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Against Interpretation

Rod Stewart finds a brand-new batch of catchy and literate songs he can put his mark on

Aware that not even Kazaa-impaired boomers will buy the same formula forever, Clive Davis bends the rules on the third annual installment of Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series. Co-producer Richard Perry remains, but co-producer Phil Ramone is replaced by Steve Tyrell, a onetime Bacharach-David hand whose standards albums, half-talked in a burred croon, anticipated Stewart's. "What a Wonderful World," not a love song, and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," not an American one, tweak concept. Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder solo; Bette Midler and Dolly Parton cameo. These moves aren't decisive.

If Parton has a fine old gawky time with the Frank Loesser showpiece "Baby It's Cold Outside," "What a Wonderful World"--which Davis pressed on Stewart and then, that sly devil, declared the debut single--is no less sodden for Wonder's harmonica. But together with an increased reliance on the Kern-Berlin-Gershwin-Porter-Rodgers pantheon, they shake up Stardust . . . The Great American Songbook Vol. III, Stewart's first No. 1 album since Blondes Have More Fun in 1978. In a time when rockers are finally middle-aged enough to fulfill the dire prophecy that they'd be better off with their parents' music, Stewart once again does it right.

Sez me, anyway. I've liked-not-loved all three of these career-reviving blockbusters from first hearing. But that puts me in a major minority among the few critics who've deigned to notice them at all. Reading Rod's reviews, many by older guys I respect, is a disquieting reminder of how personal these calls can be. Howard Cohen of The Miami Herald thinks his "Embraceable You" is "wobbly"; I think Stewart nails it like he's nailed no standard before, which is why it leads the album. NPR's Ken Tucker claims a "whiff of desperation" is all that makes Rod's songbooks interesting; the Toledo Blade's Richard Paton feels, as I do, that he "sounds comfortable." Still, perhaps a few principles can be established.

Most important, Rod Stewart doesn't "interpret" these songs--doesn't "illuminate the nuances of the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart or Hoagy Carmichael." Not the emotional nuances, always tricky business, nor the musical nuances. He just presents them, marked with his voice but otherwise undisturbed. The arrangements also eschew nuance. Far from "schlocky," "syrupy," or "overproduced," this combo-with-strings fare is self-effacing, compared to Alex Stordahl's concertmeistering with early Sinatra or one of singing thespian Barbra Streisand's orchestrations--just classy enough to signify the genre at hand without seeming merely generic, so that a Dave Koz solo is a big moment (not too big, obviously) and Arturo Sandoval's trumpet occupies a realm as empyreal as Clapton's guitar. The combined effect is to foreground, and in that respect flatter, the songs themselves. But because these are still Stewart's records, the flattery isn't unctuous. Inscribed in his timbre and phrasing and conversational informality, and also in his history if you like, is a conniving roué who's softened without losing his sense of humor. He didn't always love this canon as much as he says, but he's learned to appreciate its uses. My squib for the first volume applies to all three: "He'll do anything to make her come--even hold her hand and gaze into her eyes."

The "American songbook" claim is guff as always. The pantheon and its vast company of demigods--including, to name a few from the Stewart records, Frank Loesser, Duke Ellington, Dubin & Warren, and Sammy Cahn, not to mention the toilers who wrote "The Way You Look Tonight," "It Had to Be You," "That Old Feeling," "These Foolish Things"--feed only one current of American song, and not its mainstream, which is singer-composed, easier about harmony, and epitomized by Anglo-American rock and roll. From Dylan to Hendrix to "Maggie May" to Elton John, Stewart was long a connoisseur of this mainstream, and one might argue that his songbooks are a reproach to its current desiccation. Who's he supposed to cover now? Pavement? Wilco? Jay-Z? Finally he's got material he can get behind again--more polite than in the old days, but after all, he's come up in the world. Beyond its gimmick appeal, his standards shtick reminds us that while Stewart isn't the right guy to texture the changes jazz folk live for, he's always killed a great lyric. So when he goes pantheon, he bypasses Kern and Berlin for wordmen Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart. Unlike Willie Nelson, whose own Stardust remains the gold standard of rock-era standards, he cherishes bridges as well as choruses, essaying rarely heard verses as well. And unlike Boz Scaggs and Linda Ronstadt, who consorted with jazz combos on their recent standards albums (Ronstadt's, believe it or not, the swinging one), his disinclination to interpret helps him deliver the lyric as written--and the tune, too.

As is the plan, there are no definitive versions here, though the romantic, dirty, utterly relaxed "Embraceable You" is pretty striking. But beyond "What a Wonderful World," I hear only two misfires--Stewart isn't light-footed enough to negotiate the delicate melody of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," and fails to establish that the Gershwins' "But Not for Me" ranks with " 'S Wonderful" and "Embraceable You." The basic strategy is simply to Stewartize and hence rockify chestnuts the rock generation has never had time to tire of. Even for someone who's enjoyed as much Sinatra and Fitzgerald as I have, " 'S Wonderful" and "Stardust" and "Manhattan" and "Night and Day" stand up to the wear, and lesser titles bloom--"Blue Moon" and "For Sentimental Reasons" carrying their Elvis and Cleftones covers, "I Can't Get Started" with its interpolated updates, or the upper-crust "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," initially a signature piece for the Grenada-born British café singer Leslie Hutchinson.

If you're still resisting Sinatra, don't be a fool. His microtonal caress of "Night and Day," in the swinging Nelson Riddle arrangement and even the melodramatic Don Costa, is inexhaustible--he doesn't just interpret it, he owns it. And Louis Armstrong doesn't just own "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," he erects a love nest there--adoring its melody as he contours it, turning its slight lyric into a heartfelt promise that's also a friendly joke. But these are the two greatest singers of the 20th century. Stewart's merely good. Give him credit for knowing it.

Village Voice, Dec. 14, 2004