Baby, it's them

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Bacharach once seemed a thing of the past--a vestige of a time when pop music was opulent and untold, when Bacharach's cotton-candy strings swelled with misty-eyed grandeur and women named Dionne and Cilla and Dusty turned Hal David's lyrics about heartbreak and hurt into the stuff of adult poetry. Bacharach has of late been lionized by the lounge crowd, the sharkskin swingers who take their Bacharach with a little Martini & Rossi on ice. Somewhere between the hit parade and royalty-rate retirement--between "The Look of Love" greatness and "That's What Friends Are For" detritus--Bacharach became the missing link, the long-lost influence, the hero cited by the alternarock crowd when its members seek to wrap themselves in the cred of Cool. But don't be fooled by the Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Stipe and Oasis endorsements; you don't need John Grisham to tell you William Faulkner was a good writer.

And you don't need someone like John Zorn or Shonen Knife to remind you either, no matter how heartfelt the sentiments. It's sadly ironic that a good deal of the songs on Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach--a "tribute" released on Zorn's own Tzadik label as part of his ongoing Radical Jewish Culture project--has chosen to celebrate the man's immortal music by so completely screwing around with it that you can't recognize the results without looking at the song list. What, after all, is the point of paying homage to one of the greatest melody writers and arrangers of all time by allowing Joey Baron to reduce "Alfie," among the most complex and heartbreaking melodies Bacharach ever penned, to nothing more than a drum solo?

The same goes for versions of Bacharach's songs covered on the recently released tribute album What the World Needs Now..., featuring Shonen Knife and the Wondermints and so many unknown indie-rockers treating Bacharach's songs as though they were disposable tissues. Bacharach, for his part, doesn't listen to others' interpretations of his music. He is flattered by McCoy Tyner's recent album of his compositions, What the World Needs Now (can you say original?), but uninterested in the idea of actually playing it.

"I just saw the sheet music someone sent me from Australia of 'I Say a Little Prayer' by Diana King [from My Best Friend's Wedding]," Bacharach said in November. "I'm glad the record is a hit, and I was curious about the sheet music. And sure enough, they had changed the piano bar and time signature on the chorus to match with how Diana King does it on the record. If you ask me do I like it better that what I wrote originally, the answer is no--it doesn't make any sense. But it made sense to them.

"It's funny--I can't go in for listening to my material. I have a hard time with it. You know, it's not even that I'm going to feel uncomfortable hearing it. I'm very happy they did it. But maybe it's partially that I don't want to be disappointed. And another part is that I want to think ahead."

Which is probably why, until earlier this year, only a handful of Bacharach's original A&M releases remained in print--the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Casino Royale soundtracks and the horrible, hooked-on-Muzak 1987 Greatest Hits that sounds as though it was recorded in a dentist's waiting room. But within recent months, various labels have reissued most of his older albums, in addition to something titled The Burt Bacharach Songbook. Rykodisc has also just issued the Bacharach's soundtrack to After the Fox, which features Peter Sellers and the Hollies performing the hysterical Bacharach-David-penned title tune.

But more impressive is Rhino Records' The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-disc boxed set that dates back to 1957's "The Story of My Life," performed by Marty Robbins, and Perry Como's take on "Magic Moments." It's a thrillingly comprehensive compendium of the magic Bacharach and David created together, a collection of songs that span the distance from country ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") to kitsch (the title track to The Blob and What's New Pussycat?) to so much glorious R&B (the Drifters' "Please Stay" and Chuck Jackson's "I Wake Up Crying") to the dozens of pop treasures performed by the likes of Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black, Tom Jones, Jackie DeShannon, Herb Alpert, and Dusty Springfield.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky