Songs sung cool

Songs sung cool
You might sneer, but Diamond’s catalog just got even richer
By Ricardo Baca
Denver Post Pop Music Critic

Go ahead, bash Neil Diamond all you want. We’ll even give you more ammunition. (His middle name is Leslie.) Neil Diamond deserves a good ribbing. Even he must understand that.

But as the insults are hurled, don’t forget to look past the pablum – yes, “Song Sung Blue,” we’re talking about you – and into one of the richest songwriting catalogs in the past five decades of American music.

To answer your question: Yeah, dead serious, especially given his recent release, “12 Songs.”

Diamond plays the Pepsi Center on Monday, and he turns 65 next month. And in his 45-plus years of recording, he claims nearly 120 million in record sales – remarkable numbers, but not surprising given that Diamond is third on the list of most-successful adult contemporary artists in the history of the Billboard charts, behind Elton John and Barbra Streisand.

That’s a lot of ’70s pop-gunk. But like any gold mine, you have to work through the worthless rock (or in his case, schlock) to find the precious nuggets. And they’re in there. Waylon Jennings, Dizzy Gillespie, Shirley Bassey, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner and Frank Sinatra all have recorded Diamond songs for their own collections.

You can ask fashionable Chicago rockers Urge Overkill, a band that covered him quite famously more than a decade ago. The moment its track arrived in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece “Pulp Fiction” was among the film’s best and most effective – an unforgettable few minutes courtesy of Diamond’s excellent “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.”

Like Bob Dylan’s work, Diamond’s catalog begs to be interpreted. (Don’t panic, this is the story’s only Dylan-Diamond comparison.) In fact, Diamond’s songs are often better when sung by Chris Isaak, Petula Clark or the Monkees. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Barry Manilow can sympathize, although his collection of songs doesn’t touch Diamond’s in terms of pop originality.

This is what it comes down to: Don’t kill the messenger – but praise the message writer.

This is, after all, the man who penned “I’m a Believer,” the perfect-pop song that helped launch the Monkees into the stratosphere. He also wrote “Red Red Wine,” which has been a hit for everyone (most recently UB40), save for Diamond, in the past four decades.

As for his own hits, the moody “Solitary Man” and dark “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” are more than great pop songs. They’re selfishly sexy and indicative of an era in which everything, including the battle of the sexes, was understood on different terms. A man was a man, a woman was a woman, and girls would be women – soon.

Diamond went through a dry spell after 1976’s Robbie Robertson-produced event-record “Beautiful Noise,” which was his best record at the time but still not as compelling as a Robertson-Diamond collaboration should have been.

After that came his mostly superfluous flashcard pop-culture milestones, including the TV specials “Love at the Greek” and “Hot August Night” in 1977. There was the solo-turned-Streisand collaboration “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” in 1978, the remake and soundtrack of “The Jazz Singer” in 1980, the sad and redundant “Hot August Night II” in 1987, and the Neil-by-the-fireplace Christmas records in 1992 and 1994.

But it wasn’t until this year that the singer-songwriter actually made a record – or a song, even – that mattered again.

His most recent release, “12 Songs,” was received warmly by critics and fans ready for Diamond to stop going through the motions with every-other-year tours that blare the hits, rock the fireworks and sport the bad Tom Jones shirts. (Or are they considered bad Neil Diamond shirts?)

“12 Songs” comes to us from a Diamond who is (mostly) past his Tom Jones shirts days, and it signals the arrival of reality – and when you’re talking about Diamond’s surreal public image, that’s saying something.

Leave it to producer Rick Rubin to reel Neil back in. Rubin, who is credited with Johnny Cash’s comeback in the ’90s, is the first producer to actually work with Diamond – and to restrain his eccentric and grandiose pop sensibilities.

Rubin holds him back in “12 Songs,” and it’s a unique side of Diamond. Granted, the commanding voice is still there, but he manages the stripped-down material impressively – and only occasionally does he sound like William Shatner.

“Face Me” and “Oh Mary” are each subtle, humble approaches to songwriting that show an obvious restraint. “Man of God” is a meditative spiritual that could easily have Diamond laughed off the stage – but instead it’s moving and powerful.

It is a comeback, something Diamond is all too familiar with through his experience with fickle audiences in the ’70s. And while it’s a fascinating makeover allowing us new access into the mind of a seminal guilty pleasure/icon, it’s not a sign that Diamond is ready to hang up “Cherry, Cherry” – or those Tom Jones shirts – on a full-time basis.

But that’s a bit much to ask, isn’t it?

Pop music critic Ricardo Baca can be reached at 303-820-1394 or rbaca@denverpos

Neil Diamond has written hundreds of songs in the past 45-plus years, many of which charted in the top 10. Here are his 10 finest:
1. “Solitary Man” Indicative of another era – not Diamond’s necessarily – this song brings you into the world of spies and Mustang convertibles and private jets. The horns are luscious, and a beautiful evocation of the ’60s.

2. “I’m a Believer” Released as the Monkees’ second single in 1966, this is a smart, near-perfect pop song. (Diamond’s version is much less interesting.) When the Monkees released it, it was met with more than 1 million pre-orders, and it went on to become the biggest single of ’67. (In 2001, it was a huge single for Smash Mouth from the “Shrek” soundtrack.)

3. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” Interpreted by somebody else (think Urge Overkill), this song generates tremendous sexual heat. From Diamond’s lips, it still works – with his smooth and confident voice gliding over the suggestiveness.

4. “Oh Mary” It’s the first song off the new “12 Songs,” and a laid-back Diamond caresses the pretty folk ballad with a renewed sense of roots and respect. It’s great to hear Diamond back in songwriting form, but it’s also exciting to think about other artists covering these songs.

5. “Cracklin’ Rosie” This song’s about cheap wine, not cheap women. As the breakdown confesses, “You got the way to make me happy.” Regardless of how silly it is, this song does have the way.

6. “Red Red Wine” More cheap vino! (Does Thunderbird get residuals?) Diamond and his label were disappointed in this release in ’68 – and still today, Diamond’s version is a bit harsh. But the single has since found its legs. It has been recorded by everyone from Jimmy James & the Vagabonds to UB40, which recorded it on an album of reggae covers based on Tony Tribe’s interpretation – without knowing it was Diamond’s song.

7. “Shilo” It’s not a misspelled homage to the Civil War battle, but rather an imaginary childhood friend. Again, it’s exquisite pop. (Sometimes it’s hard to hear that, but bust past Diamond’s strained vocals, and it’s there.)

8. “If You Know What I Mean” Produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson (Diamond’s neighbor at the time) in the mid-’70s. Diamond later (and as something of a fish out of water) appeared with The Band at its farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as “The Last Waltz.” Diamond was less interested in recording after this record, and it showed.

9. “Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)” He needed that parenthetical because “Sweet Caroline” simply wasn’t recognizable enough, right? This single has plenty of cheese, but there are recordings out there of artists playing acoustic versions, and it’s magic.

10. “Save Me a Saturday Night” Producer Rick Rubin had tight control over Diamond’s most recent project, and this is one of the few playful songs on “12 Songs.” Wistful and melancholy, it still maintains Diamond’s signature sense of fun.

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