Sep 17, 2011

"Ton'... can I call him Ton'?"

Tony Bennett has always had this adorable but hopelessly contrived habit of laughing a little in the middle of a musical phrase, as if to say, "Isn't this great and somehow unbelievable, we're having such a ball and I just might get carried away with myself here..." But recently, a remarkable thing has happened: in his duet with Lady Gaga for the second installment of Duets: An American Classic, he is genuinely laughing – at her, with her, genuinely having a ball with Gaga's adeptly playful, appropriately campy treatment of the lyrics. The pair do “The Lady is a Tramp”, convincingly. Gaga has the traditional repartee style of crooner duets absolutely down (is there any niche of American glitz culture that woman has not studied? '70s glam, '80s arena anthems, old Hollywood showbiz…).

Yes, Tony Bennett is still insistently injecting that good-natured, fun-loving, bewildered but excited laugh into the modern music world. The old crooner is well into his eighties and still blazing out that beautifully radiant Italian-boy smile that crinkles his whole face. On his new Duets album he consorts with young talent, including some of the beautiful nubile plastic pop queens that dominate our era; most notably Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. As sentimental schmaltz goes, these two cuts are the only worthwhile ones on the album.

The big story, the first single, the touching ballad, the period piece, is his “Body and Soul” duet with Amy Winehouse. She is more bone and soot than the plastic of other pop stars, but she paints herself just as well, if not better, than any of them; with those signature winged eyes and pink lips. Her voice is captivating, a broken blues garble that blooms sweet, fat droplets of blood unexpectedly in the middle of notes. Comparisons to Billie Holiday are tempting.

Amy Winehouse was not as starstruck as she could have been around Bennett, which must have been refreshing for the man. In a video interview with Vevo, she elaborated (in a way): "...First time I met Ton' was, can I call him Ton'? Thanks. First time I met Ton', should you ask him first, really, before you start, okay... [quick sigh] First time I met Ton' I would say was I took my dad, my step-mother, and my boyfriend to see him at Royal Albert Hall [those black-winged decal eyes widening with excitement, her pink lips pushing apart between words trying to communicate the scream-rush of excitement] and went both nights."

Old Ton' wavers on the notes of “Body and Soul”, a little weakly. It reminds me of Sinatra's 1984 recording of the same; both old men carry the tune like a cracked, precious thing; crumbling like old gold. The blending of Bennett and Winehouse’s voices at the end is a thing of perfection; pure, pop-orchestrated, sonorous-dominant-chord-feel-good perfection. In accordance with the celestial harmony of the layout of pop albums, the first single and surefire (in this case, very topical) hit is the third song – “Body and Soul”. “The Lady is a Tramp” kicks it off horn-blasting and squealing – the rest is the sentimental noise of American classics basking in their classic class-status.

1 comment:

  1. bennett just played here for his birthday apparently. so given your apparent love of the good old crooners, i'm obliged to ask if you're familiar with mr. scott walker. he's like a more flamboyant, vaguely-homosexual, foppish dandy who likes to sing about angels, old women with worthless lives, venereal diseases and plagues. his lyrics remind me of morrissey quite a bit too! hard to beat that.