George Michael

Virgin

Close on the heels of Bryan Ferry’s unlistenable As Time Goes By, a collection of cobwebby pop chestnuts rendered in twee ’30s tearoom style, George Michael emerges from a different sort of tearoom to demonstrate how classic songs can be effectively resurrected for a new audience. Michael and co-producer Phil Ramone have chosen an unhackneyed repertoire of standards ripe for revival. The album opens with two compositions about poverty emerging from opposite halves of the past century—the Depression-era plea “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and the Police’s “Roxanne,” a blunt if lyrically impoverished song about prostitution. Then come a pair of contrasting views of romance: “You’ve Changed,” the heartsick plaint of a soon-to-be-abandoned lover, and “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” a cocky boast by someone unquestioningly adored. (Lyricist Gus Kahn’s reference to Lana Turner has been tellingly replaced by an allusion to Ricky Martin. Now that Michael has been outed, he’s become an even bigger tease.) The singer’s strong, expressive tenor, with its echoes of Johnny Mathis and Little Jimmy Scott, is particularly impressive on “I Remember You,” an exquisite, technically exacting duet mating Michael’s voice with Corky Hale’s harp. Other highlights include an uptempo “Secret Love” scored for strings and brass, and cheekily chosen to emphasize Michael’s new openness (“My secret love’s no secret anymore”), a lushly erotic “Wild Is the Wind,” and a jaunty “Where or When” complete with its seldom-recorded verse. The only tracks that don’t quite work are “Miss Sarajevo,” whose topical theme and arrangement fail to jibe with the surrounding time-tested material, and the “hidden” bonus track, an instrumental deconstruction of Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me” that feels like an afterthought. Having suffered through recordings of stiff opera singers (Jessye Norman, Thomas Hampson) and clueless pop stars (Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon) massacring the great American songbook, I find it a treat to hear a contemporary pop singer interpret classic material with sensitivity and wit.—Joel E. Siegel

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