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Bryan Ferry tackles the '30s

By Richard C. Walls

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  There's a certain inevitability about Bryan Ferry's new As Time Goes By (Virgin). He's been leaning toward this for a long time, ever since his first solo project, 1973's These Foolish Things, revealed his fondness for covers and his desire to cultivate a style of studied sophistication informed less by irony than by ennui. Although there was always a soupçon of camp encapsulated in Ferry's flavorless vibrato, his aim, which sharpened over the years, was to approximate a distinctly modern world-weariness/romanticism without any pulsating passion, stylishness without the endearing vocal curlicues of the traditional cabaret singer. By '94's Mamouna, he'd become an acquired taste for jaded palettes, the robot of choice for devotees of conceptual eloquence. On that disc, a collection of Ferry originals, he crooned with his perfected blend of detachment and remorse; electronic aids cooed suggestively in the background and there wasn't a decent melody in sight.

That was considered a pretty good effort by fans. And it was, in its cool and dreamy way. But it demonstrated how closed and repetitious Ferry's musical world had become. So it's no surprise that the clockwork lounge lizard has decided, with this new one, to take on the ancient repertoire directly, to go to the source of his image, if not his techno-laconic style. The surprise is how the disc sounds, how replication is present but one has to scour intensely to discern irony, and how Ferry has come as close as he probably ever will to sounding, if not quite warm, then nearly human.

There's a little subtle trickery involved in that last achievement. Ferry's vocals are recorded to sound very close, possibly so that he won't have to compete with the acoustic swing-oriented jazz combo who accompany him on most of the tracks; and this allows him to lie back as far as he wants -- when the vocal track is presented so up close and personal, it takes only a well-enunciated whisper to make an impression. I don't want to credit engineering totally for his expressive hoarseness here, but the primacy of his placement in the mix gives the disc its signature sound, an unmitigated intimacy that one doesn't really associate with this singer.

Ferry has chosen songs from the '30s and the late '20s, and with 15 selections clocking in at just under 45 minutes, he's kept things short and sweet. Only one song, "I'm in the Mood for Love," has an interpretive aura -- which reminds us that the singer started out as a bona fide weird guy (and probably it's no coincidence that this is the only cut with old Roxy mate Phil Manzanera guesting, albeit discreetly, on guitar). Spiced by two bandoneon players (and two synth operators), "I'm in the Mood for Love" has a midnight-at-the-oasis feel, complete with crickets singing from the fronds. There's also someone whispering a poem in the background, in French (I think -- it's pretty well buried), as a bit of surplus thickening for old fans who might be starved for a pretentious gesture or two. Ferry plays it straight, though, and doesn't come close to replacing what is, for many boomers, the touchstone version delivered by Alfalfa in a particularly moving Little Rascals episode.

Neither does Ferry's rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight" replace Fred Astaire's. But it is a good example of his new-found, loose-limbed jauntiness, the way, when goosed by a jazz septet, he doesn't exactly swing but at least lets a few stray strands of hair fall across his forehead as he removes one cufflink. Similarly, on Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me," he floats easily over the song's mid-tempo strut, though the ever-present mike-in-face approach makes him sound less intimate than borderline bronchial.

Oddly, it's the two songs you'd think were tailor-made for his persona that are the least successful. Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable To Lunch Today)" is caviar for any self-respecting ironist with its juxtaposing of high-society protocol and purple passion. Miss Otis, it seems, has "strayed," has shot an errant lover and been jailed and then dragged from her cell by an angry lynch mob. The song is apparently being sung by a butler addressing a lady who has come to call on Miss Otis; he ends his tale with "And the moment before she died/She lifted up her lovely head and cried, 'Madam,/Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today.' " This is rich, but Ferry sings it like a sad lament, as though he weren't in on the joke.

The other disappointment is "Falling in Love Again," Marlene Dietrich's siren song from the 1930 film The Blue Angel. Ferry's version has none of the sarcastic vampire ambiance of the original -- in fact, it comes very close to schmaltz.

But generally he does pretty well. Granted, As Time Goes By seems aimed at people who don't listen to songs of this sort very often. Ferry's not that good, and so many better, more perceptive and nuanced versions exist. But he dabbles with sincerity and a decidedly old-fashioned sense of fun.

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