“The Greatest Star” doesn't use full power anymore

Barbra Streisand: The Movie Album (2003)

The most recent Barbra Streisand album “The Movie Album” was acclaimed exceedingly by US media even before its release in autumn 2003. Amongst other recommendations that were decorated with superlatives, the campaign of the record label Sony commended it as “the most expected album of the year”. Words like these arouse greatest expectations. Fans and interested listeners are in possession of the movie album now. But many of these could not find any instance of the “spectacular” on said album – or, what ought to be understood by “spectacular”. I say that Streisand’s movie album is neither overly good nor extremely bad. But if we compare it to her better albums, we can assess: A vocalist like Streisand does hardly produce a really bad album, there is always some kind of quality. Her movie album, though, is loaded down by the stamp that is deficiency and floats somewhere in a broad spectrum of dubious and hard-to-define qualities.

Just like her artistically most successful “The Broadway Album”, the title of the new CD suggests a genre album with all its respective expectations, which were unfortunately carried to extremes by the pompous advertising. They must have been sure: The trademark “Streisand” can bear a lot. If these expectations are not met, but the artist comes up with some surprising or creative innovations, some critics may nod in appreciation and many fans would be surprised in a positive way. Alas, the new concept or genre album by Barbra Streisand does not reveal any musical ingenuities and instead displeases more or less with its colossal and hard-to-excel monotony in arrangement and aims.

After listening to the album for the first time I asked myself whether Streisand and her crew had possibly listened to the whole album in one go. Track after track. If they had done it, doubts would have arisen whether the album could have been offered like that. But as we are aware now – a Barbra Streisand can offer a product like that. And ONLY a Streisand can expect to sell such a conventional album rather successfully in today’s music market. The album was released in October 2003 and joined the 48 other Streisand gold albums as early as November 18th. In April 2004, her “Movie Album” was the thirty-first album to attain platinum status. Barbra could triumph furthermore with a grammy nomination for the “best traditional vocal pop album” (she lost the grammy – it would have been her eleventh - to jazz singer Tony Bennett).

For several years, Streisand has been favouring big or rather “even bigger” orchestras. And she has been working with the same arrangers, producers and musicians for years. Together, they aim for ever the same perfection. Steady perfection, or the search thereof, does get boring very fast if everything and everyone concentrates on it. Creative impulses get nipped in the bud. These paved and well known ways get less and less attractive over the years if nobody of the producers (including Barbra) looks out for other hemispheres of art. In this respect, we can be very thankful that a song like “Calling You” is the sole example of a modern influence that “sneaked” among the otherwise categorically nostalgic selection of songs on the album.

There have been countless famous and not so famous film songs since the invention of cinema. There are songs in any rhythm and from any style or genre one can only think of. “The Movie Album” does not offer a diverse or tempting selection, but there are ONLY ballads. To make it even worse, with two exceptions there are only the slowest of ballads on the album. Were it not for the pauses between the songs, we could think we were listening to a gigantic maxi single that plays the title song with only slight modifications. That much concerning the effect of the music and Streisand’s vocal performance. The rhythm of the fifty minutes album is measured, moderately moved or varying from the next track even “more measured”!

If you managed to stay awake or “struggled” till track number eight “But Beautiful” you might think: Now, it’s going to happen: STANDSTILL! The CD is going to pause right in the middle of the song. The extreme slowness of the song, the e-x-pa-nd-ed slowness of Barbra’s vocal performance dissects the notes and disperses them more than intended by the composer. They seem to be somewhere in a vacuum, just as if they did not belong to the song anymore. Listening to the melody and recognizing that formerly wonderful jazz ballad becomes an extraordinary and arduous task.

The CD begins, however, very relaxed and with an “overly sweet smile”: Barbra sings “Smile”, which is a honeysweet melody by Charlie Chaplin anyway, without a minimum of distance. On the contrary, she uses an extra portion of emotion on top of that. Along with that come some introductory words in the booklet by Barbra revolving around her dog which died shortly before the production of the CD. I like animals by all means, but I don’t like to comment on meaning and aim of these introductory words.

However, one aim of “Movie Album” is unquestionable: The introductory song “Smile” shall arouse nostalgic feelings and, furthermore, it should serve as an atmospheric transition to the emotional world that is cinema. Alas, one can push things too hard, too: The wall of strings surrounding Barbra simply cannot be topped. Along with the languishing violin solo at the end of “Smile” this comes awkwardly close to parody. Clearly, the stress on the violins is beyond all measure.

Here we are dealing with the most important item already: The musical accompaniment of the Movie Album! Along with the symphonic pomp of 75 musicians, very uninspired arrangements blur any originality and authenticity. Yes, there are demanding songs with artfully interwoven melodies (especially: More in Love With You, Wild is the Wind, But Beautiful). What makes them sound that similar is the resembling musical categories along with almost the same pace. Since no contrasting sound material had been chosen, the focus had to be on sophisticated and accentuated arrangements. When listening to the songs of the “Movie Album” for the first few times, one simply cannot differentiate between them, especially so if the songs are new to the listener. Permanent orchestral smoothness or, to use other words, opulent uniformity takes any authenticity and originality away from the songs. Unfortunately, Barbra seldom accomplishes to drag away from the wake and to impress with the usual intensity and force of her voice. Indeed she does not seem to want to. Or does she curb her passion since she does not believe in her voice anymore?

A very desirable assumption for a movie album would have been to set new emphases, to refine popular songs like “Smile” and others. Regarding that I dare say “The Broadway Album: Somewhere!” and I hope everybody understands me. Though art and many other things should not be looked upon in constant comparison I simply cannot refrain from a certain comparison: Streisand’s Broadway Album is a genre album just like her Movie Album.

“The Broadway Album” was released in 1985 and it became known for an all-embracing repertoire of Broadway songs. Slow, fast and extra fast songs, dynamic ballads, happy and sad songs etc. Everything the Broadway is famous for, everything we associate with the Broadway was in that album. “The Movie Album” is unfortunately exactly the opposite. The orchestral arrangements from “The Broadway Album” are discrete and as multifaceted as the selection of the songs: fresh and modern, even with sound samples from computers or other electronics when appropriate. Furthermore, Peter Matz arranged also classics from the Broadway with great aptitude.

The songs of the Movie Album, however, are dominated by a professional, overly cultivated menagerie of strings that are also ultra-conservative in the end. Permanent and penetrating. Maybe the goal was the “epic scope” of a melodrama from the fifties. Indefinable and engrossed company or acoustic background to get lost to the images on the silver screen when we are at the cinema. That would have been pleasant for two or three songs – but for an entire album that’s another story. We are NOT sitting at the cinema, when we listen to Streisand’s Movie Album, but instead we are most likely at home in a familiar environment and WITHOUT the images of the movie world in which we could immerge. Those images which touch us OPTICALLY at the cinema and whose musical background is a marginal feature anyway are not available for us at home. If we listen to a CD, the music is the most important aspect and not the images we could probably imagine while listening.

That’s why I deem listening to the album via headphones advantageous to the ambivalent quality of the album. Streisand’s voice is present to a higher degree and the overly complex orchestra is not that dominating anymore. Thus, the album is not wasted. Provided that one is comfortable with Barbra Streisand’s usage of her once very rich vocal scale that is reduced to “very mellow” here. Apart from some short approaches, she avoids another kind of vocal expression on this CD. Undoubtedly, she still has a beautiful voice, but her interpretation lacks spontaneity and diversification. She only sings dignified and monotonously pretty now. In the length of time, that’s not enticing anymore. But what was it like in former times? Doesn’t Barbra Streisand’s fame as an artist directly relate to her multifaceted interpretation and her unmistakable individual feeling for a song? That’s why she elated people with her very early recordings, her very own versions of “Happy Days Are Here Again” or with Irvin Berlin’s “Suppertime”. Due to Streisand’s typical over-accentuation and the dynamic contrasts of her performance, every song got a very own validity.

But she turns off this sort of singing on most tracks of the movie album. Albeit she should know better and have confidence in herself: her voice is still impressive and the force of her voice is still unbroken. Unfortunately, she shows this talent only when singing a few notes of the second part of the song “You’re Gonna Hear From Me”. In this song, alas only once on the CD, the strings are substituted by a great wind section. But once you’ve remembered and recognized the vintage, passionate Streisand who used to let shivers run down your spine, the CD is through and the listener frustrated. Yes, Barbra can still do it! It is a dynamic and energetic interpretation for a change. How irrelevant that her voice sounds exerted a little. We can easily forgive her here. The CD is practically longing for more songs of that style. This last song “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” leaves me with the hope for a better and more diverse Barbra Streisand.

Actual highlights or really popular songs are rare on the CD. But her version of the most popular song on the album, “Moon River”, is such a highlight. The song begins with faintly spotted guitar sounds, while the orchestra is not as pompous as on the remainder of the CD. The version would have been more authentic and more beautiful, had the orchestra been deleted completely from it and had the producers only relied on guitar and bass on a very economical basis instead. This Streisand version of “Moon River” primarily astounds with the youthfulness that her voice is still capable of and which fits very well to the song and its topic. In the second part of the song, she lends the melody her very own tinge in that she improvises the clear and beautiful melody very sensitively and alters it a bit with a few notes. Without a doubt this is one of the most felicitous tracks on the CD!

The other better tracks of the CD are “Wild Is The Wind”, “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” (a fantastic composition by Michel Legrand, which managed to fascinate in all of its versions yet), “More In Love With You” and the modern orientated “Calling You”. Although Barbra may have lost some of her power or does not act “tempestuous” with her vocals anymore (reasons aside: she can still do it!). “Calling You” clearly succeeds in showing a positive aspect: compared to recordings from the 60s and 70s her voice has evolved in terms of depth and warmth. Her repertoire in pronouncing texts is profound and unmatched.

“More In Love With You” is probably the most inaccessible track. Originally, this was composed as an exclusively instrumental song by André Pervin for the movie “The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1962). Streisand’s experienced composer and writer duo, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, wrote the lyrics for this musically demanding composition. Streisand’s new version of the song features an adequate introduction and continuous orchestration. Hence, regarding the atmosphere the song would better be suited to the Classical Album from 1976. The rough beauty of the melody reveals itself slowly with each rehearsal. This time, amidst her constant and sweet vocals Barbra offers a very short vocal and emotional increase.

But that doesn’t happen very often on her Movie Album. Unfortunately, her interpretations leave the mark of one-dimensionality and missing tension, which in turn evoke an unpleasant feeling of staleness and monotony when listening to the CD. Compared to other entertainers or pop singers, Barbra is still a unique, great and superior singer. But I don’t want to compare her with other artists, but with herself: With Streisand and her art of singing! In this respect, I’ve made my judgement of the Movie Album quite clear. In my opinion, the CD lacks the great devotion as well as a more intelligent and inspirational orchestration and a more entertaining and interesting selection of songs.

Whoever read my review of Streisand’s previous studio album “Christmas Memories” (2001), can certainly charge me with repetition as to the main aspects of criticism. That may even be in order, but the reason is that Barbra repeats herself with her recent recordings. (Big orchestras accompany her in the same manner, only ballads etc.) Many Streisand fans complained that her CD sounded like a sequel to “A Love Like Ours” (1999) or “Christmas Memories”. On “A Love Like Ours”, however, Barbra had not yet banished any kind of virtuosity from her performance. In addition, the musical material for the album was much more diverse, an example being that the Movie Album clearly lacks an “intensive ballad” like “Just one Lifetime”.

Meanwhile, there is certainty that “The Movie Album” has been the Streisand CD which polarised the most. Sparse reviews in German press were mediocre or outright bad: Bored and disinterested critics described the CD shortly and dismissed it. The best album of recent years, “Higher Ground”, had not experienced such a treatment. Although Barbra Streisand still experiences a lot of praise by her fans, a big minority of her fans uttered dissatisfaction with this album or were often enough outright negative about it. It’s very uncommon that a new Streisand CD cannot captivate all her fans anymore. Some of the greatest of Streisand’s worshippers said to me they couldn’t “feel” anything when listening to this CD.

At least for these people (including me) that’s the case: Although some tracks of the album are worth listening to, Barbra’s voice is still flawless within its boundaries and does hardly show effects of aging, and the quality of the production is top-notch, “The Movie Album” clearly missed the point. In effect, this ambitious concept album shows: Barbra missed an opportunity. Although this album is the most expensive of Streisand’s albums to date (this being also part of the promotion), the album failed to be a late work to crown her career. On the other hand, we can expect to experience one or two or even more “late works”. And maybe Streisand will be doing something totally “different” once again soon and contemplates about the notions of those who have been longing for a so-called “lift up” of sound and songs for quite some time now.

For the purposes of the cover of the movie album – which has been the most beautiful and precious cover for years – a ten year old photo of Barbra was “modernised” with a computer.

“The Movie Album” received an outward “lift up”. The “inner life” of the CD was much more in need.

April 2004