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Easy listening is lazy listening when it comes to Harry Connick Jr. April 5, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Pop and Rock.

I’m a late comer to the music of Harry Connick Jr.  I had heard his name often, and had been aware that some considered him heir apparent to Frank Sinatra, but I had never bothered to find out what his music was like, until recently.

After all, I thought, Michael Bublé was the true heir apparent to Sinatra, and his records had been on the charts far more often than Connick’s.  Furthermore, I had heard Bublé live by pure coincidence in a Manhattan bar and grill.  It was standing room only, and I stood all the way.

Connick’s latest CD Your Songs is listed in the Air Canada in-flight entertainment programme as “easy listening”.  I often wonder what easy listening means, as opposed to other types of “hard listening” music.  Since the flight was not long enough to do much else, and most of the music in other genres was eminently unappealing, I decided to give him a try.

As far as I can tell, Your Songs consists purely of covers, and no original material.  The opening track, Sinatra’s All the Way, is followed by Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, the Beatles’ And I Love Her, the Carpenters’ Close to You, Your Song by Elton John and, among others, Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa.

Covering other artists’ material in itself does not mean that the effort has no creative value – even “hard listening” artists have tried their hands at covering material of another artist, another genre, or another era.

Linda Ronstadt broke new ground collaborating with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra in What’s New in the 80s, and Rod Stewart set new standards for the full gamut of the classics in The Great American Songbook.  Black Sabbath front man turned reality show superstar Ozzy Osbourne released Under Cover a few years ago; as did Bette Midler a collection of Rosemary Clooney songs.

Peter Gabriel’s latest release Scratch My Back probably ranks among the most interesting cover project to date.  According to his web site, this is “a very personal record with the twelve songs performed only with orchestral instruments and voice”.  The project is a “song swap”, in which the next phase involves each of the original artists whose songs Gabriel covers performing one of his in return.

The mark of true artists is that even when covering someone else’s material they bring an interpretation uniquely their own.  Ronstadt and Stewart both cover the Gershwin classic Someone to Watch Over Me, yet they each instil the song with such unique vocal qualities and phrasing that they may as well not be the same song.  Ronstadt never seems to be able to shake her nasal twang, and Stewart’s husky voice is distinctly well aged.  Stewart’s interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust is far and away better than my next favourite rendition by Nat King Cole.

What about Harry Connick Jr.?  Granted, he does have a smooth voice and sing well, but it’s hard to pin down what new angle he brings to the various songs he covers, apart perhaps from sugar-coating them until they blend into the background.  All the tracks on Your Songs are so watered down and evenly paced that they don’t command a lot of attention.  Somehow something is missing.

The whole point about an artist covering someone else’s material is that it brings a challenge to our assumptions about him or her.  It makes us sit up and listen.  Ozzy Osbourne certainly does that with the Beatles’ In My Life and the Mott the Hoople classic All The Young Dudes.  Peter Gabriel’s version of David Bowie’s Heroes is hardly recognisable.  Osbourne and Gabriel present a musical as well as an intellectual challenge.  To enjoy their covers, you have to suspend disbelief and view them in a different light.

With Harry Connick Jr. all you have to do is sit back, relax and take it all in, as the music simply glides over your consciousness and leaves nothing behind.  You don’t have to suspend disbelief, as you don’t know what to believe in the first place.  There is no challenge, as his smoothness is amorphous and defies description.

So it seems Harry Connick Jr. is not only easy, but lazy, listening.  It goes to show that in music, as in everything else, I do it the hard way.



1. chris - June 3, 2010

You might know Nouvelle Vague already. Their 2004 debut was great. They re-did many 70-80’s punk-new wave pop songs in bossa nova style and added a French touch. It worked.

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