It was the best of Streisand, it was the worst of Streisand
The idea of “outtakes” — songs recorded by an artist during sessions for an album, but which for whatever reason don’t make the final running order — has fascinated me ever since I dropped 15 bucks on “Still On the Edge,” a bootleg collection of Bruce Springsteen demos and studio outtakes, back in the early 1980s.
It both thrilled and mystified me to learn that there was such a surplus of material like this languishing in the vaults — and not just by Springsteen, but also by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and pretty much any other prolific recording artist you could name. Thrilled, because it’s always a treat to discover “new” songs from a favorite band, especially ones that date from a particularly celebrated period of their career. And mystified, because more than a few of these outtakes would have been strong enough to hold their own in the artists’ official discographies; and yet, they were tossed aside like so many busted drum heads, and for the longest time were available only to die-hard fans who were willing to endure the high prices and low fidelity of bootlegs in order to actually hear them.
Obviously, there are numerous reasons why a finished recording, however pleasing it may be to a fan’s ears, might not have made the final track listing of the album it was recorded for. Maybe it didn’t capture the sound that the artist heard in their head. Maybe they didn’t think it meshed with mood, sound or vibe of the other tracks. Or maybe they’d simply gotten bored with it after running through too many takes. But the existence of these discarded songs — many of which began receiving official release during the CD boom of the 1990s, either as bonus tracks on CD reissues of older albums or on collections entirely devoted to archival material — nevertheless provided ample grist for debate. How might an artist’s album (or career) have differed if these tracks had seen the light of day back when they were originally recorded? Did the eventual release of these songs further enhance the artist’s reputation? Did the artist (or their producers) make the right choice to leave these recordings “in the can?”
Barbra Streisand’s new “Release Me 2” provokes similar questions. Like its predecessor, 2012’s “Release Me,” this new collection unearths a smattering of previously-unreleased recordings from Babs’ back pages. Though some additional production work was recently applied to half of the album’s 10 tracks, all of them feature her original vocal performances, which were recorded over a span of more than half a century — 1962 to 2014, to be precise. And while the collection is obviously a must-own for any hardcore Streisand completist, “Release Me 2” is also uneven enough to make you wonder if she wouldn’t have been better served by keeping some of these tracks under wraps.
The Streisand voice is in full effect throughout, of course — an instrument so dynamic it seems to come complete with its own graphic equalizer. If the staggered chronology of the track order makes for a not-entirely-cohesive listen (for example, her 1974 recording of Carole King’s “You Light Up My Life” is immediately followed by “I’d Want It to Be You,” a 2014 duet with Willie Nelson), it’s still pretty amazing how supple and powerful her pipes have remained over the lengthy course of her career.
“Be Aware,” the album’s opening track, is peak Streisand — and also a performance that most of her fans are probably already well familiar with. Recorded for the 1971 TV special “Singer Presents Burt Bacharach,” the song is a classic Bacharach/David consciousness-raiser a la “What the World Needs Now,” reminding the listener of the hunger and deprivation that exists outside of their comfortable bubble. But though she sang the hell out of it for the special, and though Bacharach even claimed on the show that he’d written the song for her (a claim which may or may not have deeply irked longtime Bacharach muse Dionne Warwick, who recorded it shortly thereafter), Streisand’s performance of “Be Aware” has never been officially released on an album until now. It makes a very welcome addition to the official Streisand catalog, as does her heart-tugging version of Randy Newman’s “Living Without You” (recorded in 1971 for the “Stoney End” album) and the show-stopping “Sweet Forgiveness,” a ballad written by Walter Afanasieff and John Bettis that Streisand recorded in 1994.
Also noteworthy is the inclusion of Streisand’s 1962 recording of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Right As The Rain,” which was one of a handful of tracks that she recorded before waxing her 1963 debut “The Barbra Streisand Album.” Though she’d re-record the song for 1963’s “The Second Barbra Streisand Album,” the version on Release Me 2 is a lovely and fascinating reminder of how fully-formed her talents already were at the age of 20. “Once You’ve Been In Love,” a Bergman/Legrand composition originally recorded in 1973 — on which Streisand pulls out all the dramatic stops in front of an orchestra conducted by Michel Legrand — is another impressive performance that makes you wonder why it was locked away for so long. Ditto for “One Day (A Prayer),” a Bergman/Legrand peace anthem recorded in 1968 with Don Costa conducting.
And then, unfortunately, there are three tracks on Release Me 2 that make you wonder why they weren’t sealed up for all eternity, preferably with a Tutankhamun-like curse to prevent future generations from exhuming them. The aforementioned Willie Nelson duet is one of them; recorded for Streisand’s 2014 duets album “Partners,” “I’d Want It to Be You” is an ear-gougingly hokey concoction filled with lyrical references to the participants’ respective hits (Willie: “You’ll be always on my mind.” Barbra: “We’ll stay the way we were!”) and delivered with the utter lack of excitement it fully warrants. A muffled iPhone recording of Willie and Barbra getting stoned on together on Willie’s tour bus would have been far more compelling.
Speaking of substances, Kermit the Frog must have been in the throes of a brutal tequila hangover during the 1979 session for his and Barbra’s duet of “The Rainbow Connection,” because I haven’t heard a Muppet sounding this bummed-out since Jim Henson’s funeral. Or maybe Kermit’s dragginess has something to do with the fact that the song has been transposed down a full step from the “Muppet Movie” version, ostensibly to better fit Streisand’s range. Even so, their voices or performances do not mesh at all, with Streisand seemingly unsure of whether she wants to sing the melody or around it; she also occasionally interrupts the song’s the dreamy wistfulness with enunciation so precise that even Gilbert & Sullivan might have counseled her to dial it down a notch.
And then there’s “If Only You Were Mine,” an outtake from “Guilty Pleasures,” her 2005 collaboration with Barry Gibb. That album and its Gibb-helmed 1980 predecessor Guilty provided some of Streisand’s finest pop moments, so the presence of the head Bee Gee on a previously unreleased cut is enticing indeed. Unfortunately, the song pretty much defines “throwaway,” an unfinished two-and-a-half-minute trifle which — despite Gibb’s vocal presence on the track — doesn’t really qualify as a duet; he merely shows up halfway through the song to run out the clock with some wordless “bum-bum-bum-bum” vocals. “I like your bum-bums,” Barbra giggles, gamely trying to add some life to the track, but even she sounds unconvinced.
As the only recording artist to top the Billboard 200 in six different decades, and someone who has received no shortage of well-deserved honors and awards, Barbra Streisand clearly doesn’t need to worry about having her impressive legacy besmirched by a few awful tracks on a compilation of outtakes. But since she’s hinted in interviews that there’s plenty more unreleased stuff of hers where this came from, one can’t help but wonder why these obvious barrel-scrapings were allowed to take the place of more rewarding material. And in an age where archival releases of iconic artists have practically become a cottage industry — see Bob Dylan’s 16-volume-and-counting “Bootleg Series” — one wonders why Streisand or her people wouldn’t offer her devoted legion of fans something more than this relatively skimpy selection of odds and sods.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music writer.