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Monday, August 22, 2016

Cher: Bittersweet White Light


1) By Myself; 2) I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good; 3) Am I Blue; 4) How Long Has This Been Going On; 5) The Man I Love; 6) Jolson Medley; 7) More Than You Know; 8) Why Was I Born; 9) The Man That Got Away.

Surprisingly, this isn't that bad. Temporarily (actually, for the last time) under Sonny's productive control again, Cher retains the Vegas angle, but now it is applied to material that is more Vegasy by definition — the Great American Songbook — and the entire record is given over to lushly arranged, sprawling, time-taking covers of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and other Tin Pan Alley wonders. Of course, for a formerly «rocking» (to some extent) artist to record an album of golden oldies in the middle of 1973 was bound to be a commercial suicide, and so it was — prompting another rift between Cher and Sonny, and the eventual return into the hands of the more «modern-sensitive» Snuff Garrett. But nowadays, as we don't expect all that much from any Cher album by definition, it somehow manages to stand out as a particularly odd curiosity, for at least a couple of reasons.

One: it is curious to hear Cher's powerhouse approach applied to these songs — usually, you hear them as romantic and sentimental, or as melancholic and introspective if they're done by a Billie Holiday, or, you know, Sinatra-style, or Ella-style, but how about hearing them done in "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in" style? Because most of these Tin Pan Alley creations are really only what the performer makes them — and Cher takes a big whip to all of them and makes them scale epic heights, as if, you know, she was some kind of Juno and the average male protagonist of every song was some kind of Jupiter, and we'd be sitting in the amphitheater and watching them sort it out on Olympus through a looking-glass. (Although that does not prevent her from having her little jokes — it is quite telling that the first song in the ʽAl Jolson Medleyʼ is ʽSonny Boyʼ: "Climb upon my knee, Sonny boy / You are only three, Sonny boy" — I do so hope the dynamic duo made good use of that line on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour).

Two: the arrangements. They are actually above the generic Vegasy level, because Sonny Bono, the great lover of complex, multi-layered sound, drags just about every instrument possible in the studio and produces really thick, lush, polyphonic tracks — listen to ʽWhy Was I Bornʼ, for in­stance, where, in addition to the strings, you have flutes, brass, piano, harps, electric guitar (actu­ally, two electric guitars in a call-and-response session), and once Cher ceases singing, there's also a lengthy semi-psychedelic coda, with each of the instruments forming a gentle swaying wave of its own: honestly, it is hard to imagine the staggering amount of work that must have gone into this arrangement — and for what? Just so that the album could flop, because everybody would predictably concentrate on the a priori foolishness of the idea of Cher singing Tin Pan Alley material?.. Geez, Sonny boy, perhaps you were only three after all.

But on the other hand, it's really not that foolish. The combination of Sonny's production with Cher's Gargantuan vocals results in something that's somewhere half between kitsch and artistic bravery, and besides, you'd need Gargantuan vocals to rise above all the wall-of-sound ruckus created by a dozen or so musicians at once (listen to ʽThe Man I Loveʼ — strings, trumpets, gui­tars, and piano all compete with each other, caught in a wild bet on who of them, precisely, will be able to drown out Cher's voice... they all lose in the end, as she sustains that last note for about 20 seconds, which, come to think of it, comes a good quarter century before A-ha's ʽSummer Moved Onʼ, so, Morten, eat your Harket out!). So, in the end, there's something good about the idea, even if I can't quite put my finger on it. Really, I can't give the album a thumbs up because, honestly, I, too, couldn't care less about Cher doing the G.A.S., but at least they tried a highly unusual angle here, and it's up to anybody to decide if that angle really means something or if it's just a failed attempt at genre appropriation. In any case, worth hearing at least once.

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