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by Pat Cerasaro
In the opening song on Barbra Streisand's stunning new album, RELEASE ME (produced by Streisand and Jay Landers)- a career-spanning collection of rarities and recordings that have been heretofore hidden away in vast vaults and rarely even referenced, let alone ever heard - she powerfully imparts a lyric from the Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Jule Styne score of the Arthur Laurents-directed Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 1968, HALLELUJAH, BABY!, also acting as an oh-so-apt autobiographical summation: "I'll be the best or nothing at all." Indeed, so goes the legacy of Barbra Streisand - the voice of a generation; the greatest living recording artist, bar (or, if you prefer, Bar) none; who, now, today, is in the final stages of preparation before embarking on her new tour in conjunction with the release of this new album, directed by longtime creative collaborator and co-director, Richard Jay-Alexander with musical director and conductor William Ross. A concert tour where, if we are lucky enough to manage to score a seat in the audience, we may even be deigned with the honor of hearing her 2012 take on some of this material - the entirety of which was originally recorded anywhere from 2011 to forty years ago (or more). That these vocal takes and musical arrangements hold up as glitteringly as they do after all of these years comes No Doubt as a direct result of the impeccable taste exhibited by Streisand and her collaborators throughout her career. Just as every single album of the sixty or so she has released thus far unquestionably owns its own special corner of the musical universe and Galactic album collective - to say nothing of a hallowed space on the shelves of Barbra fans, ages 8 to 108, the world over - in the same way does RELEASE ME satisfy many musical desires we may never have even known we have had until given the Extreme pleasure of hearing it. RELEASE ME is a true treasure trove in the best sense of the term - it is not just a lost gem, but an entire, newly-unearthed tomb of crown jewels and diadems; an ark all its own (and an overall arc, as well).
Classics, then-contemporary new compositions, obscurities and more, it would be difficult for the song-stack of RELEASE ME to cover more emotional, narrative, musical and dramatic territory than it manages to traverse over the course of the album's compact, but expertly balanced 42-minute running time. While perhaps in casting a cursory glance at the tracklist you may immediately assume that the limited number of selections may seem slightly slim, it becomes blaringly apparent once you have heard everything from "Being Good Isn't Good Enough" to "Home" that adding anything else at all would be gilding this lily - as it stands, sounds and feels to this listener, at least, RELEASE ME could rightly be released as a long-lost Barbra Streisand album from the 1960s or 1970s exactly as is (sporadic session dialogue removed) and not even the most ardent admirer would bat an eye at falling for it head over heels. From Broadway at its biggest and best to bluesy, aching dirges to country-tinged love songs, evocative romantic musings and dramatic character explorations - plus, some psychedelic, indescribably out-there material like "Lost In Wonderland"; and, the rousing closer, "Home", from THE WIZ - RELEASE ME is the album fans and (even) neophytes alike have always wanted, but really never knew that we did... until now. So, release a rightly relief-infused sigh in regard to RELEASE ME and its many merits - as if there were ever any doubt that it would be flawless - and read why it is so good. And how. And, how good is bettered.
Lost In Wonderland
Like the pseudo-Alice at the center of the surreal, bossa nova-flecked story-song "Lost In Wonderland", so, too, does taking this trip into Barbra Streisand's vaults in listening to RELEASE ME feel like a fantastically far-out acid trip from days gone by - a fully-formed fever dream become tangibly tactile and real. It is a dream realized and come alive right in our living rooms - a Cheshire cat conjured up before our very eyes, now entertaining us and vying for our rapt attention. An apparition - and an oasis. Covering a vast array of musical styles and genres, RELEASE ME defies traditional description in nearly every way insofar as Barbra Streisand's back catalog and any comparison to it is generally concerned, yet, somehow, at the same time, it fits right in all the same. Despite the nature of the product, it nevertheless inexplicably feels complete and entirely of-one-piece; whole - that is, preferably, without the incidental interjections from the studio sessions that are elegantly woven throughout the album experience; although those moments, as well, are not unlike the interludes and candid moments more ubiquitous in the early days of Streisand's recording career in the mid-1960s. Even the cover itself evokes a throwback, 1970s-styled LP, complete with the alluring, striking visual wink to THE EYES OF Laura MaRS (especially befitting, of course, since Barbra famously made a hit of "Prisoner", the horror/thriller film's hit theme). An enticing cover to match an expectations-exceeding album - old or new, then or now, this album is really, really good. It is the very best that an album of this type could possibly hope to be - and then some.
Just as A CHRISTMAS ALBUM made verifiable magic out of the melancholy and even maudlin, so, too, does RELEASE ME reveal many of its richest rewards in the most dramatic, emotional material - after all, this is all being performed by the ultimate singer who acts (and who should be doing both even more than she does). Jimmy Webb's rapturous ode to what will never be and could never be, "Didn't We", is infused with a pleading, heartbreaking hopefulness that only deepens the blow when the message of the lyrics become painfully present as it wears on - like a top-tier surgeon, Streisand can hone in not only on the organ of the heart itself, but to any microscopically specific location therein and center in on it; controlling it all. Larry Gatlin's country cut-out from the SUPERMAN recording sessions in the 1970s offers us the rare chance of hearing a Barbra-done-Dolly and the results are unexpectedly delightful; it feels authentic, arising from the heart. Additionally, "Mother And Child" is another vehicle by which we may Witness the actress and vocalist at the height of her peerless powers - where, in the tradition of the Bacharach/David mash-up hallmark, "One Less Bell to Answer/A House Is Not A Home", she duets with herself - and the result is devastating. A more cathartic and emotionally enveloping album of disparate tracks from Decades of unrelated recording sessions could not have been conjured from out of thin air by the greatest magicians the new world or old world has ever known, yet here it is. Here she is.
Then or now, Streisand becomes her songs when she sings them and on RELEASE ME she is seemingly living in that moment on all of these tracks - no, there is nary a dud in the bunch. As she reveals in the album's liner notes, perfectionism was paramount back in the days she recorded most of this material and the sole reason we have not heard much of it until now basically comes down to shockingly small discrepancies in the vocal takes or arrangements; she relates in the liner notes, "If I didn't like a few notes or the arrangement wasn't exactly right, I wouldn't release the song. After all, records are forever!" And, now, RELEASE ME is forever. A vocal highlight of an album overflowing with technical prowess aplenty, "Willow Weep For Me" is a 1967 cut-out from the SIMPLY STREISAND recording sessions that is, in a word, scintillating. "With One More Look At You" gives us a chance to revisit A STAR IS BORN-era Streisand (with or without the 'fro) and the appreciably groovy styling of the 1970s, showcasing yet another soundscape in the apparently limitless scope of sounds created by this legendary chanteuse over the decades, just as the sonic landscape itself shifted so severely and dramatically from 1965 to 2011. Reflecting the most experimental side of Streisand's catalog is the aforementioned addlepated oddity "Lost In Wonderland" (music by Antonio Carlos Jobim), which is best left unspoiled as far as content goes (this being a first review and all); but, in brief, "weird" barely even begins to describe it. In this case, the same could be said for "Wow!" as a matter of fact. Unforgettable. And, it was preserved in one take! The early-release single from the album, Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today", is this album's answer to the ravishing Jacques Brel ballad, "Ne Me Quitte Pas", that Streisand perfected on her ONE NIGHT ONLY: LIVE AT The Village Vanguard album in 2010 - it is stormy, insinuating and positively sublime in the enacting of and maintaining of the alluring, hazy mood it creates and the drizzly, damp world it explores. It is almost like a sonic depiction of Lars Von Trier's MELANCHOLIA in its own supremely sad, forlorn way. The most recent recording on the album, "If It's Meant To Be Me" - captured in August, 2011, for WHAT MATTERS MOST, but absent from the final mix - uses theatrical metaphors with resonant, memorable flair and Streisand sounds as polished, perfected and poised on it as on any other track therein, no matter the date; without a doubt, the bloom is still brilliantly bright and luminous on this rose (or, soon, we can hope, on Rose in GYPSY). Like an opera or a musical made up of microcosms of the many stages of Streisand's career thus far, particularly in the style and overall sound of each song, RELEASE ME is all Streisand albums altogether in one and something all its own at the same time, too. It is a total anomaly - and a complete joy."Being Good Isn't Good Enough", in a similar fashion to one of other theatrically-derived tunes on RELEASE ME ("Home"), was originally recorded during the sessions for THE Broadway ALBUM in the early 1980s and it stands alongside that superlative, decade-defining release, with a ONE VOICE-era Streisand in absolute tip-top vocal form - in this instance, putting across the demeanor and drive of a powerhouse performer with a giant, gutsy barn-burner, belting her heart and soul out ala Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN. A big Broadway moment done more than merely due diva diligence by the queen of them all - packing a plosive punch. Slam! Wham! Bam! What a way to kick it all off in the grandest of manners - with a brassy Jule Styne song, no less. So, too, do the other big musical theatre moments on the album score in spine-tingling, standing-ovation-inducing ways, as well - a sensitively rendered and ravishingly arranged medley (by Rupert Holmes) of pop crossover hits from two Celtic-themed theatre classics, especially; "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" from FINIAN'S RAINBOW and "The Heather On The Hill" from BRIGADOON, first recorded for BACK TO Broadway in 1988. Others may find "Home" from the 1970s Oz-themed staple THE WIZ to be the knockout of them all, though, and it would be hard to argue with the committed, contained way with which Streisand navigates the emotional escalator of its Charlie Smalls-composed content as it builds and builds to that beautiful blast-off of a climax and conclusion, as she finally lets loose completely for the final line and unforgettable last note. Collectively, these tracks are a trio of musical theatre masterpieces done divinely well and makes the Broadway babies among us desperately yearn for Barbra's long-awaited return to dramatic musicals even more than before - it is her one true home, always. If "Being Good Isn't Good Enough" is the rocket blasting off, then "Home" is where and when we finally hit the stratosphere - and, as it ends, we are left among the stars and stardust; breathless, exhausted and spent, but exhilarated. For those yearning for the Barbra of the especially enlivened eras of THE Broadway ALBUM and BACK TO BROADWAY, RELEASE ME is the most awesome and unexpected of wishes fulfilled - in full and in full-bloom. A rose.
The album opener, "Being Good", is a roof-raising showstopper along The Loftily high lines of "Don't Rain On My Parade" from FUNNY GIRL - well, close; it's Mighty tough to top that incandescent standard and the original singing of it - so it seems especially fitting that the next piece from the oeuvre of Styne for Streisand to take on would be the ultimate role of a lifetime (even for her, potentially): Rose in GYPSY on the big screen. As RELEASE ME clearly and copiously shows, she has certainly got The Goods - or, in this case, the bests.
To pre-order the vinyl release, click here. To pre-order the CD release, click here.