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Monday, July 25, 2016

Cher: Backstage

CHER: BACKSTAGE (1968)

1) Go Now; 2) Carnival (Manhã De Carnaval); 3) It All Adds Up Now; 4) Reason To Believe; 5) Masters Of War; 6) Do You Believe In Magic; 7) I Wasn't Ready; 8) A House Is Not A Home; 9) Take Me For A Little While; 10) The Impossible Dream (The Quest); 11) The Click Song; 12) Song Called Children.

Whatever hope may have been gained with the relative success of With Love was just as easily scattered away with Backstage, the inevitable next dip in quality in this endless win-some-lose-some game. Honestly, it is not easy to understand what they were thinking: this album, in sharp contrast to the previous one, has no original material whatsoever, not a single new Sonny Bono composition, and its choice of covers generally ranges from the tacky to the ridiculous.

Admittedly, the opening cover of ʽGo Nowʼ (probable reasoning behind the inclusion: «The Moody Blues are no longer doing this, so let's grab it before somebody else does!») is surprising­ly fine, with an almost dazzlingly complex arrangement of lead organ, brass, and strings, and with Cher herself rising to the challenge — apparently, her natural timbre is just perfect for all these "whoah-oh-oh-oh" bits, and besides, she usually sounds more convincing when telling some­body to go rather than stay, so it's okay. It's a powerhouse of a song that is well suited to her persona­lity, even if it was a little strange to try and rekindle the old flame whose overall relevance had ended with the passing of the original Moody Blues.

But what follows next is misfire after misfire. The theme from Black Orpheus, neither properly Latin in nature nor passionate in execution. Tim Hardin's beautiful ʽReason To Believeʼ, perfor­med by a well-meaning string quintet but sung without an ounce of real interest. Dylan's ʽMasters Of Warʼ, oddly reinvented as a sitar drone — I think Cher tried to think of herself as Joan Baez when doing it, but she still has a hard time mustering the tense hatred necessary to make this song work on the alleged gut level. The Lovin' Spoonful's ʽDo You Believe In Magic?ʼ, slowed and softened up — I'd never think that this song, one of the catchiest tunes of its epoch, could ever be murdered by anything short of being reinvented as a combo of generic synth-pop and hair metal, but apparently, all it takes is turning all the instrumental and vocal hooks into sonic mush, and that is precisely what is being done here.

Worst of all, if you really needed a perfect signal here of the «Not To Be Taken Seriously!» vari­ety, she gives it in the form of a cover of Miriam Makeba's ʽThe Click Songʼ — why? The lady does her best to learn the few necessary lines phonetically, but, of course, she is unable to pro­nounce even a single click, and the whole thing is 1968's musical equivalent of amusing people by putting on blackface (in the same year, that is). The most amazing thing is that they actually put it out as the first single from the album — probably the single not just most tasteless, but also the most commercially suicidal decision in Cher's career up to that point. Of course, the single did not even begin to chart, and I would not be surprised to learn that it may have made a laughing stock out of the artist at that moment (this was, after all, before "Cher" and "Las Vegas kitsch" became near-perfect synonyms).

Overall, the only recommendable tracks remain the opener and the closer: Bob West's ʽSong Called Childrenʼ is another excellent example of baroque instrumentation — a small chamber ensemble combining neo-romanticism with neo-classicism and providing a great background against which Cher's melodramatic delivery, mechanical as it is, acquires a certain epic quality. (Unfortunately, not having heard the original, I cannot say just how original this particular musi­cal arrangement is, but in any case, it has a breath of its own, regardless of whoever is singing on top of it — a saving grace for all these early Cher albums in general: some of the arrangements by the Wrecking Crew and other musicians stand the test of time much better than the singer's cool-calm-collected anti-emotionality).

In a way, Backstage closes the door on the first period of Cher's solo career — jamming a few toes in the progress. As long as Sonny could still write inventive baroque-pop ballads for her, the results could be at least mildly touching; once things were out of his hands, no amount of 18th century strings could save us from the schmaltz. Things were bound to reach nadir sooner or later, and there is nothing that could save Backstage from an embarrassed thumbs down, yet its criti­cal and commercial success did some good at least inasmuch as they gave the lady a pretext to cast off some of her musical past, and open up the next, and arguably the most interesting and redeeming chapter of that strange career.

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