Nov 022010

What Neil Diamond means to you depends on your frame of reference. It could mean The Jazz Singer film and soundtrack with the iconic hit “America.” It could mean singing “Sweet Caroline” during the eighth inning of Red Sox games. It could even mean Will Ferrell parodies on Saturday Night Live, but few don’t recognize the name. A prolific songwriter and performer, Neil Diamond sells out arenas and, unlike certain schmaltz-rock peers (read: Billy Joel), regularly releases new material. On his newest disc Dreams, Diamond interprets classic songs by Bill WithersLeonard CohenRandy NewmanThe Eagles and others. Johnny Cash‘s American series remains the most obvious point of comparison for any aging singer releasing back-to-roots covers, but unlike Cash, Diamond chose not to cover any current artists. He didn’t exactly unearth any buried treasures either. No, he chose to cover songs like “Hallelujah” (over 200 covers to date) and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (144). Interpreting standards is a tricky business and albums turn out badly if the artist doesn’t choose the songs and arrangements with care. We’re looking at you, Rod.

Dreams starts strong with a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Stylistically, Diamond’s version doesn’t stray far, but strings, piano, and organ fill out the spare arrangement of the original. The Beatles’ songs included here, “Blackbird” and “Yesterday,” two of the Fab Five’s most-covered tracks, do not stand out in any way. The minor changes made by Diamond complement his voice well enough, but don’t unearth any meaning or insight you haven’t heard a hundred times before. The pair of Randy Newman covers, “Feels Like Home” and “Losing You,” marry well with the road-weary timbre of his voice and remind us how concisely Newman can tell stories. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” one of the more upbeat suicide songs around, benefits from the mature tones in Diamond’s voice, bringing O’Sullivan’s hopelessness sharply into focus .

While none kill the record on their own, the missteps just keep coming. On his cover of “Hallelujah,” Diamond draws inspiration from Jeff Buckley’s version of the song rather than the original. This cliché choice does nothing to differentiate his version from the other 200 versions we can choose from. “Desperado” highlights an eccentricity in Diamond’s phrasing on this album. Rather than hold the “oooh” at the end of “Desperado,” he clips the note short. These abrupt breaks become increasingly annoying as the song progresses.

Diamond actually sings one original on Dreams, but not all listeners will realize he penned “I’m a Believer.” His version, released as a single five years after The Monkees’ #1 hit, never charted. In the current revision of his song, Diamond slows the tempo, replaces electric guitar with acoustic, and sucks all the fun out of the song. The song’s tone suggests Diamond is locked in a basement, chained to the water heater. That gives the line “I couldn’t leave her if I tried” a completely new meaning. It’s not pleasant.

Neil Diamond’s Dreams will not bring him a new legion of fans, but Diamondheads will enjoy his safe interpretations. Diamond puts his stamp on several songs, highlighted by his cover of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” making it worth taking the album for a spin.

Dreams Track Listing:
01. Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers cover)
02. Blackbird (The Beatles cover)
03. Alone Again (Naturally) (Gilbert O’Sullivan cover)
04. Feels Like Home (Randy Newman cover)
05. Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight & the Pips cover)
06. I’m A Believer (original)
07. Love Song (Elton John cover)
08. Losing You (Randy Newman cover)
09. Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
10. Leon Russell, “A Song for You”
11. Yesterday (The Beatles cover)
12. Let It Be Me (The Everly Brothers cover)
13. Desperado (The Eagles cover)
14. Don’t Forget Me (Harry Nilsson cover)

Check out more Neil Diamond at his website or on MySpace.

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  15 Responses to “Review: Neil Diamond, ‘Dreams’”

Comments (15)
  1. I heard hin in concert (live) on BBC radio 2 Electric Proms at the weekend. Not a bad performance, but I do agree that his choice of material for this new album is somewhat unadventurous. The live version of I’m a believer on the radio show wasn’t half bad. Perhaps it sounds better live than it does on the album. Neil D is one of those performers I’ve always found difficult to categorise. Some of the stuff he has written borders on genius, and some borders on gorganzola. His voice generally saves the day though, and there’s no doubting that he has written and performed some scorching pop songs.

  2. Hey here is a great idea, why not take the sideways pointless jab at Billy Joel out of the review? It holds no connection to the review of the album. If Billy Joel had a similar album, or a simlar cover then there would be something worth comparing, but as it stands it comes of as pointlessly meanspirted and not as an intellegent review of a product. Another bit of construtive critisim (though this might just be a typo) the track list #9 and #10 aren’t formated like the rest of the list.

  3. critisism is spelt critisism, but it might just be a typo :)

  4. ooop. Hoist by my own petard! critisism is spelt critisism, but it might just be a typo

  5. The throw away Billy Joel line gets a comment, but the direct stab at Rod Stewart nothing?

  6. Yeah was at work and typing fast so my spelling suffered, you got me there =]. I don’t have a problem with the jab at Rod Stewart because he is relevant to the topic. He constantly is putting out records of standards with what appears to be songs chosen at random(thought I like some of them). Now don’t get me wrong I think this is a well written article and basically agree with it 100% on the album, but I just get a little sick of needless jabs that don’t seem to fit. Even though I love Billy Joel, I wouldn’t have minded if one of the songs sounded like Billy Joel and you said it in derogatory way. I would just chalk it up to difference of opinion and let it go.

  7. @ Bill – You’re not actually Billy J are you? ;-)

  8. Was a really huge fan of Diamond in the past, The Jazz Singer was the hook, line and sinker for me…
    Eventually got involved with feelings of my own heart, though I must say Diamond has inspired endless amounts of souls on this earth and regardless of a weak realease he will always be a geniune diamond in so many lifes!!

  9. Time for Neil to go into retirement, his last two albums are totally lifeless and BORING to listen to. I have all his albums, but I will not be buying any more

  10. His cover of “Love Song” (recorded by Elton John once upon a time) is pretty good. It’s a song I’ve always felt could be a hit. Neil’s version isn’t better than Elton’s but it’s nice he felt it was a good enough song to include with these other classics.

  11. 2011 Neil just recently Sydney Australia. I had the privilege to witness a true entertainer!

    He is one of the all time greats…it’s as simple as that!

  12. 2011 Neil just recently played Acer Arena Sydney Australia. I had the privilege to witness a true entertainer!

    He is one of the all time greats…it’s as simple as that!

  13. Sorry… That should’ve read “potshot.” I also managed to misspell “to” as well. Sheesh.

    The point is, Billy’s great.

  14. There’s this old joke about there being only two kinds of people in the world-those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t. When you consider only 10% of the world’s population is what’s known as hypersensitive, he clearly is not speaking to or for the masses. His song choices were the ones HE wished to record and we must respect his choices. I do agree with Jayson that “Love Song” could certainly be a hit-I have worn the track out on the cd already. Oh,when Elton sang it, it was a cover song of UK’s Lesley Duncan. I remember the two of them doing a duet of it. So let’s give credit where credit is due shall we? His voice is unique and I hope it’s never ever silenced…

  15. The Fab Five?

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