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Monday, November 18, 2013

Brenda Lee: Reflections In Blue


1) Here's That Rainy Day; 2) You'll Never Know; 3) Baby Won't You Please Come Home; 4) Can't Help Falling In Love; 5) I'll Only Miss Him When I Think Of Him; 6) Am I Blue; 7) If I Had You; 8) Close To You; 9) Little Girl Blue; 10) I Will Wait For You.

This one's sort of a cult favorite — all of a sudden, Brenda's producers decided to add an unex­pected twist to her balladeering image, and recast her in the image of a moody vocal jazz perfor­mer, sort of like a Rosemary Cloonie or a Blossom Dearie. Normally, that's a smart move: you can allow yourself to remain sweet, sappy, and sentimental, but at the same time pretend to true emotional depth and gain points with the critics. But does it really work with Brenda Lee?

I mean, we all have to ask ourselves that question at least twice — if only to beat the common prejudice against «turf-shifting»: naturally, Brenda Lee is not a well-trained or deeply experien­ced jazz singer, and one either has to be completely ignorant of that field, or allow a certain de­gree of tolerance for the «amateur intruder», in order to judge the whole thing impartially. It also makes matters twice as bad when, like your humble servant, one has fairly little tolerance for «vocal jazz», particularly orchestrated sentimental vocal jazz, in the first place, and requires a performer of outstandingly unique quality (such as Ms. Billie) to override the intolerance.

That said, it's not as if the problems of Reflections In Blue were all that different from all of Brenda's problems in the post-1962 era. There are no technical flaws to her voice, but the delivery on all these songs — regardless of whether they deal with loss of love or discovery — is always the same: loud, powerful, professional, monotonous, predictable, and perfunctory. Okay, so she respects the melody and the lyrics sheet, but that works fine for an evening's entertainment in a local jazz club, not for a record with supposed replay value. Okay, so some of the songs are ack­nowledged clas­sics of the genre, but the overriding lush strings reduce them all to the lowest common denominator. And whoever came up with the sequencing that places the old aching classic Bessie Smith tune ʽBaby Won't You Please Come Homeʼ right next to ʽCan't Help Falling In Loveʼ should be hung, drawn, and quartered.

In any case, all credibility goes out the window when an album like this finishes on such a patho-bombastic note as ʽI Will Wait For Youʼ: nothing against Umbrellas of Cherbourg in general, but they fit in with Bessie Smith about as well as milk with pickles. I am not saying that Brenda was completely «out of it» — I mean, let's face it, 1967 was as much the year of Barbra Streisand as it was the year of Jimi Hendrix — I do mean, however, that Reflections In Blue crudely and cruel­ly nipped the «para-Motown transformation», attempted with ʽComing On Strongʼ, in the bud, and that, in the end, it won her nothing. Yes, in terms of song selection and overall image, it is a step forward from the totally empty balladeering of yesterday, but one that still would not allow the girl to properly compete with the big names. A historical curio, worth getting to know for reasons of perspective, but for little else. Oh well, at least it somehow stands out from all those other faceless albums, so indistinguishable from one another.


  1. At least Barbara Streisand didn't have such an outdated haircut as Brenda Lee in 1967.

    Normally I don't pay attention to such things as image and quality music aren't exactly related. Brenda Lee largely being a marketing product I think it has some predictive power in her case.
    Of course I hate the lush violins (the violin is my favourite instrument - but play it like David Oistrakh or Simon House please) as much as always. So jazzy or not, no way I'm going to try this album.

  2. Who the hell was this particular "product" being marketed at? Certainly not teenagers of either gender - the boys had Cream, Jimi, and the Stones, while the girls had the Beatles, Monkees, and the Mamas and Papas. So, if you realize that Brenda was being purposely marketed at a different demographic than the one that constituted probably 80% of the buying market in those days, you're left with...grandfathers, whose interest in Brenda was probably, at least in part, less than strictly ethical by the prevailing standards of the day, if you know what I mean!

    1. Maix, have to disagree with that gender divide you're positing. Boys AND girls in 1967 clearly loved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, for instance. The Stones as guys' guys and the Beatles as girl-pleasing pop stars is a formulation so old, tired, and false it deserves a decent burial.

      As for who was buying Brenda Lee's product in 67: probably a lot of middle-aged folks, the same ones buying the Montavani and 101 Strings records that can be found at any thrift store today. The market for dinner-party music in the 60s was still strong, and not confined to grandparents.

    2. I wasn't positing a serious gender divide that would suggest that no male teenagers would buy Beatles records. I was just making a very broad generalization as a bit of cultural shorthand for the time. But yeah, I was being a bit too broad.

      As to who really was buying Brenda Lee products of this type, yes, it probably was middle aged folks who would also buy 101 Strings and Sinatra albums. It's just pathetic that a performer like Brenda Lee, who could have easily been marketed in the same breath with Dusty Springfield or Julie Driscoll, ended up being tarred with the hideous reputation of becoming a female Engelbert instead.

    3. Thanks for the reasonable reply! I'm just especially weary of that kind of generalization when it's made seriously. And I agree with you about it's being a pity that Lee got shunted into the land of syrupy strings. Her vocal talent deserved better.

    4. Who bought that? Well, maybe the same people who bought the Carpenters in the 70s. Not every young person in the 60s was into rock.

    5. Not to mention Brenda's original audience might be "old-fashioned" towards cutting edge 60s music. Remember, rock developed at fastest speed in those years. She's from the Elvis generation, and you could easily imagine some old Elvis or Brenda fan in his late 20s - early 30s in 1967, having lost touch with rock's evolution due to other things in life taking center stage. You might have been a rocker, but spend 1964-66 away from the radio and the kids' music in 1967 would be noise to you.

    6. "a different demographic than the one that constituted probably 80% of the buying market in those days"
      This I dispute. Not even in my teenage days - largely 1975-1981 - youngsters had that much money to spend. And they far from all spend their money on cutting edge stuff. Just consult:

      and see how popular Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck were.

      Once again it was the same at the end of the 70's. Besides Iggy Pop with Lust for Life there were also Chicago's If you leave me now and various hits by The Brotherhood of Man.