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There seems to be a stage in almost every female singer's career where they decide it's time to do a covers album. This stage tends to be around the age of 40 - almost as if this age means the singer wishes to reflect on songs that have inspired them over the years. Well, this is usually what they say in the publicity video anyway - I often suspect it's a last ditch attempt to shift units as each release meets with ever diminishing returns.
Australian singer-songwriter Tina Arena has had a patchy international singing career. She has a lovely, clear voice - I like how she doesn't have to resort to vocal acrobatics to prove her point - but has had few big hits since she had her first foray into the UK charts with "Chains" back in 1994.
She failed to move me until she released "Aller Plus Haut" in France back in 1999 - I was spending a lot of time in Brussels at the time and got to know the song from radio and TV airplay there. I can only begin to imagine how many francophone singers must have been sickened to see an English native speaker snaffle this wonderful song and have a huge hit with it in France, but to give Arena her due, she pulled it off with great aplomb.
She released a greatest hits compilation back in 2004 but since then most of her output has been released for French audiences only until the 2007 release of "Songs of Love and Loss".
The original concept for "Songs of Love and Loss" was a Dusty Springfield covers album. I have to say from the off I am delighted that this idea fell by the wayside - Arena has a lovely voice but she isn't in Springfield's league.
Arena quickly realised that she was going to be seriously limited by the Springfield concept but there are still three Dusty songs on here.
"Songs of Love and Loss" opens with the Bacharach/David standard "The Look of Love". This song is one probably most associated with Dusty Springfield but let's be fair here - it's been covered to death by a myriad of artists - I recall a particularly bad version by Deacon Blue in the eighties for instance.
Arena sings it well but adds little or nothing to the song - the orchestration is smooth and I enjoyed listening to it but I often wonder what is the point in covering a song unless you can add something new to it? Arena fails to give it any new kind of twist, but it her polished vocals save it.
Upon hearing the opening bars of "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" I feared a dreaded note-for-note cover version - it sounded exactly like Dusty's hallowed version, which is one of my all-time favourite songs. Another Bacharach/David number, the White Stripes did a celebrated cover version a few years ago.
The opening verse seems to confirm my fears of a note-for-note cover, but when Arena hits the chorus she manages to put her own stamp on the song and step out of Dusty's shadow. I just wish the orchestration was a little more original on the song however - clearly the arranger felt it was impossible to sway too far from Dusty's version.
Covering a Carole King song is always a good idea if you have a great voice - let's face it King may be a brilliant songwriter but her singing lets her down.
"So Far Away" works well with a guitar and string based backing, allowing Arena's clear as a bell voice to own the song. This isn't one of Carole King's best songs - personally I'd have preferred to hear Arena tackle "It's Too Late" for instance - however she makes a decent stab at this song.
Originally a US number one hit for Lulu in 1967, "To Sir With Love" is a song which deserves a reassessment and Arena's version hits the spot.
An updated backing brings the song bang up to date, and gives the song a fresh new sound. Arena's vocals are vastly superior to Lulu's nasal tone, albeit they lack a little of the soul Lulu was able to convey in her version. My only complaint about Arena's version is the abrupt ending which left me wanting more. This is, to my mind, the best song on the album.
After the joy of "To Sir with Love" one is brought back to earth with a bump as Arena tackles Kate Bush's 1978 classic "The Man with the Child In His Eyes".
Arena's voice is eerily similar to Bush's on this version and I found her wandering into karaoke territory in places - the only thing that saves it from that dreaded assessment is a lighter on the strings orchestration. It would have been more interesting to hear Arena tackle any other Kate Bush song but one suspects it may have moved her too far from her comfort zone.
When I first heard Diana Ross' original version of "Do You Know Where You're Going To" back in 1975 this song was merely called "Theme from Mahogany" with the actual title relegated to brackets thereafter. I suspect the reason the song was titled thus at the time was because the song was the only decent thing about this turkey of a movie.
The song has, of course, been known as "Do You Know Where You're Going To" for years now as "Mahogany" has thankfully slipped from the public consciousness.
Once again Arena doesn't add much to the song and nor does the arranger, but her voice works well on this song - she isn't as saccharine as Ross and for me it works well as she is sufficiently different in sound to make the song her own.
"Love Hangover" is another Diana Ross song but this one doesn't work for me at all. The backing track pretty lame - the arranger is trying to achieve something sultry but the backing vocals tend to kill off anything even vaguely sensual.
Arena's voice cannot come close to the ecstasy and joy Ross managed to convey in her version - and I say that as someone who isn't a huge fan of Diana Ross' voice.
It's a shame because Arena does at least try to put her own stamp on the track but in the end it's all rather a mish mash and Arena fails to convince at all.
Tackling another Dusty song, "I Only Want to Be With You", Arena eschews the upbeat and fast tempo of the original in favour of a slower arrangement. Backed by guitar and strings, Arena is able to convey the pure happiness of the song solely through her beautiful voice.
I have heard many covers of this song, and it's so refreshing to hear this version which is a true reinterpretation.
The theme from the 1968 version of "The Thomas Crown Affair", "The Windmills of Your Mind" was originally performed by Noel Harrison, who really wasn't a singer.
Arena's version has a lovely salsa style backing which puts one in mind of the late sixties and her voice is sultry here too.
The end result is very successful, with Arena's voice enabling us to hear exactly how good the song is.
I will state now that I hate "Everybody Hurts". I do recall when I first heard REM's version I loved it but the fact it was played to death on radio and TV ensured I quickly tired of it and I have never been able to reclaim my love for it.
Bearing this in mind, I was certain I was going to remain unmoved by Arena's version but much to my amazement, she has managed to make me rediscover what was so special about the song in the first place.
The backing is gentle and subtle too - it lacks the bombast of REM's version, and in particular Michael Stipe's vocals.
By keeping things simple, Arena has got to the heart of the song and the only thing that spoils it for me is the ending when Arena's voice tends to get lost within the inferior backing vocals.
"Woman" and "Until" are both Tina Arena originals. "Woman" originally featured on her 2001 album "Just Me" and is a pleasant enough MOR song but it doesn't really fit on the album for me.
"Until" is a new track for the album and works better as a song but doesn't really seem to fit on the album either - had this album been a nod to 1980s soft rock then I could have seen the point but here it tends to stick out like a sore thumb.
Overall this album is a bit hit and miss for me - when Arena nails a song, she can make it her own, but when she doesn't the results are poor. "Love Hangover" is particularly weak, and I am left to wonder how it made the final cut.
Arena's voice is very pure and as I worked my way through this album I kept asking myself why she wasn't singing a song that would reveal that purity better - for example any Abba song with lead vocals by Agnetha would be perfect for her.
Arena released another covers album in 2008 and I am unsure whether I shall purchase it - this is a very mixed bag and the disappointment over some tracks puts me off having to go through the same experience again.
My advice is try to listen to clips of the songs before you go ahead and buy - when this album works it's amazing, but when it doesn't it's a waste of a true talent.
**Originally posted by me on Ciao in a slightly different version**
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Look of Love
2 I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself
3 So Far Away
4 To Sir with Love
5 Man with the Child in His Eyes
6 Do You Know Where You're Going To
7 Love Hangover
8 I Only Want to Be with You
9 Windmills of Your Mind
10 Everybody Hurts
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Wasn't It Good [Live]
2 Trois Cloches [The Three Bells][Live]
3 You Made Me Find Myself [Live]
4 Now I Can Dance [Live]
5 Sorrento Moon [Live]