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Tucson Weekly The Burt's Back Racket

How Is It That A Master Of '70s Cheese Is A Late '90s Musical Guru?

By Dave McElfresh

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  IMAGINE A 1988 psychic predicting that in 1998 Burt Bacharach--a '60s-era composer who wrote hits for unhip popsters like the Carpenters, Herb Alpert, Dionne Warwick, The Fifth Dimension and B.J. Thomas--would become hot stuff among a jaded music crowd young enough to be his grandkids. "Yeah, right," you'd say, "and the Enquirer says Jesus will be back in time for the Rose Bowl."

But, oddly, it happened--or rather, is happening--with Bacharach's career in full swing again. The first paean was last year's tribute album, What The World Needs Now..., where young whippersnappers like Splitsville and Shonen Knife covered "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" and "I Say A Little Prayer." This year, we've got The Look Of Love, a well-researched, three-disc career overview on Rhino Records, and Rykodisc's reissue of Bacharach's soundtrack to What's New Pussycat?, complete with CD-ROM videoclip from the movie. Then there's label N2K's soundtrack to the TV special, Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night (featuring Chrissie Hynde, Sheryl Crow, Mike Myers, Ben Folds Five and others), and several reissues of 30-plus-year-old Bacharach albums. Most impressive, though, is his recent writing collaboration with Elvis Costello, Painted From Memory, which proves that Bacharach isn't content to settle for the nostalgia thang.

How in hell did this weird Burt revival come to be? There are loads of reasons why it shouldn't have. His career resurrection falls outside the usually accurate 20-Year Revisitation Theory (where '90s music fans return to '70s disco, just as '70s American Graffiti fans brought about a '50s music revival). And his occasional post-'60s collaborations with Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, Neil Diamond and Elton John were uniformly dreadful, canceling out any possibility that he's been an overlooked, formidable presence in music all along.

As with anything complicated--and music trends are definitely that--most likely more than one reason lies behind the Hey-Burt phenomenon. Here are some possibilities:

  • Being cool is always a matter of bucking whatever's been current too long. The badass/shock value schtick has pretty well worn itself out, with one band or another appearing naked onstage or representing Satan Hisself. Where do you go from there? Nowhere but the other direction, where the uncool becomes cool--from Sean Lennon's doofus horn-rimmed glasses to flare pants to acid jazz's bastardization of bossa nova to a revival of interest in Bacharach.

  • Pop music has become secure enough with its inherent faddishness that it can afford to poke fun at previous incarnations. Mike Myers' Austin Powers, which featured Bacharach in a cameo, is the best recent example. While those old enough to actually remember the '60s wince at the attempts at pseudo-hipness Myers painfully exhumes, Bacharach's music floats in the background like a buoy, 30-some years after the passage of our groovy youthfulness. It brings to mind a sinking feeling.

  • The recent so-uncool-it's-cool lounge scene seems to have begun with adolescents hungry for music, but either unwilling or unable to drop the better part of 20 bucks for a CD. Thrift shops had loads of music for as cheap as a quarter an album, leading to experimentation with donated, post-divorce record collections featuring Esquivel, The Mystic Moods Orchestra, Tom Jones and Bacharach. All of them have since come to represent a new definition of cool.

  • Anyone wanting further, post-career attention in pop music does well by succumbing to one form or another of tragedy or kitsch. Karen Carpenter ("Close To You") died of anorexia, and Dionne Warwick (responsible for too many Bacharach hits to count) represented a goofy psychic network that couldn't even predict its own bankruptcy. Tom Jones ("What's New Pussycat?") was Vegas machismo all the way. Scott Walker ("Any Day Now," "Make It Easy On Yourself") became the intriguing musical equivalent of recluse J.D. Salinger. All of these off-kilter artists unintentionally kept Bacharach's material from sounding too cutesy.

  • While hip-hop has become popular due to its updating of funk rhythms stretching back to the '40s, it remains melodically as monotone as a refrigerator hum. Sorry, DJ Wunnote, but we gotta have some melody. And apart from (and usually equaling) the Beatles, nobody's more melodic than Bacharach.

The musicians paying tribute to Bacharach on his recent television special are figures at least a generation older than many of the viewing audience. So, a 43-year-old Costello and a 36-year-old Sheryl Crow, who grew up in homes with a family record collection containing Bacharach's stuff, pass on their appreciation to those fewer in years, the same way other artists have led the under-20 bunch into checking out the Beatles.

Even today, Bacharach is still churning out some serious shit, as is evident on the Costello collaboration; and in particular, the obvious future standard, "This House Is Empty Now." If you want to conjure your own psychic vision for pop's future--one that Warwick would do well to invest in--bet that Bacharach will soon pair up with other singers and writers for albums that'll further validate his status as a popular composer, on par with Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim.


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