CHER: STARS (1975)
1) Love Enough; 2) Bell Bottom Blues; 3) These Days; 4) Mr. Soul; 5) Just This One Time; 6) Geronimo's Cadillac; 7) The Bigger They Come The Harder They Go; 8) Love Hurts; 9) Rock And Roll Doctor; 10) Stars.
This is a curious one. With Cher's divorce finalized at last, she became involved with David Geffen, who got her out of her old MCA contract and procured a new one for her — with Warner Bros., sort of implying that the woman should now be able to shake off her vaudevillian image and get serious. And for a while, she did: getting away not just from Sonny, but from Snuff Garrett as well, she teamed up with Jimmy Webb (a far more serious producer, not to mention songwriter) and, in the place of fluffy oldies and corporate corn, independently selected a bunch of serious material to cover. Just look at that track listing — Derek & The Dominos, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Ian, Little Feat, Jackson Browne (actually, ʽThese Daysʼ is even more associated with Nico, who recorded it first), Jimmy Cliff? That's some goddamn taste out there, even if the album sleeve still leaves a lot to be desired.
More importantly, there are some nifty touches that actually make some of these covers interesting — I do not know for how many of them Cher might be directly responsible, but this is of little significance, as long as she has a wise guiding hand behind her. ʽBell Bottom Bluesʼ, in particular, might be the best ever cover of this song — not only because the lead singer finds herself capable of genuine emotion (she shakes, quivers, screams, in short, does everything in her power to sound more like a real human being than a Dark Plastic Queen), but also because of the backing vocals singing "I don't want to fade away..." in a much more inventive and gripping manner than on the original — the second repeat, with a falsetto rise to imitate the "fade away" aspect, is just gorgeous. Throw in some classy lead guitar work, first time in ages (probably courtesy of Jesse Ed Davis, who is credited for lead guitar on the album in general), and there you go — something that the artist can actually be proud of; never in a million years would I have suggested on my own that she'd get away with this kind of soulfulness.
Next to this obvious highlight, the other choices are not as immediately striking, but in most cases, she gets the vibe right. ʽThese Daysʼ is, of course, more tender and less claustrophobic than the Nico version, what with all the strings and dawn-announcing horns and elegant, minimalistic steel guitar solos, but then, the song is about convalescing after an emotional breakdown, after all, and from that point of view, Cher might be truer to the original message of the song than Nico was (because for Nico, the process of «emotional convalescing» usually implies moving from a rougher to a slightly more comfortable coffin). ʽMr. Soulʼ, with its bitter, sarcastic tone, is just the kind of rocker almost custom-made for Cher to cover, and she gives a cool-as-heck performance (although, yes, we'd all probably love more feedback on the guitar riff). Even Little Feat's ʽRock And Roll Doctorʼ is a hoot, and you actually get to hear Cher in «barking» mode, probably feeling more alive during the recording that she had in years.
As for lush, bombastic orchestrated ballads, Webb's own ʽJust This One Timeʼ should probably be mentioned, not because it is a great song in itself, but because it features Cher in «diva mode», suddenly discovering a whole new octave to her voice and stunning us all with some proto-Mariah Carey falsettos (which, in 1975, were still nowhere near the same level of cliché that they became twenty – thirty years later). Not so clear about the title track, which, besides its author Janis Ian, is also typically associated with Nina Simone, and both of them did stripped-down (acoustic guitar and piano respectively) versions of it, whereas Cher, of course, gives it the full treatment, guitar and piano, and rhythm section, and lush strings — the thing is, this is one of those songs that is completely dependent on atmosphere and interpretation, and in Cher's version, I do not see any specific elements of interpretation that would rise above the average «lush-strings-and-deep-voice» type of seduction. But at least it doesn't suck or anything.
In any case, there's enough progress and depth on Stars to qualify it as a bona fide thumbs up type of album. Of course, it still flopped: fans of Comedy Hour were most likely disappointed not to find another ʽHalf-Breedʼ or ʽDark Ladyʼ on here, whereas people looking for serious art had given up on Cher a long time ago, and could not be coaxed into giving her one more chance just because, all of a sudden, she started selecting serious authors for her cover material — besides, 1975 may have been just a little too late to try and establish herself as an old-fashioned interpreter of singer-songwriter stuff, considering that «strong solo female artists for the demanding taste» were already beginning to look like Patti Smith rather than Janis Ian. Unfortunately, once again, just like the failure of Jackson Highway in 1969 had derailed her from the right path, so did the failure of Stars once again put her on the fluffy vaudeville track, and again it would now take another half a decade for another botched attempt at seriousness...