Annie Lennox crafts a beautifully unique album covering songs from the Great American Songbook. “Unique, you say? How can that be while singing well-covered songs?” She is a chanteuse par excellence who takes these jazz and popular songs, stamps her balladeering tone on them and sings them like no other. We all know how important it is when covering a song to “make it your own.” Ms. Lennox does that in spades. She takes the sense of power and beat from her Eurythmic days, ties that to her clear tone, and brings the whole package together with her ability to both capture the essence of a moment and tell a story (think “Into the West” at the end of Return of the King in the Lord of the Rings movie series) to produce something unique. This album is anything but mere nostalgia; these are great songs sung in a contemporary, yet timeless manner with a powerful, clear voice.
As I’ve noted before, covers beg for comparison and this album is no different. Indeed, as we compare some of these tracks to others we’ll see evidence for the characterization above and the compelling nature of listening to different takes on the same song. So let’s start with “Memphis in June.” Annie Lennox is definitely going for nostalgia here in its start – it sounds like an old-time tinny recording in the beginning. Oh, but then she starts with her earthy, powerful voice. She has a tone all of her own. She takes driving, linear slant to the song, different than, say, Hoagy Carmichael’s rolling notes and roller-coaster lifts and drops original or the smoky, quiet night-club sound of Nina Simone. Julie London’s comes closest but, to my taste it is a bit syrupy, general 40’s sound. Ms. Lennox version combines soul and narrative.
The classic “Georgia on My Mind” always makes me think of Ray Charles, although it was recorded long before his version by Billie Holliday and since by many others. Honestly, while I never thought I would say this of a Scots woman, Ms. Lennox is one of my favorites. Power, clarity, tone and full, held notes all come together to allow her to bring out the song’s beauty and soul. This, however, is not a zero-sum game; all the aforementioned recorders have their unique charms.
As the drive of the piano notes start, you know you’re going to be driven into a powerful, bluesy song. It’s one of those songs where you just have to move with it. The guitar riffs that kick in only bolster that sound. Words fail (not a good thing for a music reviewer). Simply watch and listen. A couple of side notes: the sound engineering on the video, despite being from the official Vevo channel for Ms. Lennox, is a bit muddied. The second is that you’re watching a woman nearing 60 (she’s a Christmas baby); simply fabulous. Many older singers lose their clarity; she has not.
“Summertime” can be done very “jazzy” ala Renee Olstead’s version but Ms. Lennox elongates the notes, keeps true to her course and hits resonating notes that bring it home. However, this delightful song of high cotton and good lookin’ Mamas is followed by one of the most heart-wrenching songs I know: Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” We hear the bitterness of the horrific taking of life with lynching’s in South: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” Ms. Lennox does it justice, bringing to bear all the pain and sorrow she’s witnessed over the years. While her pain must be different, you sense her empathy: “Here is a strange and bitter crop.” Nicely enough, we’re not left in this pain, Ms. Lennox sings “God Bless Child” in the next track. While it too speaks of suffering, it also looks to helping and loving our brothers.
It’s funny how sounds (especially music) and smells tap into our memory. I can’t hear “You Belong to Me” without thinking of a men’s quartet group singing the song my college, PLU (Go Lutes). Ms. Lennox’s rendition, of course, doesn’t have that “Glee club” quality to it, but rather it’s sung in a straight-forward, timeless manner while pointing to the past. Some attribute “September in the Rain” with saving Frank Sinatra’s career in the 50s; be that as it may, this, along with “You Belong to Me” and “I Can Dream, Can’t I” save this album from ignoring the whole romance/love song aspect of the American song book. Renditions of all of these are clear, contemporary but harking back to earlier times. Her renditions of these songs are foreshadowed by “Something So Right” on Medusa or even “Satellite of Love” from her Eurythmic days.
I was only introduced to “The Nearness of You” from Norah Jones’ rendition when her album Come Away with Me was released (in 2002). I love the breathless, intimate sound Ms. Jones brought to the song. Much later, I listened to the earlier recording on Ella Fitzgerald’s and Louis Armstrong’s fabulous album What a Wonderful Duet. Mr. Armstrong alternately plays trumpet and sings while Ms. Fitzgerald sings the alternate verses. Ms. Lennox’s rendition is a bit more like theirs; it has big sound, piercing notes and a lush background.
“Mood Indigo” is the perfect end to this set. It seriously brings the blues while also bringing the ballad. She has a much more bluesy sound than the Rosemary Clooney/Duke Wellington version while not losing her moorings as a chanteuse. It’s all so beautifully done.
This may well be her swan song. If so, that will be a loss, but the silver lining in this is she’s going out strong and singling well. I hate to hear those great singers who sing past their voice’s life and so leave memories of someone who didn’t perform well. If this is indeed Ms. Lennox last hurrah, she’s going out on one of her clarion-clear high notes. To dive a little deeper, check out her album trailer here.