Last week's post covered Barbra's early 70s transformation into a contemporary pop artist with albums like "Stoney End" and "Barbra Joan Streisand". While those gems certainly got the ball rolling, Babs' evolution into a modern pop diva was in full swing by the mid-70s. This is one of my favourite periods in Streisand's long and fabulous career. She started taking bigger creative risks (some paid off, others didn't) and explored a plethora of different musical genres. The results were mixed but never boring. This is definitely an era that newcomers should consider checking out - if only for her stunning Bob Marley cover! Reggae Barbra, anyone?
I finished off the last installment by examining 1974's "The Way We Were" (not to be confused with the film soundtrack). Barbra reverted to a more traditional mix of standards and power ballads on that album and scored herself a massive #1 hit. It would have been easy to repeat herself on the follow up but Babs was determined to be down with the kids. Encouraged by her then boyfriend (and producer) Jon Peters, the great diva embarked on what would be her most eclectic album yet. "Butterfly" is a gorgeous little oddity. I love everything about it from the witty cover art to the downright bizarre song selection. After four years of writing this blog, I'm ecstatic to finally have a reason to write about this underrated trash classic.
"Butterfly" probably qualifies as a covers album given that 9 of the 10 tracks have previously been released by other artists but I don't think that term even existed in the mid-70s. A fascinating part of researching this post has been discovering the extent to which songs were recycled back then. Barbra had thrown in a couple of unusual choices on previous albums but "Butterfly" is a veritable treasure trove of bizarre covers. The most infamous cut is probably her fabulous destruction of Bob Marley's "Guava Jelly" but my favourite has to be Babsi's haunting version of David Bowie's "Life On Mars". I love the simple production and think it holds up well against the original. Unfortunately, David wasn't as enthusiastic, describing it as "atrocious" and "awful". I'm surprised Babs didn't have him whacked! Other highlights incude the three R'n'B numbers (Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands", Paul Anka's "Jubilation" and Ray Charles' "Crying Time") and Barbra's lovely interpretation of "I Won't Last A Day Without You" - made famous, of course, by The Carpenters. "Butterfly" doesn't get a lot of love from the Streisand faithful but I can't recommend it highly enough.
Her next project couldn't be more different to "Butterfly". Barbra packed away her flares to star in "Funny Lady", the tragically titled sequel to "Funny Girl". It's no secret that Babs was contractually obliged to make the film and you can tell that her heart wasn't really in it. In fact, I'm surprised "Funny Lady" turned out as well as it did given the strange cast (who really wants to hear James Caan sing?) and the uninspiring tunes. There's no doubting the genius of Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago etc) but this has to be the most underwhelming score of their illustrious career. As far as I'm concerned, there's only one brilliant song and that's the bittersweet "How Lucky Can You Get". Having said all that, "Funny Lady" was a box office hit and scored 5 Academy Award nominations. So what the hell do I know?
It's funny how time can change your opinion of an album. I always thought 1975's "Lazy Afternoon" was only good for two things - the hilarious cover photo and Barbra's first foray into disco. However, earlier this week I listened to the album (in full) for the first time in years and was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I still think "Lazy Afternoon" is wildly uneven and lacks direction but it contains some real gems. "Widescreen" is totally epic, while "My Father's Song" makes me teary every time I hear it. However, my favourite track is still Barbra's disco debut. "Shake Me, Wake Me" is glorious cover of an earlier hit by The Four Tops but it seems to have been largely forgotten by disco fans. A 12" single was released but I've never heard the extended version. I imagine it's pure disco heaven! "Lazy Afternoon" is also notable for the self-penned "By The Way" and the gorgeous "I Never Had It So Good". Unfortunately, the rest of the album is languid to the point of being stillborn.
Does anyone actually like "Classical Barbra"? I seriously hate to think how many gays are using the album to prop up uneven furniture. Just take my word for it and avoid this opera-lite debacle at all costs! As unfortunate as Barbra's classical detour was, I still admire her for trying something different. Happily, her next musical project was a completely different affair. I'm referring to her multi-platinum selling "A Star Is Born" soundtrack. While the film has its merits, Judy Garland's version is better and I usually find myself fast forwarding between the musical numbers - which are uniformly excellent. I love that they set out to make a rock musical and somewhat surprisingly, Barbra thrives in the genre.
There really isn't a bad song to be heard on "A Star Is Born", perhaps with the exception of Kris Kristofferson's "Hellacious Acres". However, I can forgive that because he was so fucking hot. The soundtrack will always be best remembered for "Evergreen" (below), which earned Babs a Grammy and an Academy Award for Best Song. I worship that gem as much as the next Streisand diehard but I actually prefer the tracks she performs with The Oreos (her backing singers in the film). "Queen Bee" is a funktastic jam of epic proportions, while "Everything" has to be heard to be believed. This camp ballad has some of the classiest lyrics ever committed to record. My favourite line is "I'd cure the cold and the traffic jam. If there were floods, I'd give a dam"! For a completely different side to Barbra check out the rockin' medley "With One More Look At You/Watch Closely Now". Phew! That's all for now. Check in for more Babs next week.