[4 October 2011]
Jackie DeShannon, beloved singer-songwriter of yesteryear, returns with an album of mostly older material that she has re-recorded. The point of a project like this is not to be some kind of ground-breaking artistic statement; it is simply to give people something nice to listen to. And this is something nice to listen to.
When compared to other attempts of artists revisiting the work of their earlier days, this album is largely a success due to the fact that a) it reinterprets the songs in a way that is appropriate for an artist of DeShannon’s maturity and likely audience of baby-boomers, b) the songs are culled from a much larger period of time than just DeShannon’s “peak” period of the mid- to late 1960s, and c) other albums that take this approach are just so god-awful that they make this one look all the better.
If, like me, you grew up listening to the oldies station that your parents constantly left on, you already know a good number of these songs. If not, it won’t hamper your ability to enjoy them. After all, despite the fact that some of them are very drastically re-arranged, they remain sweet, pretty songs with wonderful melodies courtesy of DeShannon’s voice, which has lost none of its power and has in fact grown in richness and character with age.
In terms of comparing these versions with the originals, it is definitely at times like the metaphorical apples and oranges. For instance, the title track is most certainly one of the classic pop songs of the ‘60s (although it was a bigger success when covered by the Searchers), a tender tribute to new love delivered from a young singer (for a young audience) to the object of her affection. This version, on the other hand, is slower, more laid back. Where the first one is a paean of excitement at the prospect of a brand-new relationship, this version is contentedly settled down, like a considerate reminder of the passion that still lingers in a truly loving, long-lasting relationship. Imagine a couple now entering their late 50s or early 60s. Their days of grandiose affection and burning, all-consuming desire are over, but the love remains and a few errant sparks still fly when that special someone walks in the room. I hope I’m as happy and in love at that age as Jackie DeShannon sounds in this song. The only complaint with the song is the distracting presence of synthesized strings in the absence of a real string section. They aren’t too overwhelming, so just try to ignore them and you’ll enjoy the song a lot more.
Along the same lines is “Breakaway”, which was actually a much bigger hit for Tracey Ullman in the ‘80s than it was when DeShannon passed it along to Irma Thomas in the ‘60s. Originally a song of teenage infatuation and the reluctance to give it up, here it seems to be about a love that is so deep-rooted that it can’t simply be given up despite its obvious, damaging flaws. These two songs complement each other tremendously as the black and white, yin and yang of a relationship and both are even more marvellous when contrasted with their 1960s counterparts.
Likewise, “Put A Little Love in Your Heart”, originally landing smack-dab in the midst of the love generation, here serves as a warm reminder not to forget the sentiments of brotherhood and sisterhood that seem to be somewhat neglected these days. Similarly, she revisits the wonderful Bacharach-David composition “What the World Needs Now Is Love”, a beautiful song by any measure, played here as a mostly acoustic ballad bereft of the orchestration that was typical of pop songs of this period. (Incidentally, this is undoubtedly the best Bacharach-David song not done by either Dionne Warwick or Tom Jones). While the song is still beautiful here, in a stripped-down version, the jazzy chord progression sounds a little awkward and out of place. “Needles and Pins”, meanwhile, covered by everyone from the Turtles to the Ramones, isn’t earth-shaking in its message but is simply another, much more mellow and understated interpretation of a classic song.
For me, the biggest revelation and the greatest success of the album is, without a doubt, this new version of “Bette Davis Eyes”, a song that most people know from the Kim Carnes interpretation of the 1980s. Now, nothing against Carnes, who has a wonderful voice, but the song itself was a victim of the times; what hit song of that period wasn’t horribly over-produced, lavished with synths, drum machines and cheesy effects? I can’t express just how dumb that whole era of “rock” music was, and just thinking about the accompanying music video with a crowd of idiotically-costumed buffoons slapping each other across the face to the beat of the song makes me want to puke. Thankfully, this version completely avoids all the trappings of that time, and dispenses with all the things that prevented this song from rightfully becoming a classic. DeShannon completely redeems the song by keeping it simple and keeping it real. The end product is a gorgeous take on melancholy and longing. With a whole lot of luck, this will eventually be considered the “definitive” version. As a matter of fact, DeShannon did a version in the mid ‘70s which was actually quite bouncy and up-tempo. Let’s forget about that version, too, while we’re at it.
“Heart in Hand” is similarly rescued, though it didn’t need as much help; the originally Brenda Lee version was not terrible, just kind of generic for the times it was produced in. Here, in a stripped-down and very short version, the melody is able to stand out on its own.
Not content to rely solely on older material, DeShannon contributes a new song entitled “Will You Stay In My Life”, which is more or less an average song. The melody and chord progression of the verses are pleasant, but short. However, when they are repeated in rapid succession like they are here, they are a little tiring, and the bridge of the song seems out of place and unnecessary. Remember the LARS (Like a Rolling Stone) rule of pop song composition; if a song doesn’t need a bridge, don’t write one. This song definitely needed something beyond the verses, but whatever it was, it didn’t appear in the final version, which is too bad. From all the other fine examples on this album, DeShannon is more than capable of writing a damn good song.
Altogether, this album comes recommended. It will not, for the most part, take the place of the original songs, but nor it is meant to. Instead, unlike other “oldies” acts who seem content in crapping out overly-sentimental product to make some easy money off baby boomer nostalgia (cough, cough ... Rod Stewart ... cough) this album actually works because it complements the originals and adds to their depth while managing to function well as songs in and of themselves, and like I said, a few of the versions here actually trump the originals.
For those of you who don’t know, Jackie DeShannon is one of the first women in popular music who had a great degree of control over her own career, as opposed to just being some interchangeable girl-group lead singer. She wrote plenty of hit songs for herself and other acts and did things her way, and for that she deserves a hell of a lot of recognition and respect. This album proves to her ‘60s contemporaries that growing old doesn’t mean having to get boring and flavourless. For Jackie DeShannon, there are still plenty of songs left that are worth singing, there is still life to be lived.