Barbra Streisand and Cher Bono Allman Sarkissian are the ultimate multi-media stars.
La Streisand has gone from Broadway to records to television to film, always somewhere at the top of whatever field she chooses to manipulate at a particular time. Cher went from recording star to television to Vegas to the gossip mill. Along the way, each has made some big mistakes -- particularly, but not exclusively, on vinyl.
With Streisand, we have had the follies of a dilettante. Remember Classical Barbra, Rough Rockin' Barbra, Jill-of-all-pop-trades Barbra? They are all better forgotten. Now we have the New Barbra on "Guilty" (Columbia FC36750), by association with head Bee Gee Barry Gibb and that group's longtime producers, Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson. All of the songs on this new album are penned by assorted Bee Geees, so they fall into the lush popism that's disco to the uninitiated and ersatz middle-of-the-road to rock fans. It's a territory defined by Diana Ross and Donna Summer in their more genteel moments.
For once, it's not the Same Old Barbra in a new costume, riding roughshod over material she is illsuited for. Gibb seems to have controlled her. He has disciplined Streisand into concentrating on her longtime strengths; she is once again an interpreter, seeking the full emotive value of each lyric line, delivering it with a galvanizing intensity and heartfelt emotion. And Streisand sounds young, renewed, coquettish. As she sings in the excellent title song, "We got nothing to be sorry for."
When Streisand is in command of her material, and when that material is strong (as on the title cut, "The Love Inside" and "Run Wild"), her new album is stunning. The thread that binds the songs is Richard Tee's tastefully deliberate piano work. "The Love Inside" in particular is the kind of bittersweet ballad at which Streisand has always excelled. She sounds like she's been singing it for years and her classic diction crystallizes the romantic ambiguity that flows through the album.Yet just as she's made you a believer, an over-lush arrangement starts to clutter things up, to interfere with the communion.
The same thing happens on "Run Wild," a beautiful ballad of self-assertion. As it peaks in dramatic intensitiy, an overblown string arrangement intrudes. One wishes that Streisand had taken a chance on simplicity, or that Gibb had believed enough in the songs to leave them unguarded.
There are other drawbacks on "Guilty." Not all of the material is up to the normal Bee Gee standards. Streisand's duets with Gibb on the title cut and "What Kind of Fool" tend to focus on Gibb's short-comings. On "Guilty," which is a terrific pop-on-this-side-of-disco cut, Streisand's flowing phrasing is so natural and warm that Gibb's clipped, nasal efforts seem lugubrious in contrast. On "Woman in Love", where Streisand ends up competing with an anxious chorus, she compensates with volume and ends up sounding like Mary Hopkin. "Life Story" begs for a nasty, rough treatment, but Streisand's always had trouble with up-tempo or aggressive songs and her performance here is perfunctory at best. Send this one to Bette Midler. Send "Promises," "Never Give Up" and "Make it Like a Memory" back to rewrite.
There's a line in "Life Story" that says, "When you find me, I'll be somebody else." That's true of Streisand and no less true of Chameleon Cher. What no one could have predicted was Cher fronting a hard rock band, yet that's what "Black Rose" (Casablanca NBLP7237) is all about. At one point, Cher shouts out defiantly, "I'm going to take you by surprise/Right between the eyes." And indeed, throughout the album, she's threatening, spitting out lyrics against a background of Thin Lizzie-inspired hard rock drawn from varied songwriters but churned up by her new partner, guitarist Les Dudek.
In some ways, this is a terrible album, with all the earmarks of a hurried job. But it bounces with a joy and exuberance that's cushioned in Streisand's album.
None of the songs on "Black Rose" really stands out. "Young and Pretty" is a rare medium-tempo ballad surrounded by rockers. There's a duet here, too: "You Know It," by Dudek and Cher. Cher's masculine voice bends, occasionally breaks, the rough spots scratching like sandpaper against the lyrics. Sometimes she sounds like a demented Joan Armatrading caught in the vice of a heavy-metal outfit. The playing is dense, but the spirit is intense.
In these two packages, recycled pop idols are entering the '80s with their eyes wide open but looking in the opposite directions. Barbra Streisand spent much of the '70s trying to establish credibility with her own generation. With "Guilty," she's reached a temporary, but comfortable, middle ground. Cher's shed the shackles of convention and gone back to the raucous and raunchy cellars of rock 'n' roll. One took the high road and one took the low road. But which one?