Diana Krall: ‘Wallflower’ Track-by-Track Album Review

The Verve Music Group
The Verve Music Group

I’m a long-time fan of Diana Krall; I began listening to her when her Look of Love album came out in 2001. I own most of her albums as well as Live in Paris – DVD and Live in Rio – BluRay. So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard she was coming out with a new album in 2015. Then I found out what was going to be on it. Now I was excitedly concerned. She’s known for singing the Great American Songbook and jazz in general. Wallflower sounded like it was going to be the Great American Soft-Rock (Pop) album. Some of these songs were sung by The Carpenters. Not to disparage The Carpenters, but I have heard the songs in more than one elevator and more than once while I’m waiting on the phone. I was more than a little concerned that this was going to be the Great American Muzak album. I should’ve known with the dedication and professionalism of Diana Krall, that would not happen.

Being the smart woman that she is, she starts the album with two of the strongest songs “California Dreamin’” and “Desperado.” These were definitely worthy of a fresh, new cover; Ms. Krall, with a couple amazing backup singers, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, provides exactly that. While it wasn’t all downhill after the first two songs, there was more waxing and waning in finding value in her covers of the songs. While none of them were bad, some just didn’t seem to add much to the musical universe. “Feels Like Home” is one of the few songs I actually don’t care for at all, but that is because she is joined by Bryan Adams. I’m not a fan of raspy voices – earthy yes, but not raspy. Mr. Adams is near the top of the hill in terms of the raspy quality of his voice, matched only by my least favorite artist on the planet, Rod Stewart. When Sting collaborated with Messrs. Stewart and Adams on “All for Love” for the movie The Three Musketeers, that, for my preference, was the epitome of poor songs (even though I quite like Sting).

In many ways, David Foster’s production of the album reflects his professionalism and adept touch. Typically a genius at choosing tracks and their order, understanding the album as a whole and ensuring stellar orchestral band support, there are times when it seems out of place and over-produced on this album. In particular, the lush strings that begin the somewhat obscure Bob Dylan song, “Wallflower,” don’t seem to quite mesh with its folksy underpinnings. But then again, this is an atypical folk song. It’s more like a country love song. I would also say, that any Bob Dylan song sung by anyone other than Bob Dylan is a win. (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have to be two of the best songwriters this country has produced; they also have to be two of the worst singers I’ve ever heard. However, if you listen to the Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, his singing is reasonably good on “Wallflower.”) I digress; despite the occasional mismatch, Mr. Foster does a fabulous job producing a clear, chromatic, cohesive, consonant sound for this album. Ms. Krall and Mr. Foster set out to create an album that wasn’t a jazz album, to do something new for Ms. Krall. The largely succeeded. Ms. Krall, however, is Ms. Krall. It is inevitable that she introduces a bit of her jazz self in her covers of these pop songs

Despite its ups and downs, Wallflower really grows on you. Even though it just came out, I’ve gone through a number of listenings. While I liked it from the beginning, I’m coming to truly love it. As indicated above, Ms. Krall’s take on “California Dreamin’,” made famous by the Mamas and the Papas, is simply spot on. She begins a Capella, singing in a reflective tone that evokes haunting memories. It picks up into more of a jazzy syncopation. While it has all of the appropriate instrumentation, that remains in the background with the focus on Ms. Krall’s voice and the piano.

Back in the day when I played vinyl, I flat wore out Hotel California by the Eagles; Joe Crocker’s earthy voice was perfect on “Desperado.” It remains one of my favorite songs on an album full of favorites. So it’s no small feat for Ms. Krall to match that level of performance here; it stands on par with Mr. Crocker’s. ‘Nuff said.

While I respect them, I’m not a huge Carpenters fan. So while I’ve heard “Superstar,” it wasn’t particularly well known to me (yes, I know others recorded it, but they made it famous). Ms. Krall took a relatively slow song and slowed it down further. On top of which you have lots of flowing strings. As a whole, this typically isn’t my cup of tea. For some reason unbeknownst to me, this version of “Superstar” is growing on me. It’s not the highlight of the album, but it’s surprisingly good. If you like the original, I suspect you’ll like this cover.

I am a fan of Michael Bublé and love the idea of their collaborating. Knowing that they were going to sing a duet on the poster child of easy listening, “Alone Again,” was a little bit scary. I’m not wholly won over, and I certainly do hope they collaborate more on something with a little more jazz heritage. This is another track that has grown on me. Moreover, performing it as a duet does add a new dimension to it.

One of the things I liked about this take on “Wallflower” was it preserved the folk/country cross-over flavor of the song. Even the strings seem to suggest Nashville. Some of Dylan’s phrasings and tonal changes are retained by Ms. Krall. She almost conjures up a honky-tonk, slowed down for the end of a night.

If I Take You Home Tonight” is a jewel in the midst of the album. This is a song written by Paul McCartney during a previous project on which she collaborated, but it was not recorded. With Sir Paul’s permission, she brought out what I believe will become pop standard. While it has elements of soft pop, it’s really a traditional love song. “If I tell you how I feel / Would you be afraid and run away / I would say my love is real / If you let me take you home tonight.” Nicely done.

Ms. Krall, with a little help from ex-Eagles bassist, Timothy Schmit, takes on the Eagles once again in “I Can’t Tell You Why.” I love this version; it adds elements that bring out a jazzy flavor to it, even hints of bassa nova. This is another song that makes this album standout without seeming to try.

Ms. Krall doesn’t shy away from taking on musical giants. Elton John is the next icon in her sight covering his “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” One again, Ms. Krall nails it, this time not bending the genre, rather playing it straight as a ballad. Alas, she does not do so for “Operator”. It seems a bit too soft and mushy; the edges of the pain and sadness don’t seem to retain their bite in this version. Jim Croce’s original seems to embed so much raw emotion. That same softening seems to occur with 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” but this time, musically rather than emotionally. It lacks the slight edge, the background vocal enveolop and the build-up at the beginning.

There are some pretty great covers of Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” – Linda Ronstadt and Chantal Kreviazuk included, so I’m not sure of the motivation to cover it again. It’s a bit syrupy to begin with (although I confess, I like syrup), but how does adding Bryan Adams’ voice in the mix help? Rasp doesn’t add grit.

Crowed House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a great candidate for a new cover. While the original was great, this allowed it to take on a more timeless sound. That holds true for “In My Life” as well (the first among the bonus tracks).  Not that the Beatles version wasn’t iconic, but it is so clearly tied to them and their early sound. Ms. Krall’s cover allows it to be heard afresh away from its Fab Four moorings. I have a slight preference for a bit quicker tempo than she took, but it’s lovely nonetheless and really can be heard on its own. Nicely enough, she picks up the pace with Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh.” It’s definitely the most fun had on the album. I think it’s great she was able to include Mr. Fame on this cover of his song. It retains strong ties to its original sound while bringing something new to the song – full articulation while using more elongated notes to smooth out the sound.

Next we have the live versions of two songs we previously heard: “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and “Wallflower.” Honestly, these songs point to Ms. Krall’s consistency; they don’t sound much different than the studio recordings, albeit, they are a bit simpler. So, they don’t seem to add much to the album. From my perspective, the deluxe album only gets you two bonus songs (but two great ones).

While I get that that the album can take on a bit of the “101 String Orchestra” sound, it mostly overcomes this and does a lovely job with the songs. Is this my favorite Diana Krall album? Not so much. Is it one I’ll have in my music library? Absolutely. There are some truly great covers and I’ll just skip over “Operator” and “Feels Like Home.” It’s also nice to see Ms. Krall spread out a little from her jazz comfort zone. I commend the album for your listening pleasure. Now, it you haven’t heard Ms. Krall in the past, please check out The Look of Love, The Girl in the Other Room, Christmas Songs or Quite Nights. They are all fabulous.