Glenn Gould once called Barbra Streisand’s voice "one of the natural wonders of the age." He was right in 1976, and he is right today. There is, to my ears anyway, no suggestion that at age 74 she is very far from the height of her considerable powers. Talent is something Streisand has always had in abundance. It is taste that has always been the problem.
I don’t mean this in the sense that she is bad at picking material. My theory is that she has contempt for a lot of people, her peers and her audience in particular. How else to explain an album like What About Today?, with its cringe-inducing, laughter-filled Doris Day-style readings of Lennon/McCartney and Paul Simon tunes? It’s like she is saying, "I can’t believe some of you have been listening to this garbage."
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Well, Babs, some of us don’t want to play along anymore. This new album, Encore, is a kind of deconstruction of the awful duets record that everyone from Frank Sinatra to Willie Nelson to B.B. King to Van Morrison—can Madonna and Dee Snider be too far away?—ends up making. The template is simple and well established. Take a star, assign him or her around 12 partners and just as many songs from the artist’s heyday, deck the album out in whatever the worst going thing in production is (today it’s a kind of maximal throwback schmaltz à la those Lady Gaga/Tony Bennett records), and win a Grammy or two. The feckless maestros at the organization formerly known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences can’t get enough.
The genius, if you can call it that, of Encore is to say, "You know, we could get Johnny Mathis and Natalie Cole and Michael McDonald and Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor, staid professionals all—but instead let’s get a bunch of people who are barely known for singing." Did you see that Ray Charles biopic from a few years ago and think, "Wow, the guy lip synching and doing a cringe-worthy SNL-level burlesque of Brother Ray is probably an awesome singer"? What about the bearded X-Men guy who was in the film version of Les Misérables, or the woman—not Carrie Fisher, the other one—from the new Star Wars? On a scale of "I’d buy a deluxe 180-gram vinyl release with an alternate cover from Urban Outfitters" to "Yeah, I’d rather walk into traffic," how badly would you say you want to hear Melissa McCarthy perform "Anything You Can Do"? Do you even know who Chris Pine is?
The whole is, on paper anyway, very funny. Listening to Seth McFarlane—who said in a recent interview that Streisand’s invitation to join this project "shocked the hell" out of him—croon tepidly through four and a half minutes of "Pure Imagination" is another matter. At least McFarlane has been known to sing now and then, albeit primarily in the role of a cartoon dog on his television show. Alec Baldwin doesn’t even try. His plodding sing-speak on "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" makes Antonio Banderas—who did, after all, get nominated for a Tony a few years ago—sound like Barry Manilow on "Take Me to the World." What does it say about your record when a representative above average cut on it is Zorro doing a pretty good job with a song from an obscure Sondheim TV musical?
Either the best or the worst thing here, depending on one’s perspective, is "Anything You Can Do" sung with the star of this year’s Ghostbusters remake. The track begins with Streisand correcting McCarthy’s pronunciation of her last name ("Streisand, like ‘sand’: soft S") and encompasses a not-very-subtle joke about the comedienne’s weight. I say best in the sense that it is the shortest track, and worst in every other regard. Almost as bad is Jamie Foxx’s histrionic Boyz 2 Men impersonation on "Climb Ev’ry Mountain."
You will notice that I have said almost nothing above about Streisand’s voice in these recordings. What is there to say? She is perfect and aloof throughout. I hope she had fun.