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Face the music, Fanilows

By Sean Daly
Published February 27, 2006


Wow, this is one of the worst albums I've ever heard.

That's the first thing I thought after suffering through Barry Manilow's new cover-song catastrophe, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties.

The second thought was this:

Wow, this review is going to get me killed.

"Fanilows," Barry's worldwide contingent of rabid worshipers - a sycophantic crew that made Fifties the No. 1 album in America recently - will no doubt flip when they see the big fat F I'm giving this release. I know their wrath firsthand, too: Way back when, as a bellboy at a Maryland hotel, I had the privilege of driving Manilow around in a courtesy van. Long story short: Fanilows are faster than they look.

To be honest, I was pretty pumped to be the man's chauffeur. I like Barry Manilow, which is not the coolest stance for a music critic to take. I Write the Songs, Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again, Looks Like We Made It: Each song is a brilliant lesson in pop crescendos, tutorials in how to get people to sing in the shower. On Weekend in New England - "When will our eyes meet, when can I touch you" - Manilow's phrasing is nothing short of Sinatra, giving an otherwise sappy song epic sheen. And if you've never spiced up a wedding reception by provocatively dancing to Copacabana, you haven't lived, pal.

Fifties sold some 156,000 copies its first week on store shelves, making it Manilow's first No. 1 album in 29 years (1977's Live). Digital downloads on Internet services such as iTunes have been modest, which shows that sales were driven mainly by fans who like to buy music the old-fashioned way. (Despite the availability of Fifties, Manilow's top downloads on iTunes remain Copacabana and Mandy.) But still, No. 1 is No. 1 no matter how you do it, and there's now a "Sixties" sequel being discussed.

But the sad truth is that Fifties, co-produced by music-biz legend Clive Davis, is front-to-back cringe-inducing. Flat and uninspired, Manilow's "song layouts" misread

everything. And his middle-of-the-road orchestral arrangements allow the singer, who sounds a whole lot older than his 59 years, to phone in his vocals. For example, 1959's Beyond the Sea - such a hip song when it was done by Bobby Darin - has been slowed down and mushed up, as if he's soundtracking The Little Mermaid II with a blah tune about pining for a hunky sailor.

When listening to Fifties, I kept picturing that scene in Waiting for Guffman in which Eugene Levy's earnest dentist is performing in an old-age home. Barry's version of Venus, totally devoid of winking kitsch but loaded with harp, sounds like he's crooning to a bedridden granny on her 100th birthday. Unchained Melody, a 1955 song with natural weight built into it, is torn down and rebuilt as a mushy, dramaless lump. The cloyingly cutesy Young at Heart would have made Lawrence Welk dry-heave.

My brave colleague Colette Bancroft remarked that there were a lot of great songs from the '50s - none of which made it onto Manilow's album. She has a point, especially when the album features such blue-plate crud as Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. He basically ignored the advent of rock 'n' roll. But despite the questionable song selections, this album didn't need to be such a disaster. Before getting clogged with sappy strings, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is stripped down to Manilow and a guitar, an arrangement with potential. Hearing that, you wish Clive Davis would have forced Manilow to deliver good vocals more often. Then again, Davis probably knew that this sucker would sell no matter what.

Manilow is currently selling out show after show, night after night, at the Las Vegas Hilton. I was going to check him out, maybe bust out some of my old Copacabana moves. But after hearing Fifties - and fearing that he'll play most of it in concert - maybe I'll just settle for a Vegas star with more edge. You know, like Celine Dion.

-- Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.

[Last modified February 27, 2006, 15:29:29]


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