The jazz singer tackles a set of boomer pop "standards", kind of like she was the Perry Como of her generation, and sounds plastic doing it.
Diana Krall is blessed with a great voice, a distinctive and beautifully frayed alto that sounds hip and vulnerable, cool and polished all at once. She also happens to be a fine jazz pianist, and when she emerged in the 1990s (initially on Justin Time, a small jazz label), she was a refreshing voice, akin to the singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli, who was also singing Nat Cole tunes in a cheeky style and bringing a hip take some some slightly older music.
But by the late 1990s, Krall had blown up, going beyond a jazz audience while still singing great songs very beautifully (hooray!) but also starting to embody what was least interesting about jazz (boo!). Her success was based on so much prettiness: her lovely visage on album covers (okay, fair enough) but also music that was way too often soft focus and easy listening. Her voice would be the only dash of vinegar in the dish, with everything else being lush strings and medium tempos and familiarity up the wazoo. Simply put, she was selling the least adventurous side of jazz, those same old songs arranged and put across no differently than Perry Como would have in the 1960s.
The few times that she tried something different, the market said, Eh. Her singer-songwriter disc, 2004's The Girl in the Other Room was really good, but it didn’t sell like the other stuff had, so Verve followed it with three successive recordings of Christmas songs, still more standards, and a bossa nova disc that could have been made (and, really, was made many times) in 1966. Success returneth. But Krall wanted to do something different, so 2012 brought another peculiarity in the discography, Glad Rag Doll, a collection of much older music from the pre-standards era that the singer approached with the help of producer T-Bone Burnett. It was a set of songs that rocked a little, that was scratchy around the edges, that set that great voice against a touch of surprise. But, market patterns being what they are, would her next record be a calculated retreat to safety?
What do you think?
Wallflower is a pure pop product, a recording for which Krall turned herself over to David Foster who happens to be both the new Chairman of the Verve Music Group and a producer/musician dubbed in an old Rolling Stone album review as the master of the "Chicago-Journey-Toto school of bombastic pop kitsch." Foster is the man behind more than one Celine Dion disc, a Michael Buble man, a Josh Groban groomer. In other words, this new Diana Krall album finds her packaged within an inch of her life.
The songs here are a collection of songs even more familiar than Krall’s usual jazz standards, mainly songs from the baby-boomer pop era: "California Dreamin’", "Desperado", "Superstar" (the Carpenters’ hit), "I Can’t Tell You Why" (the Eagles again, but done as a bossa nova), "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" (early Elton John), "Operator" (Jim Croce), "I’m Not in Love" (a huge hit from 1975), "Feels Like Home" (Randy Newman), and "Don’t Dream It’s Over" (the Crowded House hit from 1986). There is also a new song written by Paul McCartney.
And what a peculiar record Wallflower turns out to be: sincere and plastic in alternating turns. The most compelling performances, as you might guess, come on the best songs, which are often the songs least drenched in schmaltz. The finest is the title track, a simple take on a Bob Dylan song with a quiet dose of strings, piano and guitar from Blake Mills, the kind of Americana collaborator who Krall ought to lean toward more. It’s like lullaby. The Randy Newman song works the same way: plaintive and sincere, with Krall’s voice riding over piano, and then Ryan Adams entering (and, oddly, sounding a whole lot like Krall), with the strings coming in with a Randy Newman vibe. The minor Elton John ballad works in the same way: spare and sincere.
But even on these tracks, which I like, you find yourself hoping for something more human, more earnest to enter the sonic space. Krall’s vocals are so golden and pure and wonderfully recorded that they sound too good to be true.
Oh, but wait: I’m pretty sure they are too good to be true. On many tracks here, Krall’s singing has that weird, subtly metallic computer sound. Am I suggesting that Diana Krall has been auto-tuned? Not exactly, she hardly needs that, but there’s something in the way the vocals have been produced here that makes them sound fake. Even on "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word", one the album’s highlights, the voice arcs for high notes with the shiver of a synthesizer around its edges. David Foster, I have to ask you, why make a record featuring the amazing voice of Diana Krall if you are going to use post-production gleam to make her sound less like Diana Krall?
Things are much worse on the songs given a more obvious pop production sheen. "Alone Again (Naturally)", the Gilbert O’Sullivan hit from 1972 is rendered as a duet with Buble, and both voices sound robotic, but beautiful-ish robotic. Who cares, though, because the tempo is slow, the arrangement is soporific and treacly. You want to cringe? Get a load of the version of "Superstar", like running through a great vat of cherry Jello, or the opening Mamas and Papas tune, with its ghastly and pretension introduction: Krall singing the tune like a funeral dirge over a string arrangement that tries to make a pop song into melodrama. The only way "California Dreamin’" could get worse is if the rhythm kicked in and sounded like a cheesy Casio keyboard arrangement. Which is exactly what happens.
When Krall tackles some slightly more recent songs, like the Crowded House song, she’s a bit more convincing as a straight pop singer. But maybe "Don’t Dream It’s Over" simply benefits from being the last song on Wallflower, so your ears are just excited that the whole tiresome exercise is almost over. Along the way, you’ll find a tune or two charming, yes, but the charm itself is secondhand. Croce’s "Operator" works as a catchy pop song that benefits from being shifted to a piano groove rather than a guitar feel. But, well, it’s the song that can’t go wrong, mainly.
I suppose we have to talk about the McCartney song, the only thing here where you won’t wish you just listening to the original. "If I Take You Home Tonight" is another slow song: piano and strings full of portent and gloom. When the opening lyric reads "If I take you home tonight / I will think of songs to sing to you / Music filled with joy and light / If I take you home tonight," then why is the music so bleak. The plea of the chorus ("Oh my love, let me treat you right") seems like it’s coming from a narrator who couldn’t cheer up a five-year-old, someone who needs cheering up herself. The song is just awful.
Neither David Foster nor Diana Krall need my approval, I know that. This record wasn’t made for me. But here’s what I can’t figure out: who was it made for? I’m old. I grew up with and love these songs, even the ones that are kind of silly. But the last thing I want is to hear them watered down, slowed down, and sapped of their original snap. "Desperado" is a pretty great song, whether you like the Eagles’ version with Don Henley’s vocal or the Linda Ronstadt version. But getting a new version cushioned by the 101 Strings padding it out just when you’re supposed to be feeling something? There is simply no chance you will prefer this version unless maybe you’re my mom, who just liked milder things, things with less soul. But my mom was born in 1929 and she was no "Desperado" fan to begin with.
And so I dream. I dream that this album is Krall’s biggest flop. I dream that it inspires Verve and Krall to turn off the auto-tune and release the string section to a more worthy project. Then Diana goes out, gets a hot rhythm section, and records more jazz or maybe makes a record of up-tempo jump music, or tours with Dr. John and gets a little New Orleans thing going.
Anything but this soporific schmaltz, Diana. You’re better than this. (Buble and Bryan Adams and Blake Mills, you guys are better than this too.) Let the pendulum swing back the other way, toward feeling, moving music.