The Voice doesn't count for a lot without The Material. Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, who earned the sobriquet generations apart, prove that all too clearly on disappointing new albums that do little to enhance their reputations and much to define the importance of a producer.
Frank Sinatra's "L.A. Is My Lady" (QWest 25145-1) sounds great, but is little more than an ambitious miscalculation. Producer Quincy Jones -- an architect of the sound surrounding Michael Jackson -- brings his big-band and pop vocal credentials to this job, and does a super one.
The arrangements, mostly by Frank Foster and Sam Nestico, are bright and sassy, perfect vehicles for the top-notch studio band augmented by George Benson, Lionel Hampton, Bob James and others. With the exception of three new songs, the material is splendid, drawn from the '30s and '40s, the golden era of American popular song that has served Sinatra so well for so long. Side 2, for instance, is all chestnuts, ranging from "After You've Gone" (1918) and "Mack the Knife" (1928) to "Stormy Weather," "A Hundred Years From Today" (both 1933) and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" (1936).
But there is little to cheer about in Sinatra's delivery. Once a premier stylist and interpreter, he seems bored with the material now, as if recording it were an obligation, an exercise. Even these classy melody lines provided by Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, Victor Young and Cole Porter don't offer a challenge; or maybe Sinatra refuses to rise to the challenge. When he pushes, his voice flattens, and if he doesn't miss many notes, he certainly seems to be avoiding them. While his phrasing remains graceful and his articulation precise, his tone seems clouded and lacks resonance.
Some of these things are to be expected from a singer about to turn 69. But Sinatra has shown, in concert as recently as this year, that he can get around those limitations. And three years ago, Quincy Jones' production on "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music" confirmed that empathetic production makes limitations irrelevant. Jones comes through again here, but Sinatra never invests the material with his distinctive personality.
"L.A. Is My Lady" is a little more than a Chamber of Commerce commercial. It's also a rather crude attempt to extend Sinatra's city-celebrating talents, but "L.A." is all artifice and triviality compared to "New York, New York" or "My Kind of Town."
"How Do You Keep the Music Playing" and "The Best of Everything" are platitudinous plodders; just how much so becomes clear the minute Sinatra launches into a good song, Sammy Cahn's "Teach Me Tonight." With Torrie Zito's sassy brass punching the air behind him, Sinatra actually seems to enjoy being involved here, as he does on a careening version of Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me," which benefits from a pulsating arrangement by Nestico.
Yet just as Sinatra settles in, he ruins the mood and, sometimes, the song. "Mack the Knife" features sparkling solos from Benson, Hampton, Joe Newman and Urbie Green. But Sinatra, who's been working through the song in solid if not spectacular fashion, then slides into one of his rewrites-masquerading-as-improvisation: "Oh, Satchmo, Louis Armstrong/ Bobby Darin/ they did this song nice/ And Lady Ella, too/ they all sang/ sang it/ with such feeling/ That Ole Blue Eyes/ Can't add nothing new." Exactly.
In "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," he updates another line to "I'd even punch out Mr. T for you," validating the kind of caricature Joe Piscopo perpetrates so well. There was a time when Sinatra could swing a band. Now it's the band that must swing him, and despite Jones' stewardship, it's not always successful. On the other hand, there is a convivial continuity to "L.A. Is My Lady" derived from its having been recorded (except for the title cut) in a single studio under the tutelage of a single producer, with Sinatra right there in the thick of things, live, the old-fashioned way.
Production is just one problem with Barbra Streisand's "Emotion" (Columbia OC39480), but it may be the central one. For her first studio album in four years, Streisand used nine producers in 13 studios, and 16 people contributed their songwriting skills; don't try to count the musicians. The credit list could pass for a lyric sheet.
For instance, the title cut was produced by Richard Perry (who guided Streisand into pop-rock 14 years ago with "Stoney End") and features the Pointer Sisters so ineptly they might as well be the Pointless Sisters.
Having provided recent hits for Bonnie Tyler, Barry Manilow and Air Supply, Jim Steinman was drafted for one of his typically overproduced, odious soap rock-operettas, this one titled "Left in the Dark." Which is where it should have been left. The first single from the album, it is stalled in the charts at No. 50, whereas the Tyler prototype went to No. 1.
Albhy Galuten was part of the production team on 1980's Bee Gees/Streisand project, "Guilty," so he was called up for a couple of shots, "Clear Sailing" and "You're a Step in the Right Direction," a rather unlikely collaboration between John Cougar Mellencamp and Streisand. The verdict: La Streisand does Miami disco better than midwestern rock.
"Best I Could" comes from the same team that provided Streisand with "Comin' In and Out of Your Life," and as ballads go, it's pretty bland. How about a duet with Kim Carnes, everybody's favorite distaff Rod Stewart? Get them to deliver a bittersweet essay on infidelity called "Make No Mistake, He's Mine," and suddenly you've got the makings of a hit. Turn to Richard Baskin, a contemporary songwriter who is rooted in older pop and theatrical traditions, and "Here We Are at Last" becomes not only a song title, but an indication that "Emotion" is turning in the right direction.
Finally, make a daring overture to Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire and watch him come through on three songs, "Time Machine," "Heart Don't Change My Mind" and "When I Dream." These are not great songs, but they do have a certain rhythmic vitality. Still, Streisand simply cannot cut loose like a Jennifer Holliday.
The major problem is that just as Streisand miscalculated her classical skills on "Classical Barbra," she miscalculates her potential as a rock-soul-pop singer. Her diction is too precise, her voice simply too powerful, too defined in its theatricality. Streisand is slumming and her skills as an interpreter -- one who can evoke nuances, probe a lyric for substance, shape a melody line -- are wasted on flaccid material. Worse, her delivery overwhelms that material in the same way that opera singer Eileen Farrell tortured the blues many years ago. In the end, "Emotion" lacks everything but technique, and even from Streisand, that's not enough.