Sunday, February 25, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Double review: Britney Spears and Barbra Streisand stay pop royalty

Apart from their initials and job title — "blockbuster pop legend" — Barbra Streisand and Britney Spears don't have a ton in common.

Streisand is a walking EGOT, an upper-echelon Hollywood icon with too many accolades and signature songs to count. Spears may not have Streisand's cultural cachet, but she might mean more to people under 40.

But the fickle music industry is a great equalizer, and so Streisand and Spears face similar obstacles in their quest for relevance in 2016. Their new albums, Streisand's Encore and Spears' Glory, are proof that no matter your credentials, if you wish to remain a pop monarch, it isn't just about who you were and are. It's who you know.

• • •

Sooner or later, all pop idols end up in duets territory. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Barry Manilow — they all get there someday, hoping to infuse their old hits with a bit of youthful relevance.

Encore is Streisand's third duets album after 2002's Duets (a compilation of past pairings) and 2014's original LP Partners; and third show tunes collection after 1985's The Broadway Album and 1993's Back to Broadway.

Encore combines both concepts with a twist: These are all Broadway show tunes sung and performed with actors, not just singers. Streisand relies on her directorial chops to coax not just singing, but voice acting from a big-name supporting cast: Hugh Jackman, Alec Baldwin, Jamie Foxx, Antonio Banderas, Anne Hathaway, Melissa McCarthy and more, interpreting greats like Sondheim, Hamlisch and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It's an intriguing idea, more so than if Streisand had simply pulled 10 hot names from the pop charts. You can visualize Streisand and her co-stars acting these little sketch-songs out in a sound booth, if not on an actual stage. It's good audio theater.

Hathaway and Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Daisy Ridley are charming partners on A Chorus Line's sashaying At the Ballet. (A nonsinging Bradley Cooper, on the other hand, sounds flat.) Baldwin brings his traditional crusty panache to Road Show's The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened, Antonio Banderas his amorous charm to Take Me To the World, from the Sondheim deep cut Evening Primrose.

A few big belters really shine. St. Petersburg's Patrick Wilson is back at his Broadway best on Passion's sweeping Loving You, and Foxx matches Streisand note for note on rousing finale Climb Ev'ry Mountain, from The Sound of Music. And Star Trek's Chris Pine practically steals the album on an utterly suave, knockout mashup of Right This Way's I'll Be Seeing You and My Fair Lady's I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face.

Parts of Encore feel a tad half-baked, conceptually. Streisand dips into well-trod duets territory by singing a "virtual duet" with legendary multihyphenate Anthony Newley, who died in 1999. Her voice doesn't totally mesh with Seth MacFarlane's on Pure Imagination, from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. On a modernized Anything You Can Do from Annie Get Your Gun, Streisand and McCarthy play not characters from a musical, but comic exaggerations of themselves, riffing on each other's names and reputations ("In any comedy, I can be crasser / I can be cruder and crasser than you ..."). None of these songs are that bad — the Newley duet is quite affecting — but they also don't entirely fit what is otherwise an appealing concept.

Otherwise, Streisand really gave thought to her duet pairings; scan the track list and you'll notice it's not just a "Broadway's greatest hits" album. That commitment and engagement help you look past the parts that don't quite work. And it makes Encore the rare duets album where you find yourself imagining the possibilities for a sequel.

• • •

A duets album wouldn't work for Britney Spears, who often suffers when stacked up against her peers — the big-voiced Christina Aguilera, the magnetic Justin Timberlake, etc. Just look at her performance at August's MTV Video Music Awards, where she struggled to follow an uproarious performance by Beyoncé — and, in the process, ceded part of her screen time to rapper G-Eazy, her co-star on lead single Make Me. It was not her finest hour.

Brit's Glory comes courtesy of an eclectic cast of producers (Mattman and Robin, Cashmere Cat) and songwriters (including the co-writers of Gwen Stefani's This Is What The Truth Feels Like and Selena Gomez's Revival). It's a crew well versed in the globally inspired pop of the moment — see the Caribbean-flavored Slumber Party, Love Me Down and deluxe-edition bonus cut Better — and so whatever else you might say about it, Glory doesn't feel out of touch with the times.

Problem is, producers can only do so much with Spears' Betty Boop mewl. There are songs where her pitched-up tones ricochet all over the place. One minute (Private Show) she sounds like a lost member of the Jackson Five; the next (Clumsy) she aims for a retro-soul vibe but ends up in a squishy, squirrelly middle ground. An artist with a more forceful delivery, like Nicki Minaj — or even Spears herself on earlier albums — might be able to make this vocal vacillation work. But here, Spears' soft squeak keeps songs with promise (the itchy, twitchy What You Need, let's say) stuck in a single gear, unable to ratchet the energy up even a single notch.

Glory works best when no one's asking Spears to be the showstopper we all know she isn't. On airy opener Invitation, she sounds nothing like herself, so filtered is her voice through a cloudy gauze of production. Man in the Moon and the enjoyably sparse Just Luv Me have a few of Spears' trademark grunts and purrs, but she pulls back in the light, feathery choruses. The thrusting, throbbing alt-disco beats of Do You Wanna Come Over? and Hard To Forget Ya don't require much vocal vamping, and as a result both have a fun midperiod-Madonna vibe.

Glory has the misfortune of arriving amid a boom of excellent pop albums from artists like Rihanna, Sia, Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande. A few years ago, it might have felt more distinctive. In 2016, it's easier to turn it off and walk away. There are just too many better options.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

   
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