Babs Is Back

Barbra Streisand offers a compilation of first-rate outtakes, while Martha Wainwright's new album lacks passion

By Doug Rule
Published on October 18, 2012, 8:08am | Comments

Barbra Streisand sounds as great and glorious as she did in her heyday on her new offering, Release Me. Of course, that's because most of her vocals here were recorded in her heyday – outtakes that didn't make the cut of previous albums.

I'm not at all trying to suggest Streisand is no longer in top form. After all, just last year she gave us the all-new studio set What Matters Most, on which she sounded impeccable. In fact, one track here – ''If It's Meant to Be'' – was a leftover from that album, and recorded just two years ago.

Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand

A cynic could have a field day noting that she barely had to lift a finger to make this recording. Instead, the hard work was done by the various instrumentalists who re-recorded parts of various tracks. And then there was the job of the mixing engineers, tasked with making all the recorded vocals sound clear and captivating – sparkling like new.

And to think, it was so satisfying not doing much of anything, Streisand has already signed off to ''produce'' a second Release Me compilation, with additional unreleased recordings from her vault.

But, okay, time to cut the cynicism. At age 70, after 50 years in the music business and after producing a whopping 33 studio albums, by all means Streisand is allowed this indulgence. Especially so since it allows diehard fans to savor new-to-them material.

Furthermore, Release Me is notable because it finds a woman notorious for perfectionism letting down her guard. In a note included in the set's detailed booklet, Streisand concedes that she could have re-sung certain lines on certain tracks here in an attempt to improve them – but she held back. ''There's no such thing as perfection, it's only striving for it that matters,'' she writes. ''And I'm a bit less critical these days … but just a bit!''

Viewed in that light, especially, Release Me really shines.

No one but Streisand, naturally – and certainly no fans – will find much fault with the songs on Release Me. Maybe they could be a little jauntier, a little more au courant, a little more like the show-stopping song that closes the set, ''Home.''

Barbra Streisand
Release Me

Yes, she covers the Stephanie Mills signature from The Wiz, which was originally set aside from inclusion on Streisand's 1985 The Broadway Album in favor of more traditional Broadway material. Twenty-seven years later, the track makes you hunger for Streisand to tackle even newer Broadway tunes. Imagine her take on ''I Know Where I've Been'' from Hairspray. Or ''I Miss The Mountains'' from Next to Normal.

Even the biggest cynic has to acknowledge the material here is no standard set of leftovers, subpar outtakes that were never meant to see the light. All throughout, Streisand and the musicians sound as sharp as any first-rate release. Streisand's interpretative skills are in full flower on tracks like ''I Think It's Going To Rain Today'' – her fragile delivery of the familiar Randy Newman tune will lead to tears – and ''Lost In Wonderland.'' This lesser-known bossa nova tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim is as musically complicated as they come, and Marshall Barer's lyrics ride the many surprising shifts and twists in the melody in a manner that would trip up even the strongest of singers.

But Streisand? She spits out the rapid-fire lyrics with ease – and reportedly all in just one take.

DOWNLOAD THESE: ''Lost In Wonderland,'' ''I Think It's Going To Rain Today,'' ''Home''

Martha Wainwright
Come Home to Mama
Cooperative Music

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT'S THIRD ALBUM, Come Home to Mama, reflects on the warbling, 36-year-old singer-songwriter's heavy-hearted current state in life. In the past few years she's lost her mother, folk legend Kate McGarrigle, while also becoming a mother in her own right. The title derives from the gorgeous, classically inspired first single ''Proserpina,'' which is the last song McGarrigle ever wrote. And if the song didn't bring you to tears on its own, it certainly will after you know that.

The album launches as if Wainwright were rattling her cage, crying out in frustration on the stewing rocker ''I Am Sorry.'' There's plenty more rage to be found on Come Home to Mama, but the set is mostly marked by restraint and confusion, particularly when it comes to the music, produced by Yuka C. Honda (Cibo Mato). Several of the songs here are a bit ungainly, sounding like several songs crammed into one. ''Radio Star'' is an outright mess, while ''Four Black Sheep'' starts out in a slightly psychedelic pasture, but then ventures off looking for greener grass, never to be found.

All in all, Come Home to Mama pales in comparison to Wainwright's intense, angst-ridden self-titled debut from 2005 and its 2008 follow-up, the brooding, wonderfully titled I Know You're Married, But I Have Feelings Too – both of which were produced by Wainwright's husband Brad Albetta. Come Home to Mama lacks the kind of blistering passion you expect from this Wainwright – Martha's more of a rocker than either her dad, Loudon III, or her brother, Rufus.

As sad – even unbelievable – as it is to say, given that Wainwright first came to attention with the exquisite and stirring anthem ''Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,'' among other lively gems, Come Home to Mama is pretty lackluster. It's even boring. This mama has, sadly, largely lost her edge.

DOWNLOAD THESE: ''Proserpina,'' ''I Am Sorry''