Amid the breathless genuflection that constituted Jimmy Fallon’s much-hyped interview with Barbra Streisand this week on “The Tonight Show” – “It’s unbelievable to stand next to you,” he actually said at one point -- Fallon somehow managed to extract a piece of useful information from his guest: that her goal with her new duets album was not simply to remake some of her biggest hits but to “reinterpret” them – to provide, in the case of “People,” for instance, “a whole other way of looking at the song.”
Let’s get real, Babs.
Most of the dozen tracks on “Partners” -- which features duet partners such as Michael Bublé, Andrea Bocelli and the singer’s son, Jason Gould – offer no such vantage. A vaguely bluesy rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” with John Mayer differs little from the vaguely bluesy rendition on Streisand’s 1979 album “Wet.” Her blustery harmonizing with Josh Groban in “Somewhere” tells us far less about the “West Side Story” war horse than the weirdly trippy take she recorded for “The Broadway Album” in 1985.
And to the extent that she and Billy Joel reconfigure his “New York State of Mind,” it’s for the worse, diluting Joel’s knowing skepticism with an arrangement even schmaltzier than the one she used nearly 40 years ago on “Superman.” Ditto the dreary “Love Me Tender,” in which soupy strings smother a back-from-the-grave Elvis Presley. Only Streisand could make these two behemoths sound like supplicants. (Poor Fallon probably didn’t stand a chance.)
Yet there is strong work here – four songs that live up to the singer’s stated ambition. One of them is “People,” with Stevie Wonder on vocals and harmonica. Relaxed to a proudly laid-back bossa nova, it uncovers new wrinkles in Bob Merrill’s famous lyric about children “letting a grown-up pride hide all the need inside.”
Was Streisand allowing Wonder to guide her onto the fresh ground she seems to have resisted elsewhere? Perhaps. I’m inclined to think the push came from Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, the canny R&B veteran who co-produced “Partners” with Walter Afanasieff. It’s his fingerprints (and his creamy backing vocals) you hear all over the good stuff here, including a fluttering “The Way We Were” featuring Lionel Richie and a handsome “What Kind of Fool” with John Legend taking over for Barry Gibb, who co-wrote the tune for Streisand’s great disco-era “Guilty” album.
Best of all is Streisand’s duet with Babyface himself on “Evergreen,” in which she modulates her gale-force singing to suit his sumptuous quiet-storm groove. “Two lights that shine as one,” they call themselves, and for once you can believe it.
Two stars out of four