Saturday, December 19, 2020

In a Sentimental Mood (1989)

I don't plan on making a habit of this, but I was back at the Amazon review salt mines to help get a bead on this Dr. John album from the late '80s. As an early version of a bona fide rock star taking on the Tin Pan Alley American songbook, with some reverence (I guess Willie Nelson was first? and then Linda Ronstadt?), this album has always basically won me over, ups, downs, and all. But I see I am out of step with many of the Amazon reviewers, who tend to single out the opening-track duet with Rickie Lee Jones, "Makin' Whoopee." The song later appeared in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, which even I can't believe I still haven't seen. But, in a word: No. For me, it's one of the bigger sequencing mistakes in album history, up there with Bruce Springsteen starting Born in the U.S.A. with that album's worst song. That case might be slightly worse because it's also the title song. But "Makin' Whoopee" is close, a cloying tribute to hammy 1920s innuendo that is approximately 90% cringe. Yes, OK, sentimental mood means nostalgia, and December is a good month for indulging sentimental music, but "Makin' Whoopee" is a rubicon I can't quite cross. You might feel the same here about, for example, "My Buddy" (like "Makin' Whoopee" a collaboration between songwriters Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson), a tender ballad that reliably works on me, especially when I think about cats and dogs I've known. I hope the point where we can all agree is in the mostly instrumental workups of "Love for Sale" and especially the title song, which remind us that the piano was Dr. John's main instrument when all is said and done, a student of Professor Longhair and master in his own right. He bangs it with finesse, restrained power, and joy, carrying the tracks to winning crescendos. The Duke Ellington collaboration "In a Sentimental Mood" is simply gorgeous, featuring the orchestral arrangements that dominate these tracks. I've always been more agnostic on strings than some of the naysayers of the '60s era—ultimately I was OK with B.B. King's turn to them, for example—but I note the pervasive presence on this album as it may be a deal breaker for many. Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," by contrast, has more of the uptempo boogie-woogie feel, which suits the song and Dr. John's bumptious play. The surging horn charts by Marty Paich on the bridge remind me weirdly of something I can't quite put my finger on from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It might be "More Than a Woman" or some other song, but I think it's David Shire's "Manhattan Skyline." At least it's a good excuse to point to that oft-overlooked silky high point of the soundtrack album, and while I'm at it to encourage everyone sometime to get to Shire's masterpiece movie soundtrack, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, one of the best in the '70s and a pretty good gritty New York City crime movie too. Dr. John, In a Sentimental Mood—oh yes, where was I? Pretty good album if you can take the sucrose levels. High points, low points. This one's got it all. Enjoy with wine.

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