That Barbra Streisand would be the subject of a CD boxed set was inevitable.
This, we should remember, is the age of the boxed set, in which deluxe, career-spanning retrospectives like Streisand's "Just for the Record . . ." (Columbia 44111) are all but obligatory. And that goes double for stars who have big names and deep catalogs but little recent chart success.
Obviously, Streisand qualifies on all counts. Though her most recent albums have hardly been failures, her audience at this point consists almost entirely of loyalists, those who either grew up on her voice or adore her simply for being Streisand. It may be a large following, but it pretty much leaves her preaching to the converted.
Why? Because for the vast majority of pop music fans -- those whose musical tastes are dictated by the Top 40, a listing she hasn't made in eight years -- Streisand is probably better known for her acting than for her singing.
"Just for the Record . . ." isn't likely to change that, either. After all, how many casual fans are likely to spring for a four-CD (or four cassette) collection, no matter how deluxe, out of mere curiosity?
But they should, for Streisand is clearly one of the greatest
American singers of this century.
That isn't simply a matter of vocal quality. Though it's hard to argue with the luxuriant warmth of her soprano -- the light, honeyed high notes, the purring vibrato, the opulent lower register -- Streisand's magnificent instrument is actually the lesser part of her appeal.
What she does with that voice is what makes her recordings matter. And nowhere is that clearer than the difference between the versions of "You'll Never Know" that frame "Just for the Record . . ." The first is an acetate Streisand recorded at 13; although it's little more than a vanity recording, the sort of thing made and sold at state fairs and amusement parks, the clarity and power of the young singer's voice is unmistakable.
Is it a great recording? Not really. Good as her voice is, the young Streisand never really does much with the song, something which becomes obvious at the end of the set as the mature Streisand sings a "duet" with herself on the song.
As a gimmick, it's a bit annoying -- surely, between Hank Williams Jr. & Sr. and Nat & Natalie Cole, the novelty of such things has long worn off -- but as a vocal performance, it's a revelation. It isn't just that Streisand's voice is smoother; it's the way she shapes each line that makes the song sparkle, placing pauses and stressing syllables at just the right points to bring out the brilliance in its melody.
And "Just for the Record . . ." is full of such surprises. Obviously intended for the faithful, it wastes little time on recordings most .. fans already have. Instead, its 77 selections emphasize rarities above all else.
That's not to say it completely skips over the familiar. There are hits like "People" and "The Way We Were," songs from "Funny Girl" and "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)" and all the HTC other trademark tunes. But the real excitement stems from the unexpected tracks, which range from TV appearances to song demos to the audio part of Streisand's proposal for the film "Yentl."
The best are astonishing. For instance, there's a three-song snippet from Streisand's appearance on "The Judy Garland Show" from 1963 that will put hard-core fans in heaven.
Even more revealing are the songs recorded at New York's Bon Soir nightclub in 1962. As Streisand's liner notes explain, these recordings were originally intended to become her first album; -- instead, they went straight into the vaults.
Hearing them now, it's tempting to wonder why. Some of it, naturally, is given over to the sort of show tune material that was Streisand's forte at the time, and her renditions of "Value" and "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" are engagingly (and expectedly) hammy. But her treatment of songs like "Cry Me a River" and "Lover Come Back to Me" suggest a jazziness that her subsequent recordings never fully exploited, and it's tempting to wonder what would have happened had she chosen to pursue that direction.
Musicals, though, not only sold albums back then -- they were what made Streisand a star. Hand her a piece of fluff, like "Miss Marmelstein," and she turned it into a set-piece; give her a major role, as in "Funny Girl," and she stole the show. So long as the play was the thing, Streisand's commercial potential seemed limitless.
That is, it did until the Beatles came along.
The Beatles changed everything. Up until that time, rock and roll controlled the singles market, but albums were still largely purchased by grown-ups -- people whose idea of musical entertainment ran along the lines of "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." But as rock slowly pushed its predecessors off the charts, those singers who owed their success to older sounds were forced to adapt or perish.
Luckily for her, Streisand was able to do the former. It took a while -- her first "rock" success didn't come along until 1970, with Laura Nyro's "Stoney End" -- but instead of diminishing her reputation, the change ended up making her more popular than ever.
How she pulled it off, though, is worth noting. Obviously, Streisand is not a rock singer; her style derives neither from gospel nor the blues, and her vocal mannerisms are generally better suited to the stage than to the microphone. Nor does she seem especially at home with overtly rhythmic material.
One thing Streisand does understand, however, is phrasing, and that's where this set is most instructive. Listen, for instance, to "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," which shows the singer first in rehearsal with Michel LeGrand, feeling out the song, and then in the studio with the final version. Her refinements are subtle, but they invariably focus the song, bringing out the most important melodic and emotional elements.
"What Are You Doing" sets a pattern that continues through her career. It's particularly apparent in her collaborations with Alan and Marilyn Bergman ("The Way We Were" and others), but it's possible to hear bits of that even in the Grammy show rendition of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Neil Diamond.
Simply put, it's the essence of song interpretation, and the key to understanding what makes Streisand a great singer. Whether it will be enough to convince Top-40 fans to bring her back into the fold is unlikely, but with luck, "Just for the Record . . ." may at least enlighten a few of them.