Barbra Streisand’s second album of duets, “Partners,” which comes out today worldwide, comprised solely of songs recorded with male singers and sounds great – but that’s exactly where the problem lies.
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The sound is wonderful, and the production work by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds is polished and balanced. Streisand still has a velvety, clear and powerful voice, and the passing years have given it a fascinating depth and roughness. The sound technicians even succeeded in ensuring that long-dead singers like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra sound full of life in her “duets” with them. But the album is so obviously targeted at the 60-something that it barely manages to stimulate the nostalgia glands.
In "Partners," there are almost none of those magical schmaltzy moments in which sticky sweetness is balanced with a burst of bombastic, self-conscious musicality, as in “Soon it’s Gonna Rain,” from 1963 or “Woman in Love,” from 1980. There is no intimacy, no surprising beats heard once every couple of songs, no arrangement that we could not anticipate. There isn’t even any of Streisand’s hallmark comic timing, which to a great degree saved the gifted singer-actress from disgrace in such films as “What’s Up, Doc?” “Up the Sandbox,” and of course, “Hello, Dolly.”
What you get here is not schmaltz, but a lot of pretentious kitsch. It sounds as if Streisand was trying to sound on this album like Sarah Brightman. In fact, if Photoshop had a sound it would sound like this album – polished, balanced, and precise, but synthetic, formulaic, predictable, and lacking intimacy. Even the duet with Presley, “Love Me Tender,” is exactly what you would expect: a memory well-preserved by the marvels of technology, but lacking any real value without the nostalgic sentimentality.
The album actually begins well, with “It Had to be You,” a duet with Michael Bublé. These two wonderful vocalists serve up a light, precise and impressive performance. So what if the song sounds as if it was written for the post-chuppah dancing at a wedding? One would have thought that from here we would start soaring, but immediately after this comes a pseudo-bossa-nova arrangement of “People,” during which one remains awake only due to what sound like screams of pain emitted by Stevie Wonder. Moreover, the arrangement includes a harmonica, as if the producers said: “Come on, it's another song by Stevie, so let’s throw in a harmonica.”
Next in line is John Mayer, who gently rehabilitates us with his pleasant guitar riffs, which integrate well with his own smoky voice and with Streisand. Their duet version of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” could have been a serious jazz event, but someone stepped on the brakes. I assume it was Babyface, the producer, who jumps to the duet “Evergreen,” whose boring and bland arrangement is taken straight from some 1990s soundtrack.
In this wilderness there is a moment of redemption in the form of the nearly five-minute “New York State of Mind,” sung with Billy Joel, who was at his best for this recording, while Streisand sounds more hoarse than usual. Still, the result is wonderful. This is one of the two highlights of "Partners" – one that even cynics will enjoy despite the rough modulation in the middle of the song.
In contrast, Streisand fans ought to be insulted by the next song, a duet version with Lionel Richie of “The Way We Were.” Both of these wonderful singers seem to be fighting over who will sound more like the back-up singer of the other.
The second highlight of the album is “What Kind of Fool,” the duet with John Legend, which Streisand originally recorded in 1981 with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Gibb’s familiar kitsch echoes in one’s mind when Legend steps into his shoes – but without any sweetness, without any mannerisms – and works precisely with the words, just like an actor.
The deluxe version of "Partners" has five additional duets recorded by Streisand in the past that were included in her previous duets album and follow the vague musical line of this one, which is seems to try to touch some false, amorphous emotion that ostensibly exists among the assumed target audience. It would have been better if the 72-year-old Streisand had looked back at her illustrious career and reminded herself that she’s a gifted musician with sharp acting and comic abilities.