[The Mail On Sunday, 2001]
SWING WHEN YOU'RE WINNING
PLAYIN' WITH MY FRIENDS:
BENNETT SINGS THE BLUES
THE WHITE STRIPES
BRIGHTON CONCORDE 2
HERE'S proof that it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing. The pop market is glutted with bare-bellied jailbait right now. An endless parade of prancing chickadees. Each more eager than the last to flog stultifying and cynically substandard records on behalf of dead-eyed industry pimps. Step forward, Supersister, Kacis, Girls@Play, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore - you know who you are, even if nobody else does.
The kiddies at whom this drivel is targeted are surprisingly smart and discerning. That's why most of these starlets will blow away in the next stiff breeze. And that's why Britney Spears has shifted 40 million units and counting.
True, any one of Britney's video clips could induce a nonagenarian eunuch to paw at the TV screen like a famished grizzly bear sighting an unusually succulent salmon. But that alone does not account for her success. Britney is Good Product. The music issued under her brand is worth owning.
Her first hit, . . .Baby One More Time, is one of the finest pop moments in recent memory. And her current single, I'm A Slave 4 U, has a sleek, slithering quality strongly reminiscent of Prince at his lascivious Sign O' The Times peak. Basically, it's pure, uncut, primo, grade-A filth. In an era clogged with low-quality filth, this is a boon.
Britney, the album, also includes the top-notch Boys, which is simply a rather less mucky Slave 4 U, and two other cracking, poppier songs: Let Me Be and Overprotected. In the tradition of teen idols stretching back to the Fifties, the rest is filler.
Still, her feeble competition would gladly run each other through with their glittery mascara brushes to get their mitts on Britney's filler. Although even they might draw the line at an R&B-lite cover of I Love Rock'n'Roll. It's hard to think of anything more ersatz, pointless and embarrassing. Conveniently, Robbie Williams' new album has saved me the bother.
Robbie Williams impersonating Frank Sinatra? Jesus wept. What next? Charlie Dimmock as Ava Gardner? Russell Grant doing Humphrey Bogart? Su Pollard taking the Dietrich role in Destry Rides Again? Swing When You're Winning has to be the most profligate and deluded vanity project since William Randolph Hearst bought his girlfriend a movie studio.
The difference between Sinatra and Williams is the difference between divine inspiration and happy accident. As a singer, Sinatra was supremely gifted. Williams is not merely undistinguished, he is - in defiance of all logic - outstandingly undistinguished. His greatest talent is being his affable self. He has no business mauling a clutch of classics - Mack The Knife, Mr Bojangles, One For My Baby, Ain't That A Kick In The Head - which demand either a vocal excellence or an interpretive ingenuity far beyond him. The same goes for his duetting partners in crime: Nicole Kidman, Rupert Everett, and that repeat offender, Jane Horrocks, who seems to think that just because you can do a thing adequately, you should do it in public, a lot.
This exercise in big-budget celebrity karaoke is mitigated only by its one original song. I Will Talk And Hollywood Will Listen is quite lovely. It's instructive to see how Guy Chambers, Williams' regular co-writer, has cunningly distanced himself from the rest of the album: "It was all Robbie's idea," he gushes - or appears to. "He came up with the entire concept, chose the songs, approved the arrangements." Yup, as surely as Nemesis follows Hubris, you won't pin this one on Guy.
If you want to hear how it should be done, be advised that Tony Bennett also has an album of standards out. Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues is an admirable collection of easy-listening blues numbers. And - as Bennett himself puts it, come track seven - he's gotta right to sing the blues.
Bennett is at the top of his game here. Guests include Ray Charles, BB King, Stevie Wonder. Kay Starr and k.d. lang, who show up Robbie and pals as the honking dilettantes they are. Should you feel impelled to rush out and buy something old-fashioned, the choice should take a matter of nanoseconds.
There's also something curiously old-fashioned about The White Stripes. Something primal that harks back to hootenanies, mountain music and the earliest electric blues. This Detroit brother/sister duo - she drums, he sings and plays guitar - have been fêted as the saviours of rock'n'roll by an increasingly desperate and excitable music press. This is hardly a novel claim. Usually the anointed ones prove to be a sullen bunch of blowhards with just enough imagination to switch their amps on, whereupon it only gets worse. This time, things are different.
The White Stripes have been lumped in with a new American punk movement. But this is to misunderstand them. Their lo-fi approach holds only a superficial affinity to punk's "anyone can do it" ethic. Admittedly, they do start off, in the time-honoured fashion of every punk-nouveau band, with a noise like Daffy Duck gibbering over a series of controlled explosions in a toolshed. But from here on, only the sound is crude, and all the better for it. Their songs are intricate, elegant, sophisticated and tuneful. They play with remarkable technical virtuosity, which they choose not to flaunt, but instead use sparingly and with astonishing effect. They know when to stop, and generally stop two minutes before that.
This raw and raucous set is without question one of the most thrilling, refreshing and downright charming shows I've ever seen. The White Stripes perform, unmistakably, for the sheer joy of it, which can't help but be contagious. Many of their songs condense the first three Led Zeppelin albums into ninety seconds a go - a gobsmacking feat of power and focus, lightning in a very small bottle. At other times they resemble an unproduced T. Rex, or an even wilder Kinks. Everything that was great about rock music, before it became solemn and fatuous and conceited, can be seen and heard in this band. If they do save rock'n'roll, they'll save it from itself.
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