Sunday, November 23, 2014

Michael Bolton - Timeless: The Classics (1992)

A better title for this album of covers would be Michael Bolton Is Murdering the Classics.
Michael Bolton is easily one of the worst performers in popular music of the past fifty years.  His vocal style has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and his songwriting is lame and formulaic enough to make Billy Steinberg's songs seem profound by comparison.  And if that sounds frightening enough, imagine what Bolton can do when he inflicts his dubious vocal gifts on a real song!  Here, he slaughters ten of them.
Timeless: The Classics was released at a time when Bolton was at the height of his popularity, his vulgar heart-on-his-sleeve vocal approach appealing to women who never grew out of their teen-idol-worshipping phase in high school.  At the same time, though, he was also under attack from rock critics for being the latest in a series of whitebread performers ripping off R&B songs from the likes of Otis Redding and Percy Sledge without giving proper credit to his sources.  This record, a mix of soul tunes and ballads, sounds like Bolton taking revenge out on the critics while giving his female fans what they want - a big, strong voice to swoon to.  Bolton's voice is big and strong, all right; it makes you want to turn the volume down lower even when it's already set at level one.
Black people still seething over Pat Boone's safe covers of Little Richard and Fats Domino tunes would certainly have a case against Bolton for racial insensitivity once they listen to the R&B covers on Timeless: The Classics.  His cover of the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" finds him straining and wheezing in an attempt to convey genuine empathy, and the arrangement is an unintentionally parodic carbon copy of the Four Tops version.  Bolton doesn't even attempt to equal Levi Stubbs' magnificent vocal on the original record, and this is the one time on this LP he chooses the right course.  Bolton is more faithful to the original Eddie Floyd recording of "Knock On Wood," but his bombastic delivery actually made me miss the annoying disco version from Amii Stewart.   He pummels "Hold On, I'm Comin'" while trying to sound like Sam and Dave, and he turns not one, but two, Sam Cooke songs - "You Send Me" and "Bring It On Home to Me" - into cheesy nightclub MOR that doesn't so much caress as smothers.  This is not how you get to play the Copacabana.
Of course, it would be unfair to characterize Bolton as being indifferent only to black music, because he shows the same disregard for white artists.  The world didn't need another remake of the Beatles' "Yesterday," but that didn't stop Bolton from offering up one here; he slows it down to a lethargic tempo with a piano intro that renders the melody completely unrecognizable, slicing out everything that made the original record so moving.  Bolton's approach to the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" ignores both the sprightly pop of the original and the impassioned soul of James Carr's cover and recasts it as a straight ballad (wrong!).   And how about Bolton's foray into the Great American Songbook?  Joe Queenan summed it up for all time. "If it's a crime to deface the Statue of Liberty or to spray-paint swastikas on Mount Rushmore or to burn the American flag," Queenan wrote, "why isn't it a crime for Michael Bolton to butcher Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'?"
Michael Bolton's supporting players, including co-producers Walter Afanasieff and David Foster, ought to be singled out for aiding and abetting.  The music on Timeless: The Classics is antiseptic and glossy, full of sterile keyboards and heavy drums, without a whit of imagination from any of the players.  Unless you count an annoying backing vocal chorus and heavy synthesizers on this LP's remake of "Drift Away" imaginative.  Maybe that was meant to distract us from Bolton's inability to come up with anything distinctive other than a paint-by-numbers delivery of a song whose essence he clearly doesn't understand.
If there's anything positive to be said about Timeless: The Classics (and believe me, I know I'm stretching it here), it's that at least Bolton has good taste in material.  Unlike the case with Pat Boone, whose early material was chosen by his record company, I think I can safely assume that Bolton chose all of these songs himself.  That said, while you're unlikely to find a more solid selection of songs than the ones chosen for this record, you're equally unlikely to hear them performed with more over-the-top recklessness unless you attend an "American Idol" audition.  Good taste in music doesn't compensate for an inability to do the music justice.
Is this a bad album?  Really bad.  

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