What’s Old Is What’s New

You may have noticed that Doonesbury featured a funny series of strips last week (starting here) in which rock musician Jimmy Thudpucker was plugging his new album of standards. Next to recording a Christmas album, making an album of standards is widely seen as a give-up move–a sign that an artist is no longer serious about following a muse, and is content merely to cash in.

Well, sometimes such albums are give-up moves and sometimes they aren’t.

The first major artist to make a major splash with an album of standards was Linda Ronstadt, who made three such albums in the 1980s with orchestra leader and arranger Nelson Riddle. For Ronstadt, however, this was less a give-up move than it was another phase in her chameleon period. In the late 70s and 1980s, she went from ’50s rocker to new-wave chick to big-band chanteuse to singing in Spanish, and onward after that into irrelevance. The albums themselves, What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons, were beautifully made, however, thanks mostly to Riddle’s considerable artistry.

Not so Rod Stewart’s three Great American Songbook albums. They can’t be described as homage or tribute, because Stewart doesn’t seem to respect the songs at all. Plus, it would be hard to name a singer whose voice is less suited to such songs than Stewart’s. He’d have been better off tackling old blues numbers–but that wouldn’t have sold nearly so well to his current demographic, which seems to be aging women who haven’t been hot since the ’80s. Which makes these albums the crassest form of commercial exploitation, but it’s worked–each is among the biggest sellers of Stewart’s career.

Boz Scaggs recorded an album of standards in 2003, But Beautiful. Unlike Stewart, who put a glossy pop sheen on the songs, Scaggs recorded with a small, free-swinging jazz combo, so the album has a smoky, late-night feel. His voice isn’t particularly suited to the songs, either, but the overall atmosphere of the album makes that lapse somewhat forgivable.

Carly Simon’s Moonlight Serenade, released earlier this summer and currently at Number 35 on the Billboard album chart, is actually her third straight album of standards. (Her 1981 album, Torch, was also made up of standards, and actually predated Ronstadt’s What’s New by a couple of years.) This one I haven’t heard at all, but the reviews I’ve read have been largely positive.

I don’t mind people recording standards, really. Some of those songs really are timeless, and they deserve to be heard for as long as people want to listen–as long as the people recording them do justice to them. Cannibals like Stewart (and it pains me to call him that, because I’m a fan) don’t add anything to the music, and they do nothing to illuminate its history. Conversely, the best contemporary albums of standards, like those by Scaggs and Simon, prove the enduring value of the songs, updating them without being disrespectful to them. In addition, such albums can actually entice listeners into exploring the back catalog from which those songs originally come, and that’s a good thing.

One thought on “What’s Old Is What’s New

  1. John

    I’d be interested to read your opinion of Queen Latifah’s standards album. I haven’t heard the whole thing, but in the bits I have heard or seen her perform, she seems to be taking a straight (if somewhat dull) approach to the material. On the other hand, she might have just called the album For My White Fans Who Only Know Me From the Movie ‘Chicago’. So I don’t know where it falls on the “cash-in” scale.

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