Industry Standards

Music fans can’t get along very well without jazz singer Diana Krall. As of this writing, her The Look of Love (Verve) has topped the Billboard jazz chart for dozens of weeks. It’s an album of jazz standards, including “Cry Me a River” and, yes, Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” — songs whose initial popularity predated Krall’s birth. It’s an album of cool smolder; her voice manages to be rich and ethereal, a heavy presence doing its best to keep quiet. The arrangements are by Claus Ogerman, who previously nestled the singing of Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Perhaps in this uneasy time of war, it’s comforting to retreat to music of an earlier era. Then again, when is it not the right time to revisit the wry wordplay and maudlin romance that is “The Night We Called It a Day”?

The Look of Love appeals to an audience intent on maturing out of rock’n’roll. It starts off with the Gershwins’ “S’ Wonderful,” set in tropical tones that will register with anyone fond of Sade’s island mood music and looking to explore more established estuaries. On the second cut, “Love Letters,” Krall employs the sort of theatrical — but, again, understated — phrasing that pop fans will recognize from Sting’s more sophisticated outings, like “Moon Over Bourbon Street.”

The 10 songs on Krall’s album are all standards — that is, songs more familiar in an abstract sense than for any specific rendition. They’re the sort of songs Will Friedwald explores in his recent book, Stardust Memories (Pantheon), which studies a dozen such classics, like “I Got Rhythm” and “My Funny Valentine.”

Verve has also revisited a dozen songs from its catalog, with results purposefully less erudite than Friedwald’s. For Verve Remixed, the label commissioned electronica acts to remix songs as esteemed as Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and as bizarre as Tony Scott’s “Hare Krishna.” The results range from the disarmingly natural (Rae & Christian emphasize the original swing of Dinah Washington’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”) to the peculiarly meticulous (MJ Cole repeats a split-second of Carmen McRae’s voice in the rhythm track of her “How Long Has This Been Going On?”). Perhaps a future Verve compilation might focus on otherwise wholly original pop songs that discretely sample its catalog, like Kirsty MacColl’s “In These Shoes?” (off Tropical Brainstorm), which borrows from Willie Bobo’s “Spanish Grease,” which Richard Dorfmeister amps up with distant echoes and heavy bass for the Verve album.

The covers album has been a pop staple at least since David Bowie’s early-’70s Pin Ups. Where “covers” define themselves by how much they vary from an original version, “standards” are like a platonic ideal of a given song. When Alex Chilton released a standards album, he titled the record Cliches. Recently, the indie-rock band Crooked Fingers released an EP of what it calls Reservoir Songs, including chestnuts by Neil Diamond (a magnet for semi-ironic tributes) and, yes, Bowie.

The Krall and Remixed albums evidence there are many approaches to reworking the past. In our technological era, perhaps it’s the difference between reverse engineering and upgrading.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, May 2002.

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