Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Music Review: Liza Minnelli: The Complete A&M Recordings (2-Disc Set)

First Time on CD


You'd think that being born to two Oscar winning parents-- the legendary actress and singer Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz) and director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis)-- that their daughter Liza Minnelli would've naturally aspired to work in film yet as Scott Schechter writes in "Pre-'Z' (Liza Before the "Z")" in this album's liner notes, originally young Liza was most interested in ice skating and dancing on the Broadway stage. Quickly ascertaining she'd need to be at least a double threat by singing as well-- soon she became a triple one, singing, acting, and dancing in order to fulfill her goal to perform in the theatre.

While her big break came in a highly acclaimed off-Broadway award-winning performance in The Forward which found her appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, it wasn't until her first solo ballad (originally performed on her mother's Judy Garland Show) was turned into her debut record "You Are for Loving," that Minnelli sold 500,000 copies, making the music industry sit up and take notice. Although initially, she worked with Capitol Records and performed numerous standards and old favorites written well before her time, making the young woman's fanbase much older, when she moved to A&M Records, the company, Liza as well as her then husband-- the singer/songwriter Peter Allen (recently made famous by Hugh Jackman in the Tony winning The Boy From Oz)-- decided to try and reintroduce her to a bigger market of listeners of all ages by showing off the singer's range.

Over the course of four albums including, the 1968 self-titled Liza Minnelli, 1969's Come Saturday Morning, 1970's New Feelin' and her final A&M work Liza Minnelli Live at the Olympia in Paris in 1972, Minnelli tackled every genre from bluegrass to gospel to soul to country to rock to the Broadway showtunes, ballads and standards she's still identified most with today.

In Liza Minnelli: The Complete A&M Recordings, the album producers restored and remastered her work from the original session tapes of the actual A&M studio recordings for the first time ever on CD. And in the 2-disc set, the four albums along with countless rare outtakes, one single, and interesting arrangements of cover songs included on the landmark records (which have been painstakingly preserved in their "24-bit digital splendor") were just issued last month by Collector's Choice Music to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first self-titled disc.

Especially fascinating since the recordings mark the evolution of Minnelli's talent just before she was launched into superstardom with her Oscar winning turn in Bob Fosse's brilliant Cabaret and the Emmy winning television special Liza With a "Z" and far before she'd become both a Broadway icon and often dubbed twentieth century master entertainer in her own right, for listeners who are mostly accustomed to her post-Cabaret work (like this reviewer), at first the 2-disc set takes some getting used to.

Very indicative of their time with some overly intricate '70s funk arrangements that take the charm out of classic tracks like "Come Rain or Come Shine," yet despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the bursts of early humor we'd later associate with her as well as her ease of slipping into the various character of whatever song she was singing. While I preferred the second disc and two later albums as they were a bit more upbeat and gleefully '70s, there were also some particular standouts (including rare or previously unreleased tunes) on the first album that fans should definitely seek out.

Beginning with her '68 record, the first disc opens
with songwriter Randy Newman's "The Debutante's Ball," which Schechter notes still remains one of Minnelli's favorites and also includes Peter and Chris Allen's memorable "(The Tragedy of) Butterfly McHeart," along with the terrific Mancini like "Waiting for My Friend," the carousel styled "The Happy Time" (from Kander & Ebb's musical of the same name) and her wondrous "My Mammy." Additionally, pay particular attention to the unreleased outtakes including the bossa nova "Alicinha" and a whistfully minimalist "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" that gives her the freedom to play with the vocals to unique effect.

The second half of the first disc, centering on Come Saturday Morning opens with the Oscar nominated title track from director Alan J. Pakula's feature filmmaking debut The Sterile Cuckoo which coincidentally earned Minnelli her first Oscar nomination as well and gives us a glimpse of the singer's penchant for mixing humor and melancholy together for bittersweet effect.

Although it contains such famous covers and tracks such as "On a Slow Boat to China," "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," and "MacArthur Park/ Didn't We?" my two favorites from the 1969 album were definitely Harry Nilsson's very '60s and delicate "Wailing of the Willow" as well as the awe-inspiring cabaret torch song styled "Nevertheless," that seems to foreshadow the way that Minnelli would belt it out to the cheap seats as Sally Bowles in Fosse's Cabaret.

With a modern photograph used for the cover of her 1970 album New Feelin', Minnelli's third A&M album reunited her with the classic fare she always did best but provided the tracks with modern productions by inserting strange (and some unsuccessful '70s era soul/bluegrass/early disco/funk) arrangements to some of America's best-loved standards. While I'm mixed on the venture, when it works, she succeeds brilliantly with the combination of country twang and gosepl tinged soul for "Stormy Weather" and "Lazy Bones," which Minnelli performed at the Grand Old Opry where she was introduced by Johnny Cash who Schechter acknowledges even admitted onstage was going to be singing songs that were "different, and I bet you're gonna like it."

"Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" and "The Man I Love," are also above average but Cabaret devotees will want to move right to a far more guitar driven take on the musical's "Maybe This Time." While the outtakes from the album contain two penned by her then husband Peter Allen (which are ironically the weakest of the quartet), she really nails "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "This Girl's In Love With You," which makes the ideal lead-in to the fourth live album that begins with a terrific medley until it ventures onto her trademark theme song "Liza With a 'Z.'"

Although it ends with another one of her classics-- the title song from Kander & Ebb's Cabaret-- I was especially moved by her English language version of "I Will Wait for You," originally made famous in Jacques Demy's French New Wave romantic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that makes the ideal selection for an album recorded live in Paris.

Having given us decades of music, while you can find various versions of her most famous songs on countless compilations and greatest hits collections and those with only a passing interest in Minnelli's music may do best to stick with those tried and true favorites-- still, for residents of "Liza Land," it's spectacular to revisit the four transitional albums in their entirety. This is especially the case with this set that also contains never before released tracks as well as a remarkable fact and photograph filled booklet to get a much richer musical portrait of the legend as she graduated from one phase to the next, always thinking "Maybe This Time," this was it (whether in life, love, or in song).