The value of Rod Stewart’s third entry in his Great American Songbook series is purely a function of how you look at it, or, technically, listen to it.
The point of a renowned, veteran singer taking on the Great American Songbook — the loose canon of 20th century standards recorded umpteen times by the sainted, the brave and the foolish — is one of two things: either bringing those songs to a new audience through the filter of a familiar voice — which Rod most certainly IS doing — or more ambitiously, reinvigorating the songs, breathing new life into them, infusing them with the unique personality of the singer. This Rod is not really doing.
On Stardust: The Great American Songbook Volume lll, in stores October 19, Rod is suave, amiable, and clearly enjoying himself wrapping his famous raspy tenor around such “adult” songs as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” the Gershwin brothers’ “Embraceable You” “‘S Wonderful” and “But Not For Me,” Rogers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” (with Eric Clapton soloing on acoustic guitar) “Isn’t It Romantic” and “Manhattan,” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”
And while any one of these is perfectly swell, and the novelty of hearing the great rock singer croon the standards holds one’s attention for a time, the sameyness of Stewart’s approach to each of these, and Bob Mann’s arrangements — spare and admirable on a song-by-song basis, but virtually indistinguishable in aggregate — drag the effort down as a whole.
Perfect examples of what I am trying to get at are two tunes associated with Louis Armstrong, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “What a Wonderful World.” Armstrong’s versions of these songs drip with personality, from Satchmo’s magical, inimitable phrasing, to the jagged, smoked-out voice, to the human being, being utterly himself and fully embodying the songs at the same time. Armstrong lives these songs – Stewart sings them, well and pleasantly make no mistake – but the difference is dimensional. Rod touches the songs, Louis touches us.
Rod’s most successful performances include “For Sentimental Reasons,” the melody of which matches up well against his voice and inspires him, he embraces and lingers over the lyrics as if they mean something to him; “Manhattan,” a duet with Bette Midler, is low-keyed but Bette brings a spark missing elsewhere, and their harmonies bring fresh colors to the record’s palette. And speaking of duets, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which has become a holiday staple over the last several years, with Dolly Parton ( a very experienced ingenue) works as well, though Stewart doesn’t quite muster the endearing lasciviousness of a Dean Martin.
This is a nice CD, an admirable CD, but one that fails to move Stewart into the range of the great interpreters of the songbook: Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, or even a Stewart contemporary, Bryan Ferry.
In a similar vein, Queen Latifah’s new Dana Owens Album is stunningly assured, accomplished and varied – I’d go with that one.