"Concert master." The mere sight of those words in the credits for Now induces a warm rush of delight. It means that Burt Bacharach and Hal David's impeccable songwriting has been respected. It means that Dionne Warwick is surrounded by strings and brass, the kind of instrumentation that was so integral to her run of hits in the 1960s. Those two words appear not once but five times on Now, an album commemorating Warwick's 50th anniversary as a recording artist.
Even listeners with only a cursory knowledge of Dionne Warwick will immediately notice that Now partly draws on the past, specifically the singer's own catalog. It's a concept that's been tested on a number of occasions in recent memory. Dionne Sings Dionne (1998), the Japan-only Dionne Sings Dionne Vol. 2 (2000), and the My Friends and Me (2006) duets project were all shaped by contemporary takes on songs like "Walk On By" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart" -- songs that could scarcely be improved upon in the first place. The good news is that Now is the classiest, most laudable effort of the bunch.
The album's musical appeal is largely due to producer Phil Ramone. Before becoming one of the most prolific producers in all of popular music, he engineered a number of Warwick's historic sessions with Bacharach and David. He's familiar not only with the singer but the challenging structure of the material. Ramone ensures that quality is not compromised on Now. Like last year's Only Trust Your Heart (2011), the production values here befit an artist of Warwick's stature and sophistication. Between Ramone's discerning ear, a repertoire selection that encompasses more than Warwick's greatest hits, and the obvious love and care that pervades the set's 12-page booklet, Now emerges as an elegant celebration.
Warwick's new interpretations of classic hits -- "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," "Don't Make Me Over," "I Say A Little Prayer," among others -- might bait uninitiated listeners but the album's real gems are found in the singer's renditions of lesser known songs and/or compositions that Bacharach and David each wrote with other songwriters. "Love Is Still the Answer" falls into the latter category. Written by Bacharach and Tonio K, the song appeared on Bacharach's full-length collaboration with Ron Isley, Here I Am (2003). The dusky, mature tone of Warwick's voice suits the wise perspective of the song's narrator, someone who experienced a moment when the world was "good and sound, freedom bound" but is now reconciling the thought that "gratitude has been reversed ... nothing works and everybody hurts." Rob Mounsey (piano), Henry Hey (keyboards), David Finck (bass), Ben Butler (guitar), and Mark McLean (drums) anchor the song with a light groove. In fact, they're the heart of Now, furnishing the album with a musical backdrop that complements the earthy textures of Warwick's voice.
The artist successfully reclaims two songs from Dionne (1972), the first album she recorded for Warner Bros. after her reign at Scepter and the last one produced by Bacharach and David. "Be Aware" is still relevant. It's a subtly powerful portrait that depicts the gulf between those who live with abundance and those who struggle with hunger and homelessness. The waltz-like tempo and assorted musical accents give the song a storybook feel, with Warwick guiding listeners through each illustrated page. "I Just Have to Breathe," which opened Dionne, has only grown more poignant over the past 40 years. "There are needs we have when we are young and discard as we mature. Time can change so much, the only certain thing is nothing sure," Warwick sings, telegraphing truth in every syllable. Though her voice has obviously aged and is imbued with a deeper resonance, she can still wring meaning from a Hal David lyric like no other vocalist.
That's especially true in her update of "Make It Easy On Yourself." It's a contemplative reading, one where Warwick relishes each word, despite the dissolution of a love affair. Ramone and his team of mixers and engineers should be commended for keeping the vocals free of any discernible Auto-Tuning here and on the rest of the album. This is Warwick's voice, unadorned. Approaching 72, she's earned each raspy quiver, each twinge of ache behind the notes.
"99 Miles From LA" is arguably the album's most satisfying piece. Ramone's production has that unique fusion of breeziness and high drama that characterized so many of Warwick's late-'60s and early-'70s albums. After dissolving his partnership with Bacharach in the early-'70s, Hal David wrote the song with Albert Hammond, who was also among the first artists to record it along with Johnny Mathis and Art Garfunkel. The dreamy, carefree spirt of the introduction and verses belies the subtext of longing that unfurls in the chorus. The change in mood is marked by a dramatic swelling of strings, like waves crashing on the shore from the Pacific Ocean. Ever the song stylist, Warwick adeptly sails through the song's alternately calm and turbulent passages.
Elsewhere, Now is a litmus test for listeners' expectations. Many of the classic hits that Warwick revisits will inevitably draw comparisons to the source material, though the singer renders the powerful refrain of "Don't Make Me Over" with impressive force and her son David Elliott helps enliven yet another version of "I Say a Little Prayer" (Warwick previously re-recorded the song on both Dionne Sings Dionne and My Friends and Me). The singer's 50th year as a solo artist surely merits pause and the very best moments on Now attest to Warwick's vital legacy in pop music. For her 51st year, however, Warwick should build on the musical strengths of Now, reunite with Phil Ramone, and introduce completely new material to audiences. As someone who's long set the soundtrack for millions of lives, Dionne Warwick certainly has some more stories to tell.
Christian John Wikane