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Streisand reaches new heights with 'Love is the Answer' CD set

If there has been anything missing in the astonishing, nearly five-decade career of Barbra Streisand, it's a few more more recordings of songs truly worthy of her, the kind that enabled her to establish that career. I don't begrudge her interest in exploring the contemporary trends that surrounded her as the decades passed, but each detour into disco or whatever robbed us of time Streisand might have spent with the likes of Gershwin, Kern and Porter -- material she was born to interpret. But with the release of "Love is the Answer," she has made up for those lost opportunities with some of her most exquisite performances since the 1960s.

The material includes "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Here's That Rainy Day," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" and "A Time for Love" -- which is to say, first-class material. Some lesser known items, such as "Love Dance" and "You Must Believe in Spring" (a bonus track), also make welcome additions to the singer's discography.

The release reminds me of "Simply Streisand," the album that found her spinning gentle vocal magic out "More Than You Know," "The Nearness of You" and other standards. Where that earlier album also offered a couple of tracks highlighting the dynamic, electrifying side of Streisand, "Love is the Answer" never raises the volume. It's all laid-back, a late-night, candles-in-the-room session that gives off an internal glow.

The sameness of character might be a disappointment to some, but I found myself won over by the consistently low voltage. In fact, the one time Streisand breaks loose a little, in

"Smoke Gets in You Eyes," the result is rather jarring. Happily, it's a brief departure into the sort of fussy melisma business that she has occasionally (and, I would maintain, unnaturally) adopted in the past decade or so. And when she comes back down, she does so wonderfully, with a downward leap that recalls a similar expressive effect way back on "A Sleepin' Bee" on her first album.

Throughout "Love is the Answer," Streisand sounds not just in fine voice -- at 67, it is extraordinary how much of that uniquely stirring timbre remains untouched by time -- but in a direct, personal mode, affectionately connected to each melody, each lyric. For those of us who weren't among the 90 or so lucky souls who got to savor Streisand's CD-launching performance at the Village Vanguard last weekend, this recording is so intimate that it's possible to imagine that you're in a lovely salon with just the singer and a few choice friends.

This illusion is particularly easy to sustain when you play what is mistakenly considered the secondary recording of the deluxe, two-CD set -- the program of 12 songs backed by no more than piano, guitar, bass and drums. These are the tracks that actually count the most, since they represent what Streisand recorded originally. She did not record live with the orchestra heard on the full-arrangement disc; the orchestrations were layered onto the tracks originally done with the combo.

Of course, those orchestrations, most by veteran arranger Johnny Mandel, are top-drawer (and blissfully free of those damn wind chimes that clattered through several Streisand albums in recent years). The full instrumental version is how we are so used to hearing Streisand that the results sound perfectly natural, not studio-layered. But I know I'll find myself returning much more often to the purer sound of those pared down tracks, where Streisand's almost conversational phrasing communicates with extra warmth and immediacy.

It's also on these more basic tracks that you can more fully appreciate the refined piano playing of Diana Krall (who also produced the album) and the other keyboard artists shared collaborative energy on the project: Tamir Hendelman, Bill Charlap and Alan Broadbent.

As I said, these performances take us back into vintage Streisand territory, as far as her stylistic approach is concerned, and that's something to sing about. It's an occasion to simply drink in the sound of the voice, the purity of the articulation, the intuitive phrasing.

One sublime example is the "Wee Small Hours" track. Streisand goes far beyond her 1970s performance, achieving here a genuinely wistful effect. On the last line, "That's the time you miss him most of all," she takes a short intake of breath between "of" and "all," an exquisite touch (something Judy Garland also did to sublime effect, as in "A Cottage for Sale").

There's another significant pause at the end of "If You Go Away," the old Jacques Brel hit, which, in lesser hands can turn maudlin. Streisand treats the song with a disarming honesty; when she reaches the line "I would have been the shadow of your shadow," the nakedness of the tone communicates richly. The subtle bossa nova "Gentle Rain" is sung delicately and deliciously, a mini-masterpiece of vocalism and arrangement. "Where Do You Start?," a fine Johnny Mandel tune with typically eloquent lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, is yet another memorable moment on a disc filled with them (this time, it's an intake of breath after the last note that proves telling). 

Surprisingly, a few foggy notes made it through the final edit of the album, notes that I suspect would have been rejected in years past. It only adds to the overall naturalness of this release.

To be sure, it is possible to wish for even more from Streisand here and there, interpretively  speaking. She only skims the surface of "Some Other Time," for example; I would have thought this bittersweet Comden/Green/Bernstein gem would have inspired much more profound music-making. Maybe she'll come back to it, some other time.

Meanwhile, this new release reaffirms what many of us have long known -- when you want to know what it means to be a great pop singer, Streisand is the answer.

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