Alison Moyet has a big, fat, eccentric British voice that has been successfully set against dopey electronic dance beats since the 1980s. It’s a wide, kooky voice — one with odd caverns of quirk in different registers, with hiccups and strange sonorities depending on how she uses it — and it has sold a bunch of records over the years to pop fans who will go for this kind of neo-Disco stuff without feeling they really should be listening to old Smiths records instead. Good for Alison. Good for her fans.
But what disco-pop diva doesn’t positively yearn to make an album in front of an orchestra?
And here it is. Released a year ago in Britain, Voice is Alison Moyet’s serious, eclectic, pseudo-classical album. Backed by an orchestra arranged by movie composer Anne Dudley, Moyet diligently plows through a program of standards (“The Man I Love”, “Bye Bye Blackbird”), Elvis Costello (“Almost Blue”, of course, and “God Give Me Strength”), light classical (Bizet, Purcell), Jacques Brel, and English folk music. It is an over-serious affair from start to finish.
At the start, it is “The Windmills of Your Mind”, an attractively winding melody by Michel LeGrand that simply deserves a more spirited, non-ghastly reading. With Ms. Dudley’s string orchestra laying on the schmaltz at full force, Ms. Moyet can only sing harder — what she has always done when confronted with a thudding house beat. The semi-classical setting, however, lays her voice bare. If you love that voice, there’s a chance you will eat this up, as hers is undoubtedly a strong voice placed, here, at center stage. But the uneasy blips and bleats that give Ms. Moyet character and distinctiveness as a dance-pop performer are here simply unpleasant annoyances. Her slangy Britishisms in pronunciation sound uneasy on Bergman’s well-known lyrics, among other things.
At the end is a lugubrious version of “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Accompanied only by string quartet and clarinet, Ms. Moyet blows the album’s only chance for lightness, swing, or beat. She assays the tune as a lament — which could have been interesting, perhaps, but seems instead to stand for the project’s overall air of self-important, miscalculated classical-osity. In the CD booklet she wears a black top and black scarf-thingy around her neck, as well as an unsmiling look of middle-aged grown-uppiness. Oh, how tiring.
Particularly because there is some stuff in the middle of the record that suggests a much better direction. The classical tunes, needless to say, are beyond even the contempt of this review. But Ms. Moyet’s take on the more contemporary material has an airiness that suggests it is almost part of the different project. Specifically, her take on the two Costello tunes succeeds. Perhaps it is simply that Elvis cannily wrote these songs for a semi-trained pop voice (his own), but on “Almost Blue” and “God Give Me Strength” the swells in Ms. Moyet’s voice and her instinctive reach for some drama feels right. The songs (the latter having been co-written with Burt Bacharach) are harmonically interesting but still of the rock era, and Alison sings them more naturally. “Almost Blue” is properly understated against a jazz feel (with only string quartet sweetening), and “Strength” swells like something from ’60s AM radio.
That Ms. Moyet has, in fact, found a new place to dwell is confirmed on the disc’s “bonus track” — another Bacharach classic, “Alfie”. It turns out that what Ms. Moyet does well beyond her dance-pop origins is something closer to the singer tradition of the ’50s and ’60s, a heavier-voiced version of Petula Clark and Dionne Warwick. “Alfie”, as always, is somewhat dark in mood. But Ms. Moyet can sing a great pop melody with conviction. The unfortunate by-ways of her voice rough up Bacharach some (which is a good thing) but sound era-appropriate on this material.
A crummy jazz singer and a worse classical interpreter, Alison Moyet remains a pop star. Only a quarter of this disc rises to the occasion. But there are some great ’60s pop songs waiting to be covered on the next record, if she can just lay off the Bizet and Brel and stick to her strengths.
And — oh yeah — take off the black clothes and the grimace. Your fans never liked The Smiths anyway, remember?