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Album Review

Although the term "classic rock" was coined for radio formatting, to distinguish the pop music of the late '60s and '70s from what came after, it carries a baby boomer's presumption of superior quality, and that presumption plays into the concept of Susan Werner's album of '60s and '70s cover songs, called Classics. The title also offers the hint that Werner intends to take the concept a step further by presenting arrangements of songs by America, the Animals, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, and Stevie Wonder that tie them into what is traditionally called classical music, even to the point of sprinkling in quotes from compositions by Bach, Chopin, Rodrigo, Satie, and Vivaldi here and there, as the music is played by chamber instruments including a string quartet, classical guitars, piano, and a few reeds and horns. It sounds like a pretentious idea, and the results sometimes are as pretentious as might be expected; it seems to depend on the song. In the album's press release, Werner is quoted as saying, "It seemed to me a chamber music approach to pop songs could reveal the poetry and impact of some of these lyrics in ways that groove-driven arrangements completely overlook." Certainly, the approach places an emphasis on the lyrics, not always to the benefit of the songs. In particular, America's "Lonely People" and Marley's "Waiting in Vain" don't have lyrics strong enough to support the spotlight being shone on them here, even with Werner's thoughtful, sympathetic vocal interpretations. (In fact, if anything, the interpretations make them sound even worse.) On the other hand, the Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" comes off so well the listener may wish Werner had done an entire album of Brian Wilson compositions. In between, songs such as Paul Simon's "A Hazy Shade of Winter" sound much as they always did, even if that's a cello playing the driving main riff instead of a guitar. Werner has wisely identified a problem with classic rock: many of its songs are so identified with particular recordings that the songs-as-compositions are difficult to distinguish from them. In order for those songs truly to emerge as long-term standards, it may be necessary for them to be appreciated apart from the versions that gave them their initial recognition. But the concept is one thing, and the execution another. Classics is a well-intentioned, but unevenly realized effort.


Born: Manchester, IA

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Blessed with a great voice and great guitar and piano chops, the multi-talented Susan Werner put it all together and was on the cusp of success with ever-larger U.S., Canadian and European audiences. Her major-label debut, Last of the Good Straight Girls (1995), on Private Music, was being eaten up by adult alternative album radio stations around the U.S. But two years later, her record company was unceremoniously merged into Windham Hill, another subsidiary of BMG, in early 1997, sending her release...
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Classics, Susan Werner
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