After listening to Barbra Streisand's eleven performances on "Release Me," her new album which is culled from her recording vault, I'm left with this thought: how can we get Barbra an acting nomination for this CD? She's certainly deserving of more than a Grammy because if there has ever been a Streisand album that presents her protean talent as an actress in song I cannot name it. Though a compilation of songs from 1967 to 2011, "Release Me" immediately rises to the level of an essential CD in her catalog.
In these eleven tracks, songs that for one reason or another were not included in previous albums, Barbra shows how she's always been much more than a singer; and yet more than an actress, too.
Barbra Streisand inhabits music, making every song an experience of character, story, atmosphere and being. It's impossible to listen to "Release Me" without uttering the word "Wow" again and again and again. Each track is just that good.
As I analyzed "Release Me," I realized that what made it so satisfying is that it allows Barbra to portray a series of characters. She's Alice as she goes through the looking glass, Dorothy Gale on an adventure in Oz, Fiona in "Brigadoon" and Sharon in "Finian's Rainbow," Esther Hoffman in "A Star Is Born," a loving mother and a frightened child, and other women as unique and memorable as any actress might play if handed a script.
Using her utterly unique musical instrument, a voice that can caress a lyric with tenderness as well as belt an emotion with passion and conviction, Streisand's genius is more than simply the physical beauty of her timeless sound.
There's artistry in her ability to render tears for "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" or to evoke a smile of sadness for a song about the end of a relationship like "If It's Meant to Be."
It's apparent to me that Barbra Streisand's essential gift is more than her ability to create a sound. It's the mind behind the artistry to create that make her so special.
It's the way she can take every ounce of talent she has and infuse it all into the music. There are many, many singers with voices that are appealing and unique. But there is only one Barbra; only one Streisand in song. It's the sound and the mind in combination, and "Release Me" offers a chance to hear that alchemy in all its glory.
"Release Me" opens with Jule Styne/Comden and Green's "Being Good Isn't Good Enough," a real Broadway song from the show "Hallelujah Baby." Originally intended for "The Broadway Album," with an arrangement by Peter Matz and an orchestration by Sid Ramin -- two old pros who excelled whenever they teamed with Barbra -- "Being Good" wasn't a good enough opener for that album once Barbra and Stephen Sondheim conceived of "Putting It Together."
You can understand why they came to that decision -- "Putting It Together" was fantastic -- but that doesn't negate the fact that "Being Good" is also terrific. It's very Streisand, embodying the theme of striving for greatness, challenging yourself to be the best that have distinguished Barbra's career. As the liner notes point out, "Being Good" is reminiscent of "Don't Rain On My Parade" or "You're Gonna Hear From Me" or "Let's Hear It for Me."
But to me, "Being Good Isn't Good Enough" conjured up images of "Yentl." As Barbra sings, "Should I try, am I strong enough? Is there time, have I long enough?" I thought of Barbra in those years she was trying to convince Hollywood to let her direct the film. When Barbra recorded "Being Good" in August 1985, the memories of making "Yentl" were fresh in her mind.
Did she recall how she'd been living with those questions as she planned to direct, produce, write and star in the a big time Hollywood musical? I think those emotions come through in her performance. This is a full-throated and pure Broadway delivery, framed by an arrangement that feels of the time, with an emphasis on the brass and woodwinds -- not a synthesizer in sight. "Being Good" was a great way to kick-off "Release Me."
Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" is a song familiar to Streisand fans. Barbra's version on "Live Concert at the Forum" is one of that CD's highlights. Here we get "Didn't We" as it was recorded in the studio in March 1970 for the never-completed "The Singer" album. Barbra's rendition is somewhat more introspective than the live version, and listen closely for the way she accents certain words, always in the moment as she sings.
In 1967 for "Simply Streisand," Barbra recorded "Willow Weep For Me," a standard by Ann Ronell, with a lush arrangement by Ray Ellis. It has been patiently waiting in the Columbia vault to be set free on "Release Me" and what we hear now is pure gold. It's the epitome of Barbra's vibrant, urgent and honey-toned vocalizing from the mid-1960s.
This song, like "Right As the Rain" and "Like A Straw In the Wind" creates bucolic images with the lyrics of a different time and place, and Barbra's the woman in the center of the song, living the emotional life of that character. Long after you've finished listening to "Release Me," "Willow Weep for Me" will come back to you again and again.
"Try to Win A Friend" is a Larry Gatlin song, one of Barbra's few forays into country/western music. She recorded it for "Streisand Superman" in 1977, and according to the notes, this was a melody she learned while studying how to play guitar for "A Star Is Born." It's hard to imagine how this song would have fit sound on "Superman," but it feels just right on "Release Me."
Her vocal is heartfelt and sincere, but never veers into schmaltz or over sentimentality. It's like she can toe the line to melodrama without crossing it. As such, "Try to Win A Friend" resonates not only for Barbra's gentle reading of the lyrics, but also the honesty of the emotion.
The most unplugged performance on "Release Me" is "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," a collaboration between composer Randy Newman (on the piano) and Barbra. There's nothing embellished about this take. It's pure and unadorned. By being so stark and simple, the sadness of Newman's song is underscored. Barbra's reading touches you in the gut and you'll feel moved by the plaintive sorrow of the song as you're captivated by Newman's visual wordplay.
"With One More Look At You" is well known from "A Star Is Born," and this recording was done in February 1977, after the film had been completed. Produced by Gary Klein, seemingly for inclusion in "Superman," it's a lighter, almost-pop version of the same song which characterizes Esther's despair over John Norman's sudden death in the movie.
Considering how amazing her performance is in the movie of that finale, with Barbra's eyes filled with tears and her heart in her throat as she sings, "I want one more look at you," a sweet, happier version of this brighter interpretation just can't compare. Ironically, though, I think if this "With One More Look At You" had been released prior to "A Star Is Born" -- like an advance single -- it would have been a hit.
If there's one track on "Release Me" that took me completely by surprise, it was "Lost In Wonderland." I didn't know the song and had no inkling what Barbra was even singing about until I heard it. For the second time in her career (the first being "I'm Late" in the "My Name Is Barbra" TV special), Barbra channels Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."
This Antonio Carlos Jobim tune is a roller-coaster ride samba married to a mélange of lyrical imagery, from butterflies to crystals and spangles by Marshall Barer. Barbra's inventive interpretation of the song has her flying up and down the scale in a veritable Olympic trial of musicianship, fitting in every syllable and note in the sprightly vocal exercise of fantasy. Among the many treats on "Release Me," this 1968 gem, arranged by the brilliant Peter Matz, is high on the list.
Unlike "Lost In Wonderland," "How Are Things in Glocca Mora"/"Heather On the Hill" is a medley that I've known -- and adored -- for years. Barbra herself mentioned that it's been on YouTube for years and she finally decided to put it out on an album. Familiarity, however, cannot tarnish the superlatives of this outstanding Rupert Holmes arrangement.
It has always amazed me that nobody ever thought to put these songs together before. After all, "Finian's Rainbow" and "Brigadoon" opened in the same year on Broadway -- 1947 -- both with gorgeous scores. Fortunately for Barbra, nobody else ripped off the medley and recorded it over the years and now. with "Release Me," her medley will become the definitive version…because it is. This is top-notch singing, beautifully enacted and not the version that's been on YouTube. That octave leap on "but they won't be the same, they'll come AND go…" makes the number!
"Mother and Child" was originally going to be part of an ambitious project created by Barbra with Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman called "Life Cycle of a Woman" (or "Between Yesterday And Tomorrow"). Recorded in 1973, "Mother and Child" offers Barbra in two roles.
As Mommy, she's in lullaby mode, crooning sweetly as her "little love" is drifting off to dreamland. But in the other role, Barbra's every little kid who ever needed a nightlight to feel safe in the dark and had nightmares about the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz." It's a masterful musical duet, Barbra singing with herself, something that nobody does better than she does.
"If It's Meant To Be" was apparently a song earmarked for last year's Bergman tribute album, "What Matters Most," but it wasn't quite ready when that CD was released. Fortunately, it seems completely apropos that it be on "Release Me."
It's a grown-up love song in the style of "Where Do You Start" and "All Of My Life" (also with Bergman lyrics), as well as "Send In the Clowns." The Brian Byrne melody is tinged with sadness and regret, matching the words that speak of a love that has faded away over time.
Recorded in 2011, Barbra's voice is a wonder as she emotes every trace of wistfulness from the song, and she seems to understand the essence of the theater-oriented lyrics deep in her bones. Listening to this track should erase any question of her prowess in the studio; Barbra's never sounded lovelier.
"Release Me" ends with "Home" from "The Wiz." It's another of those songs that die-hard fans have heard over the years on bootlegs cassette tapes, wondering why Barbra never released it and wishing for a cleaner copy. Finally, here, she's brought back the musicians she'd worked with before to improved the arrangement and make the finished product just as she'd imagined it to be.
"Home" is epic Streisand belting, holding the big note at the end, giving it her all, the ultimate power balladeer. "Home" concludes "Release Me" on a high note, matching the overall quality of the entire album.
It is now quite evident to me why "Release Me" was not a box set. If there was a collection of twice this many Barbra songs of such depth and quality, it might actually be too much. It would be like having a chocolate soufflé for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Too rich, too overwhelming, too delicious.
As it is, "Release Me" feels like a wonderful buffet of delights -- not too much and not too little. It's just enough. And knowing that Barbra is already contemplating further editions of "Release Me" -- the liner notes talks of another "Release Me" already in the works as well as a future Broadway album -- just reinforces my appreciation of this first set as a musical tour-de-force.