King of Cool

King of cool
Rockers come and go, but Burt Bacharach’s edgy pop still swings

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Eighty isn’t really the new 20, but it isn’t bad.
Burt Bacharach, 78, and Tony Bennett, 80, have both enjoyed creative peaks and endured periods when music trends changed and they didn’t. Despite lulls in popularity, each is currently in an autumnal renaissance.

Their returns to public awareness — both prefer avoiding the term “comeback” — are interesting because each artist is drawing from the same genius that made him successful decades ago. Unlike, say, Rod Stewart — who stumbled onto a successful new style — Bacharach, who plays three shows with the Houston Symphony starting Friday, and Bennett, who releases the guest-filled new album Duets on Tuesday, haven’t reinvented anything, least of all their music.

Bacharach and Bennett’s rekindled success is chiefly attributable to people rediscovering their esteemed body of original work. Other factors include strong, smart material that doesn’t yield to trends and, perhaps most important, pop-cultural catalysts that have pulled distracted listeners back to these artists. The renewed interest in Bacharach was sparked by his hip collaboration with Elvis Costello and campy appearances in the Austin Powers movies. For Bennett, it was a new manager who sold him, as is, to the MTV generation.

If, as Bob Seger — enjoying his own return to popularity at 61 — said, rock ‘n’ roll never forgets, it is certainly prone to blackouts. Burt never really went away. He penned hits in the ’70s and ’80s, long after working with lyricist Hal David during his peak in the ’60s. But a swell of new interest occurred in 1996 after he collaborated with Costello on God Give Me Strength, a song for the Grace of My Heart soundtrack.

The Look of Love, a fine retrospective, followed in 1998 and proved equally alluring to young lounge cats as well as students of serious pop. It was a set that could spark a discussion about pop’s potential for complexity, and it also made fine background music in the living room during a party. Style, personal rather than musical, was a part of Bacharach’s problem. He was a good looking guy and he dressed the part. But his sporty ’60s look — a turtleneck and double-breasted blazer along with white shoes — was locked in time. Unfortunately, to some, his music was locked away with it. But talk to young, contemporary musicians today and they’re not drawn to a loungy caricature, but instead to Bacharach’s stately, clever compositions.

“I’m a sucker for melody,” said Damon Gough, the artist who records as Badly Drawn Boy. “And I like the sweetness of his melodies, like I Say a Little Prayer, the way the piano skips around it.” Matt Ward, a well-regarded indie-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter, said he “loves (Bacharach’s) production. I think he’s an amazing writer with complex and interesting songs. I think Brian Wilson spent a lot of time listening to him.”

Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry said he and his band discussed Bacharach’s influence on his own jazzy rock record Tiny Voices, released in 2003. “(He made) smart pop music,” he said. “I grew up listening to that music in the early to mid-’60s. There were some novelty songs in that era, but he was one of the people making pop music that was very intelligent.” The underground, too, is drawn to Bacharach’s compositions.

Musicians with avant-garde leanings are pulled in by the songs’ iconoclastic constructions: peculiar chord changes (Anyone Who Had a Heart), striking time signatures (Promises, Promises; Don’t Make Me Over), wild tempo shifts (I Say a Little Prayer for You, Any Day Now) and other intriguing eccentricities such as the way he folded forms such as the waltze or bossa nova (Walk on By) into his own style.

John Zorn, a saxophonist who’s been a major figure on New York’s experimental music scene for decades, dedicated two CDs’ worth of exciting and edgy Bacharach interpretations on his Great Jewish Music series. “(His) compositions explode the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be,” read a comment on the Web site for Zorn’s Tzadik label. “Advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars. “ut he makes it all sound so natural you can’t get it out of your head or stop whistling it. “Maddeningly complex, sometimes deceptively simple, these are more than just great pop songs: These are deep explorations of the materials of music.”

Amid the renewed attention, Bacharach made a full album with Costello, Painted From Memory, which exhibited his trademarks. In 2003, he released Here I Am, a smart collaboration with Ronald EIsley that was a rewarding trip through his classic catalog.

“You like to think that you’re always growing,” Bacharach said. “But some of the principles stay the same. For me, I never want anything to sound labored. Take Promises, Promises. People say, ‘Well, that’s a difficult one to sing.’ True, but Dionne (Warwick) could flow through it, and I knew that. “The secret there is yoe have service the show. It’s not about difficulty, it’s about the situation at that moment. The person (in Promises, Promises) is pissed off. I wanted that urgency and anger and I wanted it translated into my music. Service the vehicle, whether it’s a song, for movie or a Broadway show. You don’t try to find a hit.”

Admittedly some of the shine has faded from Bacharach’s resurgence. At This Time his first solo album in nearly 20 years, wasn’t well-received last year. A recent Geico commercial, in which he twitches creepily while singing and playing piano, set the Internet abuzz with rumors about his health. But at the very least, Bacharach’s renaissance has rescued his finest work — from the ’60s hits through the collaborations with Isley and Costello.

Unlike Bacharach, Tony Bennett really did disappear. Bacharach’s pop dovetailed with rock through the ’60s, but Bennett’s style of jazzy crooning was all but killed off by guitars. Artists such as his hero Frank Sinatra, made some modern pop concessions in the ’60s in hopes of retaining popularity. Bennett was more stubborn, and it cost him. By the time the ’70s gave way to the ’80 he was done: He’d acquired a cocaine addiction, lost a label deal and found trouble with the taxman.

Then he bounced back.

Bennett turned 80 in August and celebrated that milestone last week with Duets, an album that pairs his still-sterling voice with a wild array of singers such as Bono, Michael Buble, Juanes, the Dixie Chicks, John Legend and Elton John. And Elvis Costello. Always Elvis Costello. Bennett credits his son Danny with orchestrating his return from the bottom. Danny Bennett took control of his father’s career in the mid-’80s. His goal was to introduce Bennett to an audience born to parents too young to remember him themselves.

A series of savvy bookings made the singer, pushing 70 by the early ’90s, seem hipper0than the bloateô Sinatra.

Bennett appeared on The Simpsons and the MTV Video Music Awards alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He recorded a lively MTV Unplugged show/album, with guests k.d. lang and Costello.

Bennett has been more prolific than Bacharach during their respective periods of recent popularity. His new work has also been solidly rewarding, for both him and his listeners. It includes a series of albums that honor entertainment greats of yore (Fred Astaire, Sinatra, Billie Holiday) without his coming across as a weathered fuddy-duddy.

He’s also done so without compromising his craft. In concert, Bennett’s instrument remains marvelous, and his ebullience, which seemed quaint in the ’70s and ’80s, is infectious and genuine. As Bacharach put it, “There are certain survivors in this business, but his voice has always stayed golden.”

Bennett’s return coincided with that of Johnny Cash. The veteran country and rockabilly star followed a similar trajectory. He, too, cratered by the ’80s due to addiction, bad albums and a busted label deal. (Both experienced their highs and lows with Columbia.) Cash’s hip tipper was producer Rick Rubin, who recorded Cash’s five American Recordings albums, which combined original songs, old country gems and contemporary rock covers. The introverted Rubin has always deflected attention back to Cash. When they first met, he reportedly told Cash he wanted the veteran singer to make “a Johnny Cash album.”

All well and good, but Cash never would have found songs by Glen Danzig, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails on his own.

Still, Rubin’s point was that Cash’s Cashness never changed. Only our perception of it did. Similar questions of identity and reinvention surfaced last year when Rubin produced another graying icon: Neil Diamond. Following years of dull, overly lush productions, Diamond’s Rubin-produced 12 Songs was snappy and spare.

Rubin, again a hip facilitator, suggested that perceptions about Diamond and the album were just that: perceptions. In his eyes, the Neil Diamond of 2005 was as big a star as the Neil Diamond of Hot August Nights, his famed ’70s concert recording.

“He is one of the few people who can get on a stage in an arena in front of any audience anywhere in the world and and play original songs for hours everyone would be familiar with and sing along to,” Rubin said. “The list of people whose music has this power could be counted on one hand, tops. “Our goal was to make the best possible Neil Diamond album ever.”

A few years ago, Bennett told me he thought the process of becoming a performer had changed. He mentioned that two of his other heroes — Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington — each spent a decade on the road before developing into “consummate performers.”

Bacharach supported that notion. “I had enough training and listened to enough music and I went to school,” he said. “That’s how you learn to make music. I’d advise anybody who wants to make music to to go to school. You have to learn some rules. You have to learn to write it down. Put in the time. Then you can break the rules.” Rule-breaking innovators Armstrong and Ellington each had a creative peak. And each continued making good music for years after that.

Armstong died in 1971, Ellington three years later; media synergy wasn’t then what it is today, prohibiting rediscoveries such as the ones that Bacharach and Bennett have enjoyed. But Bennett also pointed out that, decades ago, popularity and fame weren’t so wildly divergent after creative peaks.

He felt blessed by the continuing interest in his own career. “That’s the only thing that’s regretful to me about the young musicians,” Bennett said. “There are very few people like Madonna or Paul McCartney or Elton John who stay up there. The majority are just big for one or two years, and then they fade out. And it’s cruel, because once it gets in your blood you don’t want to stop.”

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