by Scott MooreContributing Writer
As a performer, Liza Minnelli has always been hard to categorize.
An incredible actress, she's a little too "unusual" to fit neatly into most formulaic roles. Her fort has long been considered to be in the "live" concert venue. Most of her album projects have been just that, audio documents that, while worthwhile and listenable, have often failed to communicate her unique personality.
After some personal struggles with drugs and hip replacement surgery last year, Minnelli has finally come up with a concept album that shows a warm and accessible side usually covered by heavy, show-stopping orchestrations and arrangements that hide fragile emotions.
The album, Gently, is a strong collection of standards and ballads. Not that the idea of this kind of an album is original. Barbara Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and Frank Sinatra have all tried it and met with successful results. Toni Tennille (remember her?), Sheena Easton and Sinead O'Connor have all been less successful.
For Minnelli, though, this kind of music seems to fit effortlessly. Her grasp of the lyrics and underlying ideas within each song have never been more on the mark.
"Chances Are," a duet with Johnny Mathis, starts off the set. The sound is lush and sentimental and remains constant for the first few songs. She then perks up the tempo with a jazz-flavored "Close Your Eyes," keeping the mood of the earlier songs while providing the listener with a little variety.
"Some Cats Know" and "Lost In You," both written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, are excellent. The arrangements show the kind of attention to detail that allows both songs to remain faithful to the melody while being milked for their respective dramatic values.
The highlight of the album, though, is "Does He Love You," a duet with Donna Summer between a cheated wife and the other woman. The song was originally recorded for country radio by Reba McIntyre and Linda Davis (her protg and vocal clone), but the pair sounded so much alike that two separate characters were not effectively created.
Both Summer and Minnelli infuse this version with a campy, over-the-top, melodramatic intensity, but it is a guilty pleasure nonetheless.
While this album may not break any new musical ground, Minnelli fans and adult contemporary buffs will enjoy it. Some may be off-put by the vocal dramatics (she doesn't hold back any on the vibrato), but Minnelli reveals a vulnerability that, after seeing her a few times in concert, is the closest she has ever come to that on-stage persona in the recording studio.