For the Stars
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For the Stars is the kind of record rock critics tend to instinctively praise because they just aren't sure if they get it, and they're afraid to lay themselves on the line. If they pan it, well, they're just junk-addled boors. If they praise it, they risk seeming uninformed, since they don't really know if it works as a classical work or not. The thing to remember is, that these kind of rock/classical crossovers belong to neither realm. They exist outside of both worlds, which is their charm and their curse. This is what plagued The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello's 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, which managed to delicately walk the line between chamber music and baroque pop. For the Stars, a collaboration with opera vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter, is more accessible, yet it isn't as successful, largely because its mannerisms are front and center. This is a deliberately "classy" project, pitched squarely at the NPR audience — the very audience that embraced Painted From Memory because it helped put Bacharach in the context of the great composers. This won't likely do the same for von Otter, because its execution is a little haphazard, even if it is exactly what the two planned. For the Stars winds through a number of pop songs, ranging from new Costello songs to pop standards, from old Elvis favorites to covers of the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, Ron Sexsmith, ABBA, and Tom Waits. Most of this is executed in a manner similar to The Juliet Letters, finding a middle ground between classicist pop and chamber music without bowing to the conventions of either. Above all, this is frequently interesting music, but that's not really the same thing as compelling. It's easy to appreciate the passion and craft behind this music, but it often feels unfulfilled, even when it feels complete. This is not the fault of either musician — von Otter's performances are always impassioned, Costello's few vocals are strong, the selection of material always makes sense, and the production is suitably understated. Still, this is a record that clicks cerebrally, not emotionally, and while it has its own character, it's hard to envision fans of either artist returning to it all that often. [A Japanese version added a bonus track.]
I hear Anne Sofie sings Take It With Me live a few days ago. Her voice is absolutely the most soothing female voice in existence, and she puts the same musical effort into Tom Waits as she puts into Mahler. Costello was right in choosing to collaborate with her. They both know music.
This is the best of classical meeting the best of rock. An unclassifiable CD. Van Otter is far from her classical background and Costello far from home. However this sounds right. The voice of Van Otter gets so sensual (The other woman) and emotional (Broken Bicycles). Something magic is happening here. This is clever music played together. A little jewell.
I actually bought this CD way back in 2001 when I saw Annie Sofie and Elvis on David Letterman. Elvis' performance on the live rendition of "For The Stars" was so passionate I ran out and bought the cd the next day. Disappointed? Very. I give the iTunes 2 stars and here's why: As great a singer as Annie Sofie is she does not and cannot deliver a convincing performance.