Prime Cuts: Rainy Days and Mondays, Love Me or Leave Me, Send in the Clowns
"Portraits" was initially released in Australia in 2004 under a different monikor "Indigo." This album finds the Aussie bred chanteuse reaching back into the vaults for 11 songs (all ballads) often associated with female singers. To flaunt her versatility, Newton-John has chosen songs from artists as diverse as Barbara Streisand to Doris Day to Karen Carpenter to Julie London to Joan Baez to Dionne Warwick. Indubitably, comparisons are bound to be made with the originals. However, being a vocalist nonpareil, Newton-John's signature vocals is what sets this album apart. After all these years, her voice is still visceral and she still has a poignant élan.
Veteran producer Phil Ramone (who has also helmed the latest albums by Tony Bennett and Barry Manilow) is to be congratulated for not confining these songs to a specific style of production. In fact, each cut almost bears its own identity. Framed by some Arcadian sounding saxophone, Astrud Gilberto's "How Insensitive" is given a bossa nova make over as Newton-John contemplates the awkwardness of a Dear John moment. On the other hand, the Doris Day ballad "Love Me or Leave Me" is orotund sounding with Newton-John's spot on vocals delivered with sensitivity and verve. Minnie Ripperton's pop chestnut "Loving You" is given a languid reading without, albeit disappointingly, the shrieking glass shattering high notes of the original. Of note, however, is that Lisa Fischer (the former backing vocalist of Luther Vandross and the one who brought us the classic "How Can I Ease the Pain") offers her gorgeously soulful backing vocals here as well as on the R&B tingled "Anyone Who Has a Heart."
No doubt, the highlight is Newton-John's take of Karen Carpenter's devastating beautiful "Rainy Days and Mondays." Though no one could possibly rival Carpenter's gut wrenching version, Newton-John's reading comes close. Spine thrilling moments abound as the starkness of loneliness is expounded: "What I've got they used to call the blues/Nothin' is really wrong/Feelin' like I don't belong/Walkin' around/Some kind of lonely clown/Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down." Similarly affecting is the Barbara Streisand/Judy Collins' "Send in the Clowns." Eschewing Streisand's theatrical rendition, Newton-John's approach is understated with the right dose of melancholy on this haunting Broadway classic of heartbreak.
Other than the fact that "How Glad Am I" suffers from some corny 60s feel, this is a sturdy album. With its share of interesting (and often less known) covers coupled by Newton-John's acerbic interpretations, "Portraits" is a winsome return to form.