Neither the music nor the presentation of Annie Lennox’s forthcoming standards album “Nostalgia” carried a whiff of business-as-usual during a listening session Tuesday night in Hollywood.
First was the location. The album will be released this fall by Capitol Records-affiliated Blue Note Records, but rather than hosting a listening session at the obvious location of Capitol’s historic recording studios in Hollywood-- where Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and other great crooners made so many of their records--the event took place at Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge.
The former Eurythmics singer established the relevance of the site during a question-and-answer session with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. She noted that most of the songs she’s chosen—among them George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" written by Abel Meeropol—have long outlived those who wrote them.
“Some of them might be out there,” the Scottish singer, songwriter and activist said with a smile, pointing toward the celebrity-dotted graveyard a few feet away.
Then there was the session itself, a throwback to the days of a record business flush with cash, when labels could afford to hold posh gatherings to introduce new recordings from high-profile artists. Several music writers in attendance commented on the rarity of such tony events in the era of diminished expectations.
Even the release date is somewhat unorthodox. The album will be released on vinyl on Sept. 30--"the format the album was intended to be heard in," according to a statement--followed Oct. 21 in digital and CD formats.
Mostly, the music itself showed Lennox bringing the emotive power of her distinctive voice to offer fresh perspectives on largely familiar songs.
A few examples: the opening of “Summertime,” in which she sang the word and sustained for an impossibly long time. She held on a single note rather than injecting as many melismatic flourishes as humanly possible, the modus operandi of so many “American Idol” -era female singers, and consequently drew far more emotion out of it.
She played with chord changes in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ haunting 1956 R&B classic “I Put a Spell On You,” altering the placement of its shifts from major to minor and thus bringing new emphasis to the song's expression of romantic desperation. A luscious reading of “Mood Indigo” blossoms out of her bluesy solo vocal into gorgeous three-part harmonies reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters and other tight harmony groups of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Lennox told Pop & Hiss following the session that her approach to these songs was largely instinctive, in her way applying the liberating spirit of rock ‘n’ roll to the material from the Great American Songbook of the pre-rock era.
“It’s very humbling to be a musician,” she said, expressing her belief that the best musicians set their egos aside to allow the essence of a song to emerge.
Responding to a question from DeCurtis about how long she spent preparing and recording “Nostalgia,” the artist, who will turn 60 on Dec. 25, quoted the adage about the Zen master’s answer to a student who asked how long it had taken to draw a perfect circle the master had just sketched: “A lifetime.”
It’s a safe guess that Blue Note wants “Nostalgia” to occupy the slot in the fall that appeals to a broad spectrum of listeners, especially those 30 and older who tend to buy more music than younger, streaming-oriented music fans. Recent albums of pop classics by Rod Stewart, Susan Boyle and Michael Buble have sold well through the holidays by drawing in those consumers.
Lennox, though, said she wasn’t concerning herself greatly with reaction, focusing instead on trying to do justice to beloved songs.
“You can’t be proscriptive about people’s reaction,” she said, noting her own amazement at the broad spectrum of responses she received to photos she's posted on her Facebook page with images of a fork, knife and tomato, and another of the British Union Jack flag. “I can’t invest myself in whether people love it. I really do want to be loved," she added with a smile, "but I’m also prepared to be hated.”
Calendar will have more on “Nostalgia” closer to release date. Stay tuned.
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