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Tony Bennett
On Holiday: A Tribute to Billie Holiday
Columbia

Tony Bennett has nearly always been an anachronism. His career began just as his brand of sophisticated, Tin Pan Alley melody was about to be swallowed up by the passionate rhythms of rock and roll; a half-century later, with all of his most popular peers either washed up or dead, he finds himself the last of the great jazz-pop singers, the only still-mighty giant within a tradition that has included such revered names as Sinatra, Eckstine, Vaughan, Crosby, Fitzgerald, Cole and Holiday.

Bennett's new Billie Holiday tribute points out another way Bennett stands apart: While most of his crowd have been known for their songs of heartbreak and loss, Bennett has been drawn to songs of unabashed hope -- or at least to discover the hopeful nuggets in seemingly downer compositions. His best known hit, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," is about a man who's gladly returning to his home and his love, and Bennett has routinely recorded pop standards of unironic joy such as "Smile," "Keep Smiling at Trouble" and "The Best Is Yet to Come." Even when he tackles seemingly sad songs, he chooses those that emphasize the sweet memories he swears he'll never lose more than the loss itself. On Bennett's recent Sinatra tribute album, even the weeper classic "One for the Road" gets turned into a contented, cocky kiss-off.

In the throat of a lesser singer, this optimistic approach could come off as superficial, if not downright silly. But throughout On Holiday, Bennett sings so remarkably that he makes you gulp with every beaming face and swelling heart. Predictably, Bennett's classy rasp turns out to be the perfect match for the more hopeful Holiday standards included here, and Ralph Sharon's piano-only accompaniment on the giddy "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and the goofy "Me, Myself and I," as well as on the nearly Zen "Laughing at Life," swings more than well enough to get things cooking (even if it isn't the equal of Lester Young's sax on Holiday's originals).

The best moments, though, come when Bennett reinterprets Holiday's darker repertoire. Coming from a male singer, "When a Woman Loves a Man" could easily look down its nose at women and the stupid things they'll do to keep a guy. But -- never the heel -- Bennett simply sounds as if he empathizes, as if he knows all too well what it's like to be heart-over-brain in love. Instead of Holiday's earthier setting, Bennett fills his sweet-stringed "Willow Weep for Me" with a delicate, ethereal quality that's almost like magic. In truth, this entire disc is magical. On Holiday is as good an album as any Bennett has recorded in 25 years. Even the necrophilic closing cut, with Bennett's voice electronically added to Holiday's on "God Bless the Child," can't break the happy spell. (****)

-- David Cantwell

The Offspring
Ixnay on the Hombre
Columbia

Thanks to Dexter Gordon's consistently gruff vocals, the compressed harmonies and the overproduced grind of the guitars, this sounds like the same old, immediately identifiable Offspring that was introduced to the broader masses with 1995's Smash. It's a trademark noise that Nirvana invented with Nevermind but quickly abandoned. The Offspring chewed that bone throughout Smash, and now they've chewed it through another album, and it doesn't sound like there's much meat left on the thing. Lyrically, I don't hear anything to compare with the surprise novelty of Smash's "Self-Esteem" -- still one of the most innocently subversive rock-and-roll-boy songs ever recorded. Without that calling card, Gordon sinks into bad sociological commentary ("Way Down the Line") and indulgent posturing ("Sometimes I think I'm gonna drown / 'Cause everyone around's so hollow / I'm alone").

There are other missteps. "Gone Away" doesn't make any effort to avoid sounding like a Foreigner outtake. Why there's a circus-y throwaway "intermission" track in the middle of this thoroughly non-theatrical album is anyone's guess. There's even a Larry "Bud" Melman cameo on a hidden track ("I think you guys should try heavy metal. Kiss my ass. Ha ha ha ha.") that lends the feel of a cross-marketed sitcom to the proceedings. Missteps aside, Gordon and the band are best when they're doing their own version of roots rock (the ska bounce of "Don't Pick It Up") and punk rebel songs such as "The Meaning of Life" ("Someone trying to tell me / What to say and do / I don't want it / I gotta go find my own way") and "All I Want" ("I just don't want to be controlled"). And yeah, it does take something away from the sentiment that this is a band that not only uses space on its CD to bring Jello Biafra into the Sony fold (the former Dead Kennedy intones the opening "Disclaimer" in his best Bullwinkle voice), but also thanks Anheuser-Busch -- not a beer, but a corporation -- in its liner notes.

What exactly that takes away I'm not sure. Hell, everyone's integrity is subsidized some way or other. That won't surprise anyone old enough to understand it, and it won't matter to the kids who'll buy 2.3 million copies of this half-decent fifth album (significantly less, I'm betting, than the 8.5 million units moved of Smash).

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