Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 16, 2010
POP CULTURE: Harry Connick, Brian Setzer and the State of Swing
In the fall of 2009, Harry Connick Jr. and the Brian Setzer Orchestra both came out with new albums - Connick's Your Songs, and Setzer's Songs from Lonely Avenue. Both are professionally done albums, and neither will place among the best, or worst, recordings these mature, mid-career artists have made. But the contrast between the two illustrates how Connick's recording career has gone astray after a great beginning, while Setzer gives his fans what they want.
Once upon a time, Harry Connick was not just an exciting musician, but a nearly unique one. A child-prodigy jazz pianist since age six, the son of the New Orleans DA burst on the national scene in the late 1980s, gaining national stature at age 22 with the double-platinum, Grammy-winning soundtrack for the romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally... At the time, the world of traditional pop/Big Band/swing music had largely atrophied - there was still a mostly-aging audience for then-veteran traveling performers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Perry Como, etc., and that style of music was still vibrant on Broadway, but suddenly here we had a young crooner breathing new life and energy into the standards and - on albums like 1990's We Are In Love and 1991's Blue Light, Red Light - writing some new ones of his own.
Connick's talent and flair helped sell the form to new generations of music fans. Lots of people still listened to Sinatra even if they didn't otherwise go for the traditional pop sound. Others, like me, had grown up listening to that kind of music - it's what my parents listened to, and was really all the music I knew until my older brother got me into rock around age 9 - and had a lingering affection for it. Connick proved that a young artist making new music in the old style, with his brassy Big Band sound and retro-cool pompadour, could still sell records and make a name for himself.
Then, on the heels of his successful 1993 Christmas album When My Heart Finds Christmas, Connick decided to take an unexpected turn. Ditching the big band, he put out a New Orleans funk-rock album, 1994's She. Not all his fans appreciated - I was him tour for the album at Jones Beach, and there were older fans who walked out when they heard the new material. But matching Connick's vocals and piano with the funk-rock sound worked, and made its own distinctive and different sound. He followed up with 1996's Star Turtle, a solid album if not as outstanding as She. Approaching his 30th birthday, Connick had mastered three genres - the third being jazz piano - all of which tend to reward their masters with long careers.
Unfortunately, it's been mostly downhill since then. Connick's output since Star Turtle has been steady - two more Christmas albums, seven other vocal albums, plus instrumental albums, show scores - but he has never matched his promise either as a Big Band act or a funk-rock act. Albums like 1999's Come By Me and 2004's Only You were dull and barely-listenable slow jazz. He's spread himself thin, dividing his time with feature film and TV-series acting, raising a family, disaster-relief work after Katrina, even hosting a series on the Weather Channel.
Your Songs was supposed to be a return to a more mainstream sound for Connick, and at first glance, its 14 songs fit the bill, running the gamut from Sinatra standards like "All the Way" and "The Way You Look Tonight" to 70s pop like "Just the Way You Are," "(They Long To Be) Close To You," and "Your Song." The album was the brainchild of legendary record executive and co-producer Clive Davis, who explains how they picked the songs:
We embarked on this project together. Over a five- or six-month period, we'd meet every Wednesday afternoon for five or six hours and just listen to music, looking for the right songs. I felt it shouldn't just be old classic songs but also more recent composers, and that's why we included Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" and Elton John's "Your Song."
Well, relatively recent. The good news is that the finished product is polished and pleasant to listen to - the songs are all professionally rendered with loving care, and Connick glides through standard after standard with good-natured ease. It's Easy Listening at its easiest, and there's a place for that - I pop it on in the background while I work.
The bad news is that Your Songs is yet another wasted opportunity. Not one of Connick's renditions is likely to make anybody forget the previously definitive versions, or even place him on equal footing as a vocalist with Billy Joel or Elton John or Sinatra or Karen Carpenter or Roberta Flack. He's just treading water, and he's not even doing it because he wanted to follow some artistic muse - it's an essentially commercial record.
Part of the miscalculation in the album is Connick's singing style. There remain two schools of crooning, the Frank Sinatra school and the Bing Crosby school. Sinatra, at least once he matured as an adult artist, was legendary as an emotional interpreter of songs, the guy who could climb into the lyrics and make you feel them. When you listened to the older Sinatra, you felt the miles in his voice. That wasn't all his appeal - he also had that swaggering cool and of course the great voice - but the ability to mine the words of a song was the distinctive feature of his style of singing, and one reason why he remained popular even with the rock generation.
Bing Crosby represented the apex of the opposite style, the smooth crooner who focused on making beautiful music to listen to. You could get an emotional wallop from a Bing song as well, if it hit you right - his Christmas songs do that, the warmth of Crosby's voice being all the song needs - but the focus was on the smooth sound.
Whatever doubt there may have been in his youth about whether Connick would ever develop into a Sinatra-style interpreter of songs, it's clear by now that he's remaining firmly in the Crosby camp. There's no heartache or heartbreak in Your Songs, no sense of emotional vulnerability - Connick still sounds like a guy singing to impress on a first date, not a man baring his soul. On the Big Band and funk-rock albums, that didn't matter much; the invigorating swing and the infectious groove were all he needed to set his sound apart and make great music. But singing ballads, Connick exposes his limitations.
An album of this sort is doubly frustrating because it's so unnecessary - anybody can sing these songs, or we could just listen to the originals. By contrast, Connick, Setzer and Canadian singer Michael Buble are about the only male vocalists in the business with the chops to do justice to new Big Band albums and the major-label platform to get them heard. Maybe he's just running out of ideas, but we can only hope that Connick does more with his talent on his next record.
Setzer's Songs from Lonely Avenue goes in the opposite direction. The 50-year-old Setzer, of course, started as a throwback 50s rockabilly artist in the early 80s with the Stray Cats, and reinvented himself in the mid-90s through a novel fusing of that sound with Big Band/swing music on albums like 1998's The Dirty Boogie and 2000's Vavoom! Setzer, too, has been away from making new music in his signature sound for a while - the past decade has been largely consumed with making Christmas records as well as 2007's Wolfgang's Big Night Out, a mostly instrumental record reworking classical tunes - but Songs from Lonely Avenue is a return to his wheelhouse, and the first album in which he wrote all original songs.
The focus on original music means that Songs from Lonely Avenue faces the opposite challenge from Your Songs' excessive familiarity; it has none of the instantly recognizable classics that powered earlier Setzer albums, songs like Jump Jive an' Wail or Mack the Knife. But in their place, it has a consistent film-noir-ish mood and fresh quality music all the way through. The only questionable decision is putting two instrumentals - Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin and Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin - back-to-back in the middle of the album rather than separating them as thematic bookends. Probably the best song on the album is the slightly bluesy, hard-luck saga Dimes in The Jar, and while Setzer's not really any more of a bluesy vocalist than Connick is, he brings his best Tin Pan Alley sound to the track. And unlike Your Songs, which gives Connick only minimal opportunity to match his dazzling piano to his vocals, Songs from Lonely Avenue gives us plenty of Setzer's signature guitar work.
Harry Connick Jr. could learn a few lessons from Brian Setzer - like not making records that don't mean a thing 'cause they ain't got that swing.