Recordings: Allison Stewart on Barbra Streisand's ??Love Is the Answer'

Not even producer Diana Krall could get Barbra Streisand to loosen up.
Not even producer Diana Krall could get Barbra Streisand to loosen up. (CBS)
By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Barbra Streisand is fond of releasing high-gloss, middlebrow concept albums. Recent examples include the listless "Guilty Pleasures" (her 2005 rematch with Barry Gibb) and the slightly terrifying "A Love Like Ours" (a syrup-dipped mash note to then-new husband James Brolin in 1999).

On Streisand's first disc in four years, the jazz standards collection "Love Is the Answer," producer Diana Krall attempts to refashion the singer in her own image -- as a loose-limbed, late-night chanteuse. But Streisand, history's most self-protective singer, makes for a curious jazz stylist."Love" is a jazz album only in the loosest sense, a toe dipped into a very careful, very Barbra-fied type of jazz, one that has more in common with a sedately swinging, utterly unspontaneous traditional pop offering.

"Love" is being marketed in two forms, as a single-disc version on which Streisand is accompanied by an unobtrusive orchestra, and a deluxe, double-disc set that includes the same tracks in the same order (and sometimes with markedly similar vocals) with backing by Krall's own quartet. Both versions are lovely, understated and nicely edited. Neither is essential.

With rare exceptions (the modified bossa nova number "Gentle Rain," a particularly inky version of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning"), each song on the orchestral disc sounds like every other song on the orchestral disc, most every song on the quartet version resembles itself, and there's a glacial slowness to just about everything.

In keeping with the collection's concept-within-a-concept, several tracks are either of an early-'60s vintage or were originally performed by Streisand in the early '60s. They're meant to bring to mind her beginnings as a club singer (it's not for nothing that she recently made a much-hyped promotional appearance at the tiny New York club the Village Vanguard, site of a famously unsuccessful '61 audition), and to answer the question: What would the 67-year-old Barbra of Now do with classics favored by the Barbra of Then?

Because Streisand, one of music's most enthusiastic vocal retouchers, has shorn these tracks of all but the most calculated idiosyncrasies -- a knowing chuckle on "Where Do You Start?," that infamous but actually pleasing rasp on a stately "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" -- any answers remain theoretical. The Voice seems to have lost little force and to have even gained a pleasing crackle in its lowest registers. But its everyday, un-retouched pleasures remain as much of a mystery as ever.

"Love Is the Answer," like many of its predecessors, remains the very soul of reverence, a monument not to these well-thumbed-through standards but to Streisand herself, who occasionally allows herself a scuffed-up half note but otherwise seems to regard even the slightest variation from the airbrushed uber-Barbra to be a very bad business, indeed.

DOWNLOAD THESE: From the orchestra disc: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning"; From the quartet disc: "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," "If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company