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CD Reviews:
Music Vets Go Duet Crazy On New Albums

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2006

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Blame it on Ol’ Blue Eyes.

When Frank Sinatra’s fi rst “Duets” album soared to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold more than 3 million copies in 1993, it set off lightbulbs atop many a record company executive’s head. Here was a way to make some hay with an older artist — pair him or her with younger artists with a more contemporary commercial cachet and reap the benefi t of several interested audiences.

Duets albums have proliferated ever since, the greatest success coming with Santana’s chart-topping “Supernatural” in 1999. Few have achieved quite the same level, either in terms of sales or artistic merit, but the concept is still alive and well, with three more duets sets — from veterans Tony Bennett, Jerry Lee Lewis and Solomon Burke — hitting the racks Tuesday (September 26th).

Bennett, Sinatra’s own favorite singer — and America’s most universally revered performer since Sinatra’s death — leads the pack with “Duets: An American Classic”

(Columbia) **1/2, part of a yearlong 80th birthday celebration for the former Anthony Benedetto. The names brought aboard are impressive — Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Elton John, Tim McGraw, Bono, Sting and the Dixie Chicks among them — and so are the results, albeit in an appropriately polished and restrained way.

There’s a kind of intimacy throughout the album, the result of it being recorded by producer Phil Ramone with Bennett’s regular band and some occasional strings. Those who have worked with Bennett before, such as k.d. lang (“Because of You”) and Elvis Costello (“Are You Havin’ Any Fun?”) benefit from the familiarity, while Celine Dion and Stevie Wonder get a bit over-emotive — though Wonder’s harmonica is a treat on “For Once in My Life.”

McGraw (“Cold, Cold Heart”), Taylor (“Put on a Happy Face”) and George Michael (“How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”) are surprising standouts amidst the heady corps, while Michael Buble’s deft touch with the Great American Songbook way of singing certainly helps him pull off a solid “Just in Time.” Nevertheless, the duet album’s very best moment is “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” a Bennett solo performance accompanied only by piano that leaves just the slightest impression that pairing him with anyone else may be superfl uous.

A rowdier time is had by Jerry Lee Lewis and his friends on “Last Man Standing” (Artists First) ***, the Killer’s first new studio album in a decade. His voice is a little weary at nearly 71, but his wry personality is still intact, as is his trademark rolling piano style, with a left hand that keeps a rock-steady rhythm throughout the set’s 21 tracks.

There’s certainly a Jerry Lee way of doing things, and that surfaces as Led Zeppelin meets Sun Records on Lewis’ rendition of the band’s “Rock and Roll,” with guitarist Jimmy Page on board, and the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” with Little Richard. “Sweet Little Sixteen,” done with Ringo Starr, stays true to the original, and Lewis trades licks with Eric Clapton on “Trouble in Mind.”

The breadth of Lewis’ stylistic reach is what really makes “Last Man Standing” special. He sounds as comfortable joining Kid Rock for a raucous take on the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” as he is with Robbie Robertson on The Band’s “Twilight” or the gospel dynamics of “Lost Highway” with Delaney Bramlett. Lewis mixes it up equally well with country icons such as Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, rockers like John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen and members of the Rolling Stones, and blues guitar heroes B.B. King and Buddy Guy.

That’s a lot of fi repower, but the Killer still has enough bullets in his chamber to hang with his company.

Burke’s “Nashville”(Shout! Factory) ***1/2 isn’t as extensive a duets collection as Bennett’s or Lewis’; the soul great shares the mic on only five of the 14 songs here. But his collaborators — Emmy lou Harris, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Patti Griffi n and Gillian Welch — are a big part of the story here, as is Buddy Miller, the singer-songwriter who produced the album.

Burke has been on a roll in recent years, taking adventurous paths on his Grammywinning “Don’t Give Up on Me” in 2002 and last year’s Grammy-nominated “Make Do With What You Got.” “Nashville” stretches even further, taking him, as the title indicates, into the country realm, which Burke handles in convincing fashion. Dialing down his booming soul delivery to a gravely twang that recalls Johnny Cash, he still brings a forceful authority to shuffles such as Jim Lauderdale’s “Seems Like You’re Gonna Take Me Back,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Ain’t Got You” and “Honey Where’s the Money Gone,” while Miller provides minimalist settings for slower tracks like Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Don Williams’ “Atta Way to Go” and Shawn Amos’ “Vicious Cycle.”

The duets counter Burke’s delivery with sweet melodicism. Parton provides counter tones on her own “Tomorrow is Forever,” and Harris is gently dark on George Jones’ “We’re Gonna Hold On.” Loveless, meanwhile, kicks it up a bit with Burke on the uppity “You’re the Kind of Trouble.” It’s a gutsy, stellar exercise that shows true soul isn’t limited to the R&B realm.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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