Thursday, November 11, 2010

An unconventional review: Neil Diamond's "Dreams"

Have you ever seen an album in a store or on iTunes and think, "I know exactly what this is going to sound like"? Well, imagine my reaction when I stumbled upon this gem in iTunes the other night:
Yep, a new Neil Diamond album of covers.

Before I dive into this album, let me say this: I like Neil Diamond. And if you read my column last month about the current batch of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, you'd know that I have a great deal of respect for his career.

But... college, my friends and I had two games we'd play when we were bored. They were "sing any song like Fred Schneider from The B-52s" and "sing any song like Neil Diamond", with the theory being that not only could you make any song Fred or Neil's quite easily, but also there was no easier way to get a laugh than singing a song in the style of either Fred Schneider or Neil Diamond.

Listening to Dreams, makes me think that Neil may have known of our little game, because for the first time in the history of music, an album has been recorded that everyone knows exactly what it will sound like before it's recorded. Sadly, that's not necessarily a good thing.

Remember when Neil Diamond recorded Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song?

It worked because you knew Neil was in on the joke with tongue firmly in cheek. With Dreams, I'm not so sure.

Some highlights (or lowlights):

The album kicks off with Ain't No Sunshine. To Neil's credit, it's a respectful cover - Just Neil, a guitar and a piano.

Next, Neil tackles The Beatles' Blackbird. How can I put this delicately: Neil Diamond is incapable of doing anything delicately. Blackbird is probably one of the Beatles prettiest, warmest songs, just not when Neil performs it. It doesn't help that he's singing over some pseudo-bluegrass arrangement that would be better suited for a Ken Burns Civil War documentary.

Speaking of delicate, the next track is a cover of Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally). Sure it's a song that makes you want to stick your head in the oven, but in a good way, if that's possible. Neil brings his best tongue in cheek Hanukkah Song tone to this one. One wonders why. I have one theory, however... I think Neil was jealous of Gilbert's hair.

On track 5, Neil tries to do something that Gladys Knight didn't dream of doing for about 20 years.... sing Midnight Train to Georgia without The Pips. Some songs need Pips. And some songs don't need Neil Diamond to cover them... Midnight Train (woo hoo!) is one of those songs.

On track 6, Neil, deservedly so, reminds the world that he wrote The Monkees' I'm a Believer. Unfortunately, he slows the song down about 8o percent and turns it into something too light for lite rock.

Skipping ahead, Neil, I suppose, felt compelled to cover a song that everyone covers these days: Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. This is one of those songs that a singer either hits out of the park or doesn't. Neil doesn't. As a tangent, why do so many people tackle this song? Depending on whom you ask, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright or Leonard Cohen sing *the definitive versions* of this song (personally, I'm with Team Rufus on this one). Do singers honestly hear any of those three versions and think, "You know what? I can top this." Note to all singers, please don't think this. You can't.

Moving ahead, and to be honest, I don't know what to add to this, so I'll just say it. Neil covers a Michael Bublé song. Nuff said. Let's just say, I don't recall Paul McCartney ever covering an Oasis would be beneath him.

Speaking of McCartney, Neil covers Yesterday, and not to have it compete too much with I'm a Believer, he slows it down even more than the original, but with added Neil Diamond bravado. Which is kind of like adding a handful of M&Ms to a bowl of ice cream and cake.

Which brings be to a song I'd pay good money to hear Neil Diamond cover:

Sorry, I needed a distraction. Back to our regularly scheduled Neil. How about Mr. Diamond's take on Desperado? Which actually isn't too bad...maybe the best track on the album. It's a rare moment where he has the tone right.

To Neil's credit, he ends his album on a high note, with a sweet cover of Harry Nilsson's Don't Forget Me.

As much as I would like to leave you with the Ice Cream and Cake song in your head, this album did remind me of what a great song Midnight Train to Georgia is...just not when Neil sings it. I'll leave you with a much better version...The Pips (WITHOUT GLADYS KNIGHT):

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