Isley Meets Bacharach
Here I Am
Burt Bacharach is one of my all-time favorite composers. There’s something about his idiosyncratic and sometimes angular songwriting that is as close to a marriage of hipster groove and populist pop as music ever got in the ’60s. For the most part, I’ve favored his solo albums over the singles and records he produced for various singers. I will confess, though, that some of the albums he produced for Dionne Warwick have made for excellent thrift store finds. I’ve been more interested in getting the clearest picture of his music, on its own terms, and without having to hear it rearranged to fit a particular vocalist’s limitations. In 2004, however, if I want to pick up a new Bacharach album, I grudgingly have to accept that there are going to be vocals on it. It was with this slight trepidation I went into Here I Am, Bacharach’s collaboration with Ronald Isley.
From the onset, it was obvious that there was going to be some massive re-working of the classics on this album. Isley’s warm, inviting croon is best set in a slow burning, smoky atmosphere, and while songs like “Alfie” and “The Look of Love” exude those qualities naturally, Bacharach went and arranged them better. There isn’t much of a change in instrumentation, only a deeper ebb and flow added to the songs to prolong the intimacy created by Isley’s voice. “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” undergoes the most radical transformation, moving from B.J. Thomas’s old west burlesque to a pensive and yearning piece punctuated by beautiful split seconds of silence in the minimal instrumentation.
It took me a little while to reconcile Isley’s penchant for vocal improvisation with Bacharach’s usually airtight production control, but after a couple of listens I came to understand why Isley is perfect for these songs. He has a knowledge and control over his voice that lets him ebb and flow right along with the musicians. It’s easy to appreciate how Isley’s presence influenced Bacharach to extend his two minute classics into four or five minute mini-epics.
I was hesitantly hoping this would be a good album, and it surpassed my expectations in every way. At this point in their careers, it’s unlikely these two performers will be working together again, but with Bacharach’s catalog going much deeper than the songs contained here, I’d be the first in line for the sequel.