A Wise Man's Brill Building

Move over Dionne, Luther, Elvis too—Mr. Biggs wants a piece of Burt Bacharach now

"A House Is Not a Home" was originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in the '60s, when she served as the muse for Brill Building sophisticates Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Warwick's precise yet graceful enunciation, which was perfect for negotiating Bacharach's knotty melodies, captured the yearning romanticism of the tune. In the '80s

Luther Vandross, a student of both Warwick's delicacy and Bacharach-David's urbane intensity, stretched the little gem into an epic of thwarted desire that surely seemed the definitive version.

But now that judgment has to be rethought. Like almost every one of the agile reinterpretations on Here I Am, the new album by the one-shot duo dubbed Isley Meets Bacharach, "A House Is Not a Home" changes the way we'll hear not just the B&D catalog but vocalist Ronald Isley himself. Abetted by a 40-piece orchestra, Isley artfully recasts the song not as Warwick and Vandross's anthem of want, but as a wise man's statement of fact. It sounds as if his 60-plus years of life have led him to understand David's lyric as an observation, not a cry for help. Here as on 10 other chestnuts, his input is fortified by Bacharach the producer's willingness to hear Bacharach the composer's music in a new way.

Throughout Here I Am, the 75-year-old composer challenges himself by discarding melody lines, radically changing tempos, and otherwise bending his catalog to the demands of Isley's creamy soul-school delivery. Recorded over two days in June in the venerable Capitol Records studio where Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole made history, the r&b vet and the pop tunesmith revisit the trite ("Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," "Close to You"), the sublime ("Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Make It Easy on Yourself"), and the complex ("Alfie," "The Look of Love"), using a simple but intricate formula of down tempos, reimagined melodies, and vampy r&b codas. You'll be halfway into songs you've heard in the dentist's office before you realize how fundamentally they've been altered. Yes, Bacharach acts as if his music is on a par with Gershwin's or Porter's, but here that self-importance just elevates his ambitions and his skills.

This collaboration revives Bacharach in a way the Elvis Costello pairing Painted by Memory could not. Where Costello's voice is a limited instrument, Isley is one of the most underrated of the '60s soul children—his velvety mid-range and tender falsetto have remained a staple of basement seductions and slow-jam radio for generations. Fronting the Isley Brothers or in his R. Kelly-created Mr. Biggs persona, he has remained a chart presence and a vocal influence, the living link between the world of fallen church boys who instigated the soul movement and the thuggish love men of today. Age has put grit in his high notes, so Isley compensates by singing softer and slightly lower, forcing us to listen closer and allowing him to create drama without undue pyrotechnics.

If there's anything wrong with Isley Meets Bacharach, it's that the arrangments are so plush, so luxurious, that the whole thing can feel too comfortable. There are moments when you wish for a touch of Isley Brothers aggression or Mr. Biggs passion. But successive viewings of the Isley-Bacharach collabo at showcases in Los Angeles and Manhattan's Supper Club made clear that the alchemy of live performance will again alter the material. Spurred by a wonderfully verbal crowd of r&b fans in New York, Isley loosened up his performances with more swoops, hiccups, and moans, finding the middle ground between tightly crafted pop and soul fire. In a musical environment where Rod Stewart's artless Tin Pan Alley revival and Norah Jones's worthy if occasionally funereal efforts have attracted an audience, I'm hopeful this odd couple will find love.

 
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