The Flaming Lips scorch our ears and fry our brains on With a Little Help from My Fwends (Warner Brothers). After adjusting the color for Pink Floyd (see 2009’s The Dark Side of the Moon), the band turns its attention to the Fab Four with its visceral reinvention of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Joined by a stellar assortment of “fwends” (including Tegan and Sara, My Morning Jacket and J. Mascis, Miley Cyrus and Moby, Julianna Barwick and Phantogram, Grace Potter and Foxygen, to mention a few), The Flaming Lips take the psychedelic groundwork laid by The Beatles and launch it into the stratosphere. Cover versions of songs (especially those as classic as these), and in particular renditions that diverge in the ways that these do, are meant to give the listener a fresh perspective on something familiar. Kudos to The Flaming Lips for doing just that and leaving their imprint at the same time.
On Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Masterworks), pianist Billy Childs gathers a remarkable array of artists to pay tribute to the late singer/songwriter Laura Nyro. Produced by Larry Klein, the album opens fittingly with the native New Yorker’s “New York Tendaberry,” featuring opera diva Renée Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Fleming is the perfect choice for this song that shows off Nyro’s extraordinary range. Lisa Fischer (featured in the Oscar-winning doc Twenty Feet from Stardom) strikes gold on the title track, Ledisi gets listeners high on “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and Shawn Colvin and Chris Botti turn the usually jubilant “Save the Country” into a mournful call to action.
Not quite as inspired a pairing as A Wonderful World, Tony Bennett’s dazzling 2002 collaboration with k.d. lang, Cheek to Cheek (Streamline/Columbia/Interscope) by Bennett and Lady Gaga still has its charms and is more enjoyable than Barbra Streisand’s latest duets release (see below). At this point in time, Bennett’s voice is almost shot (he’s 88, after all), although it is far better than Sinatra’s late-in-life vocal capabilities. Not surprisingly, the star here is Gaga. Hearing her perform standards such as “Lush Life,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Firefly,” and “But Beautiful,” confirms that she’s a gifted vocalist (more Christina than Britney), and will surely make more than a few listeners hope that there will be more of the same down the line.
Too schmaltzy for anyone’s good, let alone the good of Barbra Streisand, her duets album Partners (Columbia) is a concept that sounds better in concept than execution. No stranger to duets, some of Streisand’s biggest hits, including “Guilty” (with Barry Gibb) and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (with Neil Diamond) found the eternal diva sharing vocal duties. On Partners, unnecessary duet versions of Streisand standards such as “People” (with Stevie Wonder), “Evergreen” (with Babyface), and “The Way We Were” (with Lionel Richie) only serve to remind us of how exceptional the originals are. One of the few exceptions is Streisand’s duet with her gay son, Jason Gould, on “How Deep Is the Ocean,” giving new meaning to the “Prince of Tides.”
Better known as an actress on TV and in film, Minnie Driver has released three albums in 10 years, the third and latest being Ask Me to Dance (Zoe), the best of the lot. The 10 tunes Driver selected to cover shine a light on her good musical taste, beginning with Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #2 (XO).” She puts the brakes on The Cure’s “Close to Me” and Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” finding something new to say with the tunes. Her rendition of Crowded House’s “Better Be Home Soon” makes an already-pretty song even prettier, while the mood of Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood” is changed considerably. Also noteworthy are Driver’s stunning piano/vocal reading of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” and the guitar and fiddle arrangement on John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”
If you’re a gay man of a certain age, Bryan Adams will probably be best known to you as the guy who sang the disco hit “Let Me Take You Dancing.” Adams quickly reinvented himself throughout the 1980s and became one of the biggest-selling artists of that decade. On the cleverly titled Tracks of My Years (Verve), Adams pays tribute to the songs and artists who made him who he is (and there’s not a vintage disco track among the selections). Adams doesn’t waste any time, opening with a Beatles tune (“Any Time at All”), and continuing with tunes from various genres that were made famous by the likes of Ray Charles (“I Can’t Stop Loving You”), The Manhattans (“Kiss and Say Goodbye”), CCR (“Down on the Corner”), Bob Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Frankie Valli (“Sunny”), Beach Boys (“God Only Knows”), the Association (“Never My Love”), and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (“The Tracks of My Tears”), all sung in his trademark growl.
Isabel Rose seems to have come out of nowhere. Have you heard of her? An actress/singer, Rose may not be the best singer, but she does have impeccable taste in music, as she proves on the campy, retro Trouble in Paradise (Jubilee). She includes renditions of 10cc’s “Things We Do for Love,” Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn,” the Neil Sedaka-penned Captain & Tennille hit “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and a cover of The Supremes’s “Reflections” (which appears twice, including a remix by the late Frankie Knuckles).
Actress and singer Audra McDonald won a Tony Award for her portrayal of jazz legend Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Recorded before a live audience in May 2014 at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York, the double disc Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill: Original Broadway Cast Recording (PS Classics) takes cast recordings to a new and distinctive level. A musical legend in her own right, singer/songwriter Annie Ross (“Twisted”) pays homage to Holiday on To Lady with Love (Red Anchor), on which she is backed by guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pizzarelli. A bonus DVD features interviews with Ross and the Pizzarellis talking about Holiday.
Holiday isn’t the only chanteuse being celebrated by others. Eartha Kitt gets the tribute treatment from René Marie on I Wanna Be Evil (Motema). Subtitled With Love to Eartha Kitt, the disc contains Marie’s interpretations of “C’Est Ci Bon,” “Peel Me a Grape,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and of course, “Santa Baby,” among others. On Save Your Love for Me (Felton Entertainment), Cynthia Felton “sings the Nancy Wilson classics,” including “Guess Who I Saw Today,” “Never Will I Marry,” “I Wish You Love,” and the title tune, to name a few.
Chris Smither is having a good year. A recently released retrospective provides an opportunity for a new generation of music lovers to experience the underrated singer/songwriter’s work. The variety of artists featured on the compilation Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither (Signature Sounds)—including queer performers such as Mary Gauthier and Patty Larkin, as well as Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, and Josh Ritter—may also play a role in bringing his work to a larger audience.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.