Bette Midler is no stranger to girl-group songs. Beginning with “Leader of the Pack,” “Chapel of Love” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” from her first album, 1972’s The Divine Miss M, Midler has been mining the girl-group genus, either in cover versions or in tribute to the style, on practically every one of her studio albums. So, it makes sense that she would commit an entire disc, It’s The Girls (WB) to the genre. The results are classic Midler, combining her camp sensibility with dignity and respect. Some versions honor the originals by staying close to the bone, as in the case of “Be My Baby,” “Bei Mir Bust Du Schön,” and “Mr. Sandman.” In the case of “He’s Sure The Boy I Love,” Midler raises the bar on the tribute spectrum by teaming up with legendary girl-group-era diva Darlene Love. As is often the case, It’s The Girls is most interesting when Midler takes risks, all of which pay off handsomely. Her dramatic readings of “Baby It’s You” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” rank among her best. Her stellar rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls” may reveal the song’s weaknesses (it’s a song that was clearly not meant to be covered by anyone else), but Midler triumphs and makes the song her own.
On previous albums, the hipster mixed-gender duo She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) have performed mainly original material written by her (She) with the occasional retro cover tossed in for good measure. On the suitably named Classics (Columbia), She & Him reaches deep into the American Songbook for its interpretations of a baker’s dozen standards. Like Midler, they cover the chestnut “Teach Me Tonight,” as well as “Oh No, Not My Baby,” “It’s Not For Me To Say,” “This Girl’s In Love With You,” “I’ll Never Be Free” and “We’ll Meet Again.”
Live albums are often a mixed blessing and that includes Coming Home (Concord) by diminutive diva Kristen Chenoweth. One way of looking at it is, why would you want to listen to a recording of a concert that you didn’t attend? Also, live albums have a tendency of bringing out the worst (read: hammiest) in a performer. Recorded live in Oklahoma at the Broken Arrow Arts Center (they have an arts center!?), Chenoweth makes a genuine homecoming, returning to her motherland for the concert. Show-tunes abound, including “Popular” and “For Good” from Wicked (well, duh!), as well as “Bring Him Home” from Les Miz, “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom, “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret (which she also performed on Glee) and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from The King & I, although nothing from Oklahoma! (wait, what?). She balances the gospel (“Upon This Rock”) with the gay-friendly (“Over The Rainbow” and “No More Tears”), so she deserves props for that.
One of the best (and most enduring) albums of 2014 is The Voyager (WB). The second solo record by Jenny Lewis finds the Rilo Kiley leader abandoning the blues that weighed down her 2008 solo debut Acid Tongue. Produced by Ryan Adams and Mike Viola, The Voyager is about as perfect as pop music gets. Gently queer centerpiece “Late Bloomer” is the kind of eternal tune you hope all of your favorite straight singer/songwriters write at least once in their career. A born storyteller, Lewis amazes us throughout the album, making it difficult to single out songs, but know that “Just One of the Guys,” “Slippery Slope,” “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em,” “Aloha & the Three John,” and the gorgeous title track that closes the disc, are all equally amazing.
Kat Edmonson deserves to be better-known than she is. No one else sounds like Edmonson – think 21st century Blossom Dearie – and the songs on The Big Picture (Masterworks), produced by Mitchell Froom, are clever and catchy. A breath of musical fresh air, Edmonson’s performance of her original compositions has a timelessness similar to those of Jenny Lewis. Numbers such as “Oh My Love,” “You Said Enough,” “Avion,” “Dark Cloud,” “Till We Start To Kiss,” and “Who’s Counting,” could just as easily have been written in 1964 or 2014. Also recommended for fans of queer singer/songwriter Erin McKeown.
Want to get a sense of the swift passage of time? It’s been almost 25 years since Ani DiFranco released her first full-length on her own record label. That’s right, 25 years since you first heard her sing “Both Hands.” Since that time she has released 18 studio albums, including her latest Allergic To Water (Righteous Babe), some live recordings, signed some big names to her label (hello, Nona Hendryx!), released some collaboration albums and has generally become one of the most famous feminists, activists and entrepreneurs in the music world. Allergic To Water continues in the same mood and style of her previous New Orleans-era recordings such as Reprieve, Red Letter Year and Which Side Are You On?, and features standout tracks such as “Careless Words,” “Yeah Yr Right,” “Still My Heart” and “Rainy Parade”.
By Gregg Shapiro