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The 2013 American Idol Songbook: April 10, Top 6 Finalists Sing Bacharach and David and Songs They Wish They’d Written
For those expecting more current material, this year’s theme night for the six remaining singers on American Idol was a mixed bag, since each contestant sang twice to fill up the two hours. A collective gasp enveloped the chattering classes as Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s catalogue from the 1960s was announced as the focus of the first half of the night, not exactly embodying the zeitgeist of pop music right now. Part of the hokey reputation the songwriting duo has gotten over the years is due, in my humble opinion, to the often heavy-handed work of the late lyricist and National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame Chairman David. What with his bromides on moon dust in the hair and “if you don’t come back to me, I’ll die,” David’s lyrics were often riddled with clichés, although he is to be credited with fitting them to Bacharach’s challenging meter. Pop culture’s fetish for lyrics thus unfairly disadvantages Bacharach, though he has also been hampered at times by the “elevator music” image of his easy listening albums and of the ever-present trumpets in his arrangements. Serious musicians and the British, however, have a veritable cult of Mr. Bacharach as a melodic genius, and for good reason. As a songwriter, producer, and arranger, Bacharach parlayed classical training and experience touring the complex musical landscapes of Europe and Latin America into some of the most intricate, haunting pop music ever made. Perfectly structured transitions, slight dissonance for dramatic effect, and unusual but pleasant use of seventh chords and appogiaturas (notes outside the key) all contributed to making Bacharach’s tunes meatier than he gets credit for. That said, innovative re-arrangements of his work help keep it fresh, and it was something of a disappointment that the Idol crew didn’t produce something better fitted to the singers with the exception of the night’s overall champion Candice. Familiarity issues aside, the other five contestants all seemed to be doing battle with inferior facsimiles of Bacharach’s instrumental charts despite the legend’s high praise for some of the most radical covers of his work. As for the emphasis on songs contestants wish they had written, for all intents and purposes a free choice opportunity, only two selected songs from past the turn of the millennium, fueling now commonplace skepticism of Idol’s willingness to invest in clearing new material. Singers and arrangements once again didn’t quite jibe together until Candice’s memorable closing salvo, even with the considerable talents of the Counting Crows’ guitarist Adam Duritz in the mix. I found myself often trying to mentally separate the singer from the background for a better listening experience, an odd effect for a night partially paying tribute to an arranger who fit the two together so well.
Amber Holcomb – “I Say a Little Prayer” (Dionne Warwick) and “Love on Top” (Beyoncé) – Advanced
“I Say a Little Prayer” is perhaps the crown jewel of the Bacharach and David oeuvre. Certainly, it’s one of the best-known of their songs, to be sure, and without a doubt is the most frequently played song of Dionne Warwick’s on the radio today. Warwick, a singer whose almost classical flair didn’t always jibe with urban or Top 40 radio but effortlessly charmed the easy listening crowd, started off her singing career in the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group including her mother Lee and aunt Cissy Houston. Those choral genes got her a backup gig doing demo tapes for Bacharach and David, who ultimately found the demos preferable to some of the final renditions and encouraged her to record albums of her own with them. The resulting music was some of the most magical of the era, culminating in the spectacular “I Say a Little Prayer,” a number four smash on the pop charts in 1967 and the centerpiece of that year’s album, The Windows of the World. David outlined one of the most fun, if time-consuming, romantic obsessions in pop music history in his classic lyric, while Bacharach played with the shifting tempos and sudden chord changes that made the song so juicy for those daring enough to tackle something that challenging. Though Warwick was up to it, Bacharach was something of a perfectionist and had to be cajoled by her Scepter label’s president Florence Greenberg (first to break that era’s industry glass ceiling) to release it after ten takes. Ultimately, he came to be proud of “I Say a Little Prayer” and especially loved Aretha’s breezier version the following year on Aretha Now, itself a Top Ten pop and R&B hit just like the original. Countless covers later, including a 1969 Glen Campbell-Anne Murray country duet and a 1997 reggae version by Diana King, the song remains a towering accomplishment and a royalties bonanza. Amber, this season’s American Idol doppelganger to Warwick’s late cousin Whitney Houston, performs “I Say a Little Prayer” tastefully but without really wowing me. The great bugaboo of the night, an arrangement too close to an original tailor-made for Warwick’s unique voice, made for some tense moments, particularly when Amber made the few radical changes she did. Specifically, her ending trill on the chorus’s final line, “would only mean heartbreak for me,” is either a poor choice or a consistent mistake, and hearing it several times inclined me somewhat to believe the former as Nicki suggested with baffling praise. It was all the more noticeable because of how it stuck out from a good but uninspired performance.
“Love on Top” pleasantly surprised me when it came out on Beyoncé Knowles’s 2011 album, the succinctly titled 4. Beyoncé’s 2008 release, I Am…Sasha Fierce, had some catchy tracks but lacked the pure R&B fun of her first two albums, especially in terms of singles. However, the key producer of Sasha Fierce worked with her and Ne-Yo protégé Shea Taylor to put together something snappy and engaging, everything I missed from Knowles’s early work. That producer was Terius Nash, who goes by the handle The-Dream and has made his bones since the mid-2000s with hits such as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” In addition to some songs written with Idol’s own Mariah Carey (top ten hits “Touch My Body” and “Obsessed”), The-Dream helped define the dance-pop sound of Sasha Fierce with the viral video smash “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” He’s proven a master of catchy hooks, but the melodies behind them haven’t always done much for me. On “Love on Top,” however, he worked with Beyoncé and Taylor to craft something irresistible to the ears and the dance floor alike, all with a nod to the old-school 1980s greats she grew up with (Ray Parker, Jr.’s “A Woman Needs Love” and Gloria Estefan’s “Bad Boy” come to mind in particular). The keyboard riffs, the unbelievable vocal runs, and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole sound made for the best way I could imagine to say “Jay-Z is the most supportive boyfriend on Earth.” The jauntiness of the R&B chart-topper goes well with Amber’s slight jazz flair, and if I were her, I think I’d want to write something like “Love on Top” too. She took a while to get into the song and at first had some difficulty integrating the intense Beyoncé-inspired choreography into it. Nevertheless, this was much better than her first performance by a long shot and proves her potential on suitable material. I often get a “90%” feeling with an Amber Holcomb performance, perhaps a combination of my sensitivity to the odd tonal quirk and my appreciation of her seeming difficulty with stage presence. There’s almost more good moments than bad ones in what she does, though. P.S.: Her studio versions have consistently been far superior to the live ones, and I highly recommend them for perspective on the real potential I see here.
Angie Miller – “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick) and “Love Came Down” (Kari Jobe) – Advanced
“Anyone Who Had a Heart” was Warwick’s first bona fide hit, storming the Top Ten in 1963 in the States and many other countries only to be shut out by a cover by Beatles acolyte Cilla Black the following year in the U.K. The polyrhythmic melody was practically avant-garde by the standards of the time, but Bacharach knew how to make it sound smooth and seamless, and the oddness almost served to heighten the desperation of David’s crestfallen lyric. Warwick cut it in one take, or so the legend goes, and she sold the emotional intensity for all it was worth in a goosebump-worthy tour de force that earned every single record sold, bar none. Cilla Black’s version paled by comparison, as many of her compatriots came to admit, but Angie’s try turns out a notch better. Angie’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” grows on me both over the course of the song and over repeated listens on YouTube, partly because she gets the hang of the song’s more expressive parts by the first chorus after a somewhat shaky start. It’s not the best of the night, but she actually understands the song in a way that she did not with “Shop Around” last week, and her little surprise at the end is something Bacharach would likely have applauded.
“Love Came Down” proves that Angie is highly interested in the contemporary Christian field, since it’s the second time she’s chosen something in that field given free choice. Kari Jobe, a label-mate of Angie’s earlier cover choice Colton Dixon on Sparrow Records, released “Love Came Down” on a 2012 album entitled Where I Find You. Though Brian Johnson, Ian McIntosh, and Seattle Christian-rockers the Myriad’s Jeremy Edwardson all co-wrote the track, it appears to have primarily been the work of Jeremy Riddle. Riddle, who works in the Pentecostal ministry at Redding, California’s Bethel Church, put together a soothing if genre-standard paean to Christ’s presence in an unnamed crisis. Jobe’s voice had an ethereal quality that gave the song a bit of an interesting twist, though it has not yet been released as a single and isn’t exactly memorable enough to justify such a decision. Angie, who works at a similar congregation to Bethel on the opposite coast, sounds very much in her element on this song, which appears to have had a major influence on Angie’s original from the Sudden Death eliminations. Singing praise music, as the fans call it, and sticking at the piano do seem to bring out the most genuine aspects of Angie. Her voice isn’t quite as delicate as Jobe’s, which takes out some of the magic for those more keyed in to the sound than the message (I’m that kind of listener, even for secular stuff). I wouldn’t count her out, though, since learning to pick songs carefully has done wonders for her.
Candice Glover – “Don’t Make Me Over” (Dionne Warwick) and “Lovesong” (The Cure) – Advanced
“Don’t Make Me Over” began as Warwick’s frustrated retort to Scepter brass for nixing her recording Bacharach and David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself.” Label president Florence Greenberg thought Warwick had little to no chance to make it as a pop star despite her exceptional demos for the dynamic duo. Warwick wanted to be recorded as is, and David was inspired to write a song around the concept that would ultimately make that happen, to the benefit of posterity if I do say so myself. Bacharach’s melody wasn’t among his most atmospheric, but it was as punchy and in-your-face as Warwick’s comments that inspired it and as always set the perfect tone. Greenberg, appalled to tears by Bacharach and David’s grandiose and then unconventional production, reluctantly agreed to put “Don’t Make Me Over” out as the chief single on a 1963 debut entitled Presenting Dionne Warwick, and it became the diva’s first hit with a respectable Top 20 placing. Warwick went on to be the label’s most successful artist, of course, proving Greenberg quite wrong. Candice finishes the first half of the Idol competition night with something stellar that I can scarcely describe as well as the clip below can show. She adds some contemporary soul flourishes, in the vein of her idol Mary J. Blige, but the kernel of the song is very much intact. One can agree or disagree with some of her choices in ending the last chorus, but what’s beyond dispute is that she took something fifty years old and made it brand new. Changing up music helps keep it alive, and Candice’s performance shows how it’s done in a manner that did Bacharach, David, and Warwick proud.
Robert Smith, the lead singer-songwriter of the Cure, was known to many in the 1980s and 1990s as perhaps the king of the goths. The British group’s moody post-punk was often tagged “Gothic rock,” but it was the softer sides such as “Friday I’m in Love” and “Just Like Heaven” that became the big crossover hits in the States and gave them something of a New Romantic image to the uninitiated. “Lovesong” was a pretty self-explanatory wedding present from Smith to his wife Mary, viewing her as the ultimate refuge from the slings and arrows of media pressure, and its calm but slightly foreboding atmosphere was actually more Bacharach-like than any other “free choice” from tonight’s singers. Basing her cover off an exceptional acoustic take by Adele, Candice dominates the song in a performance that got some of the most deservingly hyperbolic accolades I’ve heard in years of Idol-watching, both on and off camera. She never makes an artistic choice here that doesn’t work, and the microphone skip in the middle of her performance never fazes her, professional that she is. Every note speaks volumes, and the arrangers for once don’t get in the way. I could try to convey how her use of melisma is spot-on where so many contestants on talent shows seem to use it excessively, or bring up the way the intro and finale that trip up so many of her competitors include some of the best I heard all night (check your pulse if no hairs stand up during her last notes). As with “Come Together,” however, Keith once again says it better than I ever could with his simple bowing gesture at the end. The closer just closed.
Janelle Arthur – “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Promises, Promises) and “The Dance” (Garth Brooks) – Advanced
Promises, Promises, Bacharach and David’s 1968 stab at Broadway score writing, was based on the 1960 film The Apartment and boasted a book by Neil Simon and a star-making performance from Jerry Orbach. The melodies were as complex as anything Bacharach wrote for records, giving the pit orchestras of the day quite a workout, and David did some of his most clever work bringing to life Simon’s now dated tale of an insurance man falling in love as he tries to get favors from his bosses in exchanging for letting them have affairs at his pad. It was silly fluff, yes, but in the manner of the best musical theatre of the era it was more than the sum of its parts and earned a raft of Tonys, including one for the songwriters. The show’s most famous song, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” featured the protagonist and his secretary love interest bemoaning their latest romantic woes to a lilting tune unmistakably bearing its creator’s imprimatur. One of Dionne Warwick’s last major Bacharach-David hits was her own cover of the song for an eponymous 1970 album, but even before that, in 1969, Bobbie Gentry had recorded a country-pop cover with her raspy, breathy voice. Janelle’s sweeter timbre fits somewhat better than Gentry’s with the melody, though the arrangement on the show (though not the studio version) does not pull off what I thought might be an easy country-fication of the song’s meter. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” could actually make a decent country song in lyrical content, and Janelle tried in earnest to sell it even when her few melodic changes didn’t make sense. It’s not up to the standard she set in previous weeks, though the live show again under-rates her.
“The Dance,” as judge Keith Urban pointed out on Idol, was a career-making composition for Tony Arata, a Savannah native who had moved to Nashville four years before Garth Brooks made the song the final country chart-topper from his self-titled 1990 debut album. Arata, who went on to write a few more country hits in the mid-1990s, put in unusually twisty chord changes for the genre and told a compelling story of the need to take the bitter with the sweet when evaluating the past. The video referenced greats who died prematurely, including famed figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, but a more conventional breakup song interpretation was also proposed. Brooks was known for a very pop-oriented approach that helped him revive the crossover fortunes of country music, and his version had the smooth charm that would come to define Brooks’s career going forward. Again, Janelle is better in the studio than live. She’s earnest and somewhat more country in sound than Brooks was on the original, but the emotional wallop didn’t translate quite as well as I suspect was intended. After the bottom-two scare the previous week despite one of her best performances ever, she may have been rattled. I hope she’ll stay around to return to form. In any case, the arrangers and artists need to establish an agreement so that we don’t get the kind of mismatch that’s holding back Janelle and many others this week.
Kree Harrison – “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (Jackie DeShannon) and “Help Me Make It through the Night” (Kris Kristofferson) – Advanced
Dionne turned it down the first go-round, but “What the World Needs Now Is Love” turned out to be a winner for another favorite interpreter of Bacharach and David’s. Jackie DeShannon recorded a few other compositions of theirs in the mid-1960s, but this Top Ten hit was the most successful of them by far in 1965. Vietnam was probably not even underway yet when it was written, but it wound up being just one of the many conflicts and upheavals that provided the background for the song’s plea for understanding. It was no “Blowing in the Wind,” but it still proved the king of square music’s ultimate hippie anthem in later years, earning many modestly successful covers but always staying tied to the gifted singer-songwriter and underrated vocalist DeShannon. The slight folk-rock tinge in DeShannon’s delivery is turned into solid country-pop by Kree, in a return to the ballads she was the first to heavily break away from this season. On “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” Kree’s modulations give the song somewhat more warmth than its anthemic nature would suggest. That may make it hard for viewers to remember her performance on a night of “big” songs, but it also gets closer to the core of the song’s simple message.
Kris Kristofferson’s debut, released in 1970 under his last name, demonstrated his ability to look at love and life with a pithy, sometimes biting honesty at odds with the sentimentality sometimes associated with country music. In an era of “country-politan” Nashvilleans putting together elaborate soap operas of marriage and divorce (here’s looking at you, Tammy Wynette!), Kristofferson’s matter-of-fact tone was almost revolutionary, and he became an icon for “outlaw” figures such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson looking to shake the country scene up. This is not to say that a song like “Help Me Make It through the Night,” inspired by Sinatra’s statement in an Esquire interview that only momentary pleasures still seemed worth believing in, isn’t romantic in a way. It’s just that it approaches the matter at hand with a modicum of post-Vietnam cynicism just as in Kristofferson’s other hits, such as “For the Good Times” (Ray Price, 1969) and “Me and Bobby McGee” (best-known from Janis Joplin’s posthumous 1971 hit cover). Dottie West found it too forward and turned it down, but Sammi Smith's slight detachment helped make her cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” work and got that cover to cross over to a Top Ten pop placing. Gladys Knight approached it similarly on her own modestly successful 1972 cover, and at first I thought Kree would by contrast be a little too emotional to make the “quickie” context of the song’s lyric work. Kree puts her heart into the right places to pull it off, though, giving the second-best performance of the night. A songwriter and demo singer herself, Kree shows good taste not only in her choice but in the way she makes the song sincere without changing a word. Her narrator is more passionate than weary, sounding like someone more likely to be devastated in the morning than any of the singers mentioned above did (though West might have done something similar if she hadn't been grossed out by the atmosphere). Stand aside, ladies and gentlemen, an artist is at work.
Lazaro Arbos – “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (Richard Chamberlain via the Carpenters) and “Angels” (Robbie Williams) – Eliminated
“(They Long to Be) Close to You” began as part of one of the more quixotic efforts in the history of the record industry’s quest to spin Hollywood stardom into record gold. Richard Chamberlain was America’s favorite handsome doctor on NBC’s Dr. Kildare, so the production studio MGM’s partner label insisted he capitalize by putting out a 1963 single of two Bacharach-David compositions, the other being the obscure “Blue Guitar.” While “Blue Guitar” became a modest hit, “Close to You” was definitely the more memorable track, and of course had a Dionne Warwick demo like almost everything the duo wrote back then. Warwick’s gorgeous demo was featured on Make Way for Dionne Warwick a year later, a good thing because Chamberlain’s mediocre version that made its way on to Rhino’s sarcastically named Golden Throats collection might have otherwise killed the song then and there. Herb Alpert (of Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You” fame) got cold feet after cutting a version he wasn’t proud of and handed the song off to his label-mate and employee at A&M Records (Alpert and Jerry Moss owned the company), Richard Carpenter. The rest, of course, was history; Richard’s piano matched his sister Karen’s wistful voice perfectly for the definitive rendition that kick-started the siblings’ career in 1970. The literally moony love ballad was often mocked for its over-the-top lyrics, but the melody’s sinuous curves, especially in the hands of a colorful voice such as Dionne Warwick’s or Karen Carpenter’s, made the eighth-grade crush sentiments more believable than they ever could seem on paper. Lazaro’s pop style may have looked perfect for Bacharach and David night, but with this song, just about everything that could go wrong did. As the judges pointed out in one of the longest and most uncomfortable commentary sessions I’ve ever seen, the key was too low for his tenor, which was the least of his worries. The final chorus’s botched key change was painful, not just to the ear but also because of what this nadir represents about how the viewing public and the Idol format can mix so disastrously. Yes, millions of well-intentioned voters pulling the lever for Lazaro as a gesture of moral support for his gumption and compelling story don’t mean to do him a disservice. However, their votes expose him to week after week of ridicule from a much smaller coterie of immature cyber-bullies who take perverse pleasure in watching poor singing on television, in this case the singing of someone with a significant communication disability. Lazaro’s apparent “victory” in last night’s online votes hints at the power of these twin phenomena, which only one judges’ save is there to mitigate. I view Lazaro similarly to Mr. Chamberlain here: he’s a handsome, good-hearted young man thrust by a combination of hidebound contracts and popular ignorance into doing something where his talents do not apparently lie.
“Angels,” Robbie Williams’s most popular song, continues a remarkable streak of popularity on Idol-type competitions, having been performed by Yuridia on Mexico’s La Academia, runner-up David Archuleta during Idol’s season 7, and season 11 ninth-place finisher Heejun Han. Not bad for the product of a half-hour writing session between Robbie, undoubtedly Britain’s top pop star of the 1990s, and his frequent collaborator Guy Chambers. The song was allegedly based on the unwavering faith of Robbie’s uncle and aunt, but an Irish songwriter named Ray Heffernan made a compelling case, though it did not earn him a full-fledged credit, for having written the song a year before its 1997 release. “Angels” was a rarity in mainstream popular music, an unabashed Christian pop song bereft of gospel energy, and recounted Robbie’s conviction that the love of God through his angels can sustain us even when all else fails. An average melody, as always, was no obstacle to chart success, and the song will likely be as immortal as its subject because it does admittedly strike a chord with performers and listeners everywhere. Lazaro is no more immune to its charms than the rest of us are, and his love for the song yields something significantly better than “Close to You.” This time, he does stay more in his stronger upper register, and the final chorus is as much a highlight as it was a lowlight on his first song. However, I once again found myself wondering, to paraphrase Hal David, “what’s it all about, Idol?” Again, Lazaro’s a great guy in a competition that isn’t doing him any favors at this point, so see what I’ve already written above for more in-depth analysis.