People who know me are usually shocked to discover I like Liza Minnelli, as if all her fans fit the exactly same profile. She is a polarizing artist, to say the least, and I’ve found that many people who despise the woman actually know very little of her work. Minnelli certainly hasn’t remained blameless in the tarnishing of her reputation, with many distasteful tabloid headlines to her credit. But when friends ask me where my appreciation for Minnelli comes from, I’ve always directed them to the most underrated film in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, New York, New York. In that generally overlooked 1977 gem, Minnelli held her own against Robert De Niro at his peak — no small accomplishment – while delivering sassy, swinging vocals on a number of songs. Next, I point the Liza-doubters towards the short-lived TV show Arrested Development, which featured Minnelli in the brilliantly played recurring role of Lucille Austero.
If those examples aren’t enough evidence of her value for the non-showtune fanatic, I suggest the newly released The Complete A&M Recordings. This double-CD collects four Minnelli albums originally released between 1968 and 1972. The music has been carefully remastered for this package, which marks the first time Minnelli’s entire A&M catalog has been released on CD. Extensive liner notes provide background information about the recordings, placing them in proper context within her career. Over the course of 51 songs (which includes several bonus tracks), a surprising amount of stylistic ground is covered. In other words, it isn’t just for lovers of Broadway.
The first ten tracks on disc one are the entirety of 1968’s Liza Minnelli, her A&M debut. Released when Minnelli was just 21 years old, the album is a relatively low key affair. A variety of styles are touched upon, while remaining categorizable as ‘middle of the road’ pop. There are a few nice readings of Randy Newman tunes, “The Debutante’s Ball,” “Happyland,” and “So Long Dad.” The Lennon/McCartney classic “For No One” receives an interesting treatment. In this melodramatic interpretation, the song’s unique second-person perspective is replaced by a more conventional third-person approach. Other songs found here would later become concert showstoppers, such as “My Mammy” and “Married/You Better Sit Down, Kids,” both of which reappear on disc two.
Five bonus tracks follow Liza Minnelli, including another Randy Newman song, “Snow.” My favorites are the four bossa nova tracks featuring Brazilian musician/singer/composer Luiz Henrique. These songs are so spare in their acoustic arrangements, and Minnelli’s delivery so subtly nuanced, that they are perhaps the highlights of the entire collection. None of the brassy, Broadway-styled belting so associated with Minnelli is found in these intimate, demo-like outtakes. Best of all is the reinterpretation of the 1927 chestnut “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” during which Minnelli lets slip an embarrassed chuckle as she loses her timing momentarily. These Latin flavored performances are so delicate and refreshingly spontaneous sounding, I wish she had done more like them.
1969’s Come Saturday Morning makes up the final eleven tracks on disc one, and they are similar in mood and atmosphere to the first album. A number of well known pop John Denver’s “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” is among the pop tunes covered. Other well-known tunes include “MacArthur Park” and a bright and sunny romp through Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wherefore and Why.” Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” is another particular highlight. The Randy Newman songbook is again revisited, this time with “Love Story.” All told, disc one is a quietly effective collection of easy listening mainstream pop.
Moving on to the second disc, 1970’s New Feelin’ brings something entirely different to the table. The idea here was to take standards from the Great American Songbook and update them with groove oriented arrangements. It’s an interesting approach that sometimes come across as slightly corny. After all, we’re not talking about James Brown by any means. Even so, Minnelli’s go-for-broke takes on “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “The Man I Love,” which are impressive examples of stretching artistically. This is the material that will most surely surprise those with strong preconceived notions about her style.
After a few more bonus tracks, including a pair of lovely Burt Bacharach tunes, the collection arrives at Liza Minnelli as most people envision her: brassy, gaudy, a bit over arranged, and live on stage. Live At the Olympia In Paris finds Minnelli in front of an appreciative French audience, putting on what was probably a dazzling show. Of course, hearing the recording is only half the experience. Minnelli works a stage so well, it’s better to have the accompanying visuals. Nevertheless, plenty of the music captured on this 1972 release is worth hearing. “My Mammy” is the stand-out, though not as dynamic as some versions I’ve heard. A fairly garish medley of “Everybody’s Talking” and “Good Morning Starshine” tries slightly too hard — and those two songs don’t work well together. An all-French version of “Liza With a Z” is a fun novelty. Ultimately this might please Broadway fans the most, but I enjoyed it least among the four albums collected.
For Minnelli fans, The Complete A&M Recordings is a dream come true and worth every penny. As for those who believe she is an artist who appeals to an extremely narrow demographic, there is ample evidence to the contrary within these two discs. This release proves her to be a unique interpreter of material from sometimes surprising sources.