine" with John Mayer, the mix puts Mayer's fantastic, B.B. King-esque blues guitar in battle with it. Keeping it stripped down to Mayer's guitar and the voices would have been more than enough.
"People" is the one song I sense Barbra Streisand would rather not sing again if she had her druthers. I was rather excited, though, to see Stevie Wonder paired with her for this version. As one of the most vibrant and alive musicians on the planet, I figured his presence would give "People" a real shot in the arm. While Stevie and Barbra sound lovely as imagined, it's rather subdued. I expected some unrestrained "Stevie joy."
I completely see the impulse to turn "People" into a samba or bossa nova. The tone conjures images of a slow tango, which makes perfect sense given the album's concept (twos, couplings).
However, the lyric to "People" isn't 'sensual' enough to sustain the nature of the arrangement. This becomes most apparent when, out of nowhere, the orchestra swells as it does in most of Streisand's previous arrangements. It feels out of place. Shortly after, when Stevie starts riffs of "send them your love," I had the idea that combining "People" into a medley with Stevie's "Send One Your Love" might have increased the viability of "People" with this sensual context.
Streisand's "Evergreen" melody may be too sophisticated for the Babyface R&B treatment. The other Babyface collaboration, "Lost Inside of You" (on the deluxe album edition only available via Target), fares much better and is another highly evocative track.
Babyface and co-producer Walter Afanasieff provide a welcome shift from the rather standard sonic landscape Streisand has been surrounded by with rare exception over the last 20 years. The variations in tempo, genre and style continue to prove Streisand's incredible flexibility as a singer.
Rumor has it that a follow-up to Partners, with all female singers, is already in progress. Speculated names have included Bette Midler, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and perhaps a posthumous pairing with Whitney Houston.
This being the case, I would like to close with a quote. Granted, it's a quote that's over 30 years old and perspectives can change in that amount of time.
In 1983, Streisand said, "The last couple of times I performed, I picked all new material; stuff that would interest me to sing. The audience really complained, y'know? They wanted to hear my old standards. I tried to say, even to them, I have to grow. I have to move forward. I can't live in the past. I can't grow old singing "People" and "The Way We Were".
Despite the many delights of Partners, Barbra Streisand seems to be doing just that. I, of course, understand if she sings these songs again in any future live setting. As far as studio albums go, I would like this to be the last we hear of them.