Ah, yes, the old reinvention album. Recent years have seen Dolly, Cash, Solomon Burke and Loretta Lynn utterly rebrand themselves, with or without outside producers -- as often as not Rick Rubin, who's such a master at this he's hereby earned the coining of his own verb -- leading the way. This month two more venerable artists have lined up to be Rubinized, one by the man himself, the other by his son.
Props where they're due: Neil Diamond's been an incontestably great songwriter forever. He wrote "I'm a Believer" for the Monkees way back in the '60s, and UB40's biggest '80s hit ( "Red Red Wine") was nothing but a reggaefied Diamond cover. However, his badly dated, hairy-chest-beating, jumpsuited semi-sensitive-man's-Tom Jones persona has made Neil into a perpetual object of kitsch to ensuing generations of ironic schlock connoisseurs, most dramatically illustrated a decade or so ago by the use of Urge Overkill's version of his "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" as background for the Uma overdose sequence in Pulp Fiction. (Diamond was the runaway winner in our "guilty pleasure" series of articles earlier this year.)
Now, with the new 12 Songs, super-ultra-mega-hip producer/mogul Rick Rubin has deigned to offer the steadfast but tarnished entertainment icon that is Neil Diamond a late-career chance to be taken seriously as a singer-songwriter.
In contrast to Rubin's sequence of valedictory recordings with Johnny Cash (which, probably not coincidentally, included a cover of ND's "Solitary Man"), which concentrated primarily on presenting Cash as the interpreter of a wide variety of eclectic material, 12 Songs (which actually contains 14 songs, but who's counting?) finds Rubin applying his trademark unadorned sonic focus and high-quality taste in sidemen to a set of soul-searching new Diamond compositions. The results are impressive on their own terms as a no-bullshit spotlight on an artist too often sickeningly overproduced. But if you've ever found Neil's alpha-male arrogance and lack of sense of humor irritating (or just plain laughable), nothing here is likely to change that. There's some effective imagery in "Captain of a Shipwreck," and "We" is uncharacteristically jaunty, but the weirdest moment comes in the form of "Delirious Love," a duet with Brian Wilson that sounds like Neil karaoke-ing a lost Beach Boys tune.
In a gorgeous, slightly psychedelic swamp-pop tune very near the end of Bobby Bare's stunning comeback record The Moon Was Blue, Bare asks the world "Am I That Easy to Forget?" Apparently so, because except as the father of Bobby Jr. (who co-produced this record), he's been more or less completely off the radar for the last 15 years, so much so that an introduction seems necessary here. Bare was alt-country before such a thing existed, a genre-blurring (though less bluesy) contemporary of innovators such as Willie Nelson and Charlie Rich. After the advent of Bob Dylan, Bare shifted gears away from pop and toward folk-tinged country and scored hits with songs like "Detroit City," "How I Got to Memphis" and "Marie Laveau." His warm, wise baritone was (and is) one huge asset, but his other one is even more formidable: No country singer and few singers period have ever had a better eye for incredible outside material. Often years before the rest of the music world, Bare cut tunes by people like Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Townes Van Zandt, not to mention Shel Silverstein and Bob McDill, both of whom provided whole albums' worth of material.
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The Moon Was Blue is proof that few cobwebs have gathered on his voice or his mind since his 1970s heyday. Bobby Jr. is aided by Lambchop's Mark Nevers on the production end, and the album features a dream band of mostly young A-list Music City pickers who bring a reverent yet fresh sensibility to the songs. The end result is a Stardust-like, elegantly boozy album that strolls from verdant, slightly surreal takes on countrypolitan gems like "Are You Sincere" (a posthumous Elvis release) to Orbisonesque, romantic slow-dance tunes like "It's All in the Game," to whiskey-drenched saloon piano laments like "My Heart Cries For You." The Harry Nilsson smash "Everybody's Talkin'" gets a new coat of Lambchop art-country wool, and the 102-year-old "Shine On Harvest Moon" has a dreamy 1940s vibe much like Shaver's "In the Good Old U.S.A." But the real highlights are "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," a Silverstein tune about the unraveling of a woman's mind ("At the age of 37 / she realized she'd never / ride through Paris in a sports car / with the warm wind in her hair"), and the cosmic merry-go-round ride that is album closer "Fellow Travelers."