by Andrew Albin
Tuesday Jun 15, 2004
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“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delovely,” croons British pop star Robbie Williams – and he’s right. The soundtrack to De-Lovely, a soon-to-be-released movie musical about American songwriter Cole Porter, boasts a bevy of pop and jazz singers attempting some of Porter’s most beloved tunes with some surprising success.

Bringing together such a disparate group of performers has its plusses and minuses. On the up side, you encounter unfamiliar names like Lemar and Vivian Green who startle with the class and skill of their singing. Vivian Green in particular deserves considerable praise; her rendition of “Love for Sale” is simultaneously sexy, defiant, and deeply sad. This former backup singer for Jill Scott croons, sobs, seduces, and laments in a coolly blue mood, supported by a top-notch jazz trio. Caroline O’Connor deserves a nod for her rollicking impression Ethel Merman, too. You also get to hear tried-and-true popular artists like Sheryl Crow and Robbie Williams turn their musical talents to showtunes. And they do it well – Crow’s “Begin the Beguine” is sultry and smooth, and Williams’ “It’s De-Lovely” is full of character and charm.

On the down side, you get some big names who don’t always rise to the occasion. Alanis Morissette’s “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” is too intense and forceful for the light, jaunty tune. Mitch Hucknall of the band Simply Red, who recorded the hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” back in the ‘80s, strains mightily to hit his high notes in “I Love You.” And jazz artist Diana Krall, who would have made a marvelous recording of one of the album’s many ballads, has a bad habit of clipping her words and straying a bit too far, a bit too often from the downbeat. A number of tracks featuring the stars of the film are also very actorly at the expense of musicianship. Many of these are ensemble numbers, though, consistently upbeat and fun.

One other unfortunate consequence of is a loss of cohesion. Though every track has something going for it, each varies so widely in style and mood that the album as a whole doesn’t gel. The fault for this also lies in part in the enduring popularity of Porter’s music. We’ve heard so many of these tunes performed by so many singers over the years that it is difficult to group them together, to make a story out of them, they have so much individuality.

Difficult, but not entirely impossible. One narrative thread that runs through the album is that of Porter’s ambiguous sexuality. The film never defines Porter one way or the other, seriously treating both his long-lasting marriage to Linda Thomas and his same-sex dalliances in Hollywood. The same sexual fluidity can be found in the soundtrack: at one moment, you have a ballad celebrating the joys of marriage, at the next, a love duet between two men culminating with the lyric

And this torment won’t be through
Until you let me spend my life making love to you,
Day and night, night and day.

It’s a complexity that only adds to the often high-quality singing and always memorable music.

In the end, over and above the skillful performances and artistic license, what really sticks with you about this album is how enduring Porter’s songwriting truly is. These songs resonate with love, hurt, longing, and knowledge just as deeply today as they did when they were first heard in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Their lyrics haven’t lost any of their wittiness or delight in language and, sometimes in shockingly contemporary ways, cut right to the heart: “The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today, and black’s white today, and day’s night today...” “There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye.” “Who’s prepared to pay the price, for a trip to paradise?” It’s no wonder that Porter’s era – the hedonistic Roaring ‘20s, sandwiched between two world wars – wasn’t so far removed from our own. And that’s all the more reason why his music sounds so right to our ears, almost seven decades later.

by Various Artists

Andrew Albin is currently studying towards a Ph.D. in English Literature at Brandeis University.


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