Sunday, November 16, 2014

Barry Manilow - 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe (1984)

For all the insistences that Tin Pan Alley died with the advent of rock and roll in the fifties, Barry Manilow, for better or for worse, kept that tradition alive in the seventies and early eighties with his records: conventional slow-tempo ballads that appealed to hopeless romantics all over Middle America.  There was just one problem; his records all sounded the same.  A typical Manilow single (many of which he didn't write, and he didn't write "I Write the Songs," either) started out slow and soft, building up toward the end, and climaxing with a big, bombastic crescendo.  It was that cookie-cutter arrangement Manilow applied to his records that made him a punch line among hip rock fans.
In 1984, though, Manilow offered up a serious effort at establishing himself as an avatar of the traditional pop standard - and no one was laughing this time.  2:00 AM Paradise Cafe came as a shock to anyone used to Manilow's earlier grandiosity; the songs, which Manilow wrote all the music to (Adrienne Anderson, Marty Panzer, and the team of Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman are among his lyricists), are delicately arranged with understated piano and complimentary guitar and double-bass lines, and with incredible subtlety.  Not only is the heavy drum sound of Manilow's earlier work not to be found here, there's no percussion whatsoever - not so much as a smidgen of brushwork.  It's straight cabaret music, evoking the feel of a lonely, late-night club performance that the album's title implies.
2:00 AM Paradise Cafe is presented almost as a concept album, with no gaps between the songs; in fact, the LP was recorded as a live performance in the studio, after three days of rehearsals, to evoke the feel of a nightclub jam session.  The opening song "Paradise Cafe" sets the mood with a friendly, intimate introduction, about as close to his fans as Manilow got in his music.  Manilow's voice settles in to a hush on ballads like "Where Have You Gone" and "I've Never Been So Low," and it rings with genuine urgency on songs like "Say No More."  The backing he gets from the great saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is sympathetic and solid, and Manilow stands on his own beautifully in duets with two jazz legends - Sarah Vaughan in the torch song "Blue" and Mel Tormé on the caressing "Big City Blues."  The mere confidence Manilow exudes in his arranging, production, and playing made me root for the guy.
The best moment on 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, by far, is "When October Goes," an achingly beautiful  piano ballad with Manilow's music set to unfinished lyrics from the late Johnny Mercer that Mercer's widow had entrusted to Manilow.  Its haunting images of children running home in the late autumn weather and the anticipation of aging and helplessness goes beyond being just a great jazz song (it's already a standard); it's an astonishingly transcendental song that, unlike Manilow's seventies work, leaves a tear in your eye rather than a groan from your mouth.  As a jazz album that only comes along once in awhile - from Manilow or anyone else - 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe only proves how right a lyric in one of Barry's earlier hits was: You really do get what you get when you go for it.  What Manilow got here was the recognition as an artist that he'd sought for so long.
(This weekend marks the thirtieth anniversary of 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe's release.)

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