Renée Fleming’s rock album comes out today. I almost gnawed off my fingers trying not to write about it, but after seeing the New York Times carefully dance around its glaring flaws not once but twice, (see also the LA Times and WSJ) it’s time for a review.
In general, there are two kinds of crossover records: the good kind, where two or more musicians who have achieved a degree of success in their respective disciplines collaborate to create something new and interesting, and the bad kind, where a musician who has achieved a degree of success in one genre of music assumes that they’re naturally equipped to excel in another.
Classic Meets Cuba, the Silk Road Ensemble, Paul Anka’s rock album, Sting’s luteny, almost everything the Kronos Quartet does, and even this ridiculous polka band fit into the former category. They’re not all great records, but nor are they crippled by artistic hubris, and they all contain a sound you’ve never heard before. They succeed by their own standards, achieving what they set out to do.
Bond is a string quartet that plays derivative, cheesy dance music. The Planets was a bunch of classical musicians who butchered classical-based rock music. Sarah Brightman is a musical theater actress who sings pseudo-classical tunes, behind the beat and out of tune. This is the bad kind of crossover – records that fail to achieve what they set out to do because they underestimate the size of the task at hand – and this is where Renée’s record belongs.
The odd thing about all this is that Renée Fleming is a more than competent singer in this repertoire. She sounds like a young Shirley Bassey, with plenty of power, all the control she needs, a good sense of when to hold back, when to let go and how to create drama and tension in the music. It might not be to everybody’s taste, but it’s hard to fault the singing: it succeeds by its own standards.
So what’s wrong with it?
Pretty much everything else. These are all either songs by bands or by solo artists known for ensemble works, but the arrangements here all depend on the vocalist to carry a weak ensemble.
Just compare the sound of “Endlessly” as recorded by Muse with Renée’s version.
You might actually prefer Renée’s vocal, but listen to the keyboards. Muse manage a fuzzy, intense sound like you’d get from a bunch of old vacuum tubes being driven really hard. Renée’s keyboards sound thin, fake, and one-dimensional. They add no intensity to the sound, they have no clear musical function. They just fill up a bit of space in the mix.
Listen to the drums: Muse obviously used a real kit, miked it up really well and compressed and gated it until they could spread it all over the mix like Dom Howard is hitting different bits of your brain with his sticks. Renée’s nameless, faceless band used a drum machine. It doesn’t add much.
I don’t particularly like Muse. I think they’re an enormously overrated band, but at least they know what their job is.
The same mistakes are repeated all over the record – Band of Horses’ sparse ballad “No One’s Gonna Love You” is transformed into a half-hearted syrupy mess. Willy Mason’s naïve “Oxygen” becomes overworked with the addition of synthesized strings.
What do you think would happen if you tried to put these strings on one of Renée’s classical albums? How is it ok here? Is there a good reason to accept lower standards because it’s a rock record?
On “Today” Jefferson Airplane ought to be at a technological disadvantage, but all that 43 years of invention has done for Renée’s band is a synth pad that sounds consistently behind the beat. In 1967, you could basically only have one kind of reverb. Digital reverb gives you a lot of options, but they’re much more effective if you don’t use all of them on the same song.
I don’t assume for one moment that Arcade Fire used a real church organ for “Intervention“. It sounds a bit too in tune, but I suppose it might be real. They resort to childrens choir at the end, but at least it’s low in the mix, which is more than you can say for the morass of general midi sounds that took a dump on the end of Renée’s version – and it keeps going…
The Mars Volta open “With Twilight As My Guide” with some funny noises, but they’re nothing compared with the unconvincing cat-on-a-keyboard heap of barely-tonal harmonic obfuscation that opens the cover.
You could argue that Tears for Fears are at an even greater technological disadvantage than Jefferson Airplane. In 1982, there were lots of toys in the studio, but hardly anybody knew how to work them properly – apparently the start of a tradition that is alive and well today. My favorite bit of this arrangement is the random interjections by Phil Collins’ horn section.
I’m pretty sure you can buy a keyboard that plays Renée’s version of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” when you press the “Demo” button.
Duffy’s “Stepping Stone” is an extreme example of faux-vintage production. Ditch that (or do it badly), and you’ve got a boring song.
I don’t think Death Cab For Cutie is a great name for a band, but they have at least learned what all the knobs and buttons in the studio do. There’s never too much going on. Acoustic and electronic instruments blend seamlessly to create one delicious texture after another. You can’t reproduce these sounds in an afternoon using a keyboard and a computer, it this sounds exactly like that’s what somebody has tried to do.
All this half-assed karaokeism brings us to Hallelujah. It’s not like the world needed another version of this song. Leonard Cohen wrote and recorded it as a histrionic anthem. Jeff Buckley demonstrated its effectiveness as a simple song of melody and harmony. American Idol wannabes use it to show what sensitive performers they. What does Renée’s “band” do?
A few bars of synth chorus that never comes back, a few bars of directionless bleepy noodling, and then cue the vocals with a smooth jazz rhythm section and the Twin Peaks electric piano. Those synth strings are back just in time to suspend the minor fall right past the major lift. If they had used real strings and changed nothing else, thing could have been quite beautiful. Instead, it’s a disappointing end to poorly executed recording project.
In classical music, it’s the composer’s job to write the notes, the musician’s job to make a good sound, the engineer’s job to capture it and the producer’s job to let you know when everything is in the can.
In pop music, they all work together to create a sound. The notes themselves are simple, so the sound needs to be great. That hasn’t happened here, or, at least, it hasn’t been done well enough to make it work.
Covers like this are going to be compared to the originals, and the originals were all put together by people who knew how to make a band sound good.
It seems like everybody involved underestimated what it took to make a modern rock record, and it’s a shame, because the talent was there. It didn’t need to suck.