A few weeks ago I was dining out with a friend when Peggy Lee’s version of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” came over the sound system. “She had a pretty sexy delivery,” my friend said. I agreed, and we started pointing out various songs in her catalogue that showcased her alluring tones.
“You ever hear Let’s Love?” I asked.
He hadn’t. Not many people have. And I still can’t figure whether that’s a good thing or not.
01. Let’s Love
02. He is the One
03. Easy Evil
04. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
06. You Make Me Feel Brand New
07. Sweet Lov’liness
08. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
09. Sweet Talk
11. Let’s Love (Reprise)
Let’s not kid ourselves here — there’s something kind of inherently pathetic about an aging crooner trying to a “contemporary” record. The first thing that comes to mind is the jokey end of the spectrum — Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, for instance. Then there’s that questionable middle ground, like Frank Sinatra’s 1984 album, L.A. is My Lady. I mean, OK, the Quincy Jones orchestra lent it some credibility, but just try to tell me the synths on the title track or those electric guitars on “Stormy Weather” felt genuine. They didn’t.
Now, if it can’t be done right, it can at least be done interestingly — Paul Anka’s recent Rock Swings comes to mind, but again, there was a bit of tongue-in-cheekness there that I don’t think could be avoided. Paul Anka singing Van Halen is enough of a headscratcher, let alone turning it into a big band tune.
Peggy Lee’s 1974 album Let’s Love is another one that’s tough to get your head around. Although it wasn’t her last album, it kind of marked the beginning of the end — a vain attempt from the mid-1970s into the early 1990s to try to stay relevant when, really, all she had to do was sit back and let the 41 albums she recorded for Capitol and Decca Records from 1948 to 1970 sum up her career. Was everything in there golden? No, but when it includes the likes of “Fever,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “He’s a Tramp,” “A Doodlin’ Song” and “Is That All There Is?” why pad the f*cking resume?
Now, with a title track specially written by Paul McCartney, the Atlantic label behind it and a selection of songs that included writing credits from the likes of James Taylor, Henri Mancini, Irving Berlin and Melissa Manchester, the obvious thought wasn’t that it could be a formidable hit… if it didn’t prove to be a big laugh.
The problem (or maybe saving grace) was that it was neither. Even at the album’s horrendous, synthesized music worst (“Easy Evil,” I’m looking at you), Lee’s voice and delivery somehow manages to keep the whole affair from being totaled. There’s no reason “Easy Evil,” “Sweet Talk” or “Sweet Lov’liness” should work at all, and while they aren’t exactly revelatory, there’s a lot to be said for Peggy that she doesn’t let them become laughable.
But even the weight McCartney should have brought to proceedings is frighteningly absent. A lot of people make jokes about his mid-period Wings material, particularly the piano-led ballads, and I’ve always been one of the biggest Wings apologists out there, but “Let’s Love” frankly goes nowhere. It SOUNDS like Paul McCartney realizes he’s writing a song for Peggy Lee and is forcing jazzy chord changes and haphazard lyrics to live up to God-knows-who’s expectations. I mean people can say what they want about “My Love,” “With a Little Luck” or “London Town,” but hell… at least those songs had hooks.
James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” fares a little better under Lee’s vocal guidance, but the production by Dave Grusin just doesn’t feel right. It’s like he aimed for sexiness, but veered into sleaziness. I mean, “He is the One” has a decidedly Gospel-feel to it (even though I’m quite sure she’s not singing about that He), but picking the faux-porn stylings of “Easy Evil” to follow that just seems perverse. I mean, Lee was 54 when this album was released — part of me wonders if there’s a whole cougar culture out there that uses this record as some kind of rallying music. And if they do, that actually lowers my opinion of cougars. Which is too bad, really.
But again, as bad as it should be, it never veers into awfulness. Earlier this year, I played “Sweet Talk” for a girl I was dating who looked at me — a highly principled music aficionado — as if I’d either lost my goddamned mind or had spent too much time perusing Web sites with Google’s safe search turned off.
“No, no, seriously,” I said to her wordless judgement of me. “Listen to the hook!”
But she just shook her head.
The album did virtually nothing at a commercial level and by the next year she was off Atlantic and onto A&M and would continue label jumping for the rest of her life, which I always kind of felt was sad. Certainly, the musical progression for the last 20 years of her life was not something I’d carry on my own label, but again — with more than 40 albums defining a “classic” period, why push the issue anymore than merited?
I mean, it was never going to get sexier than “Fever” anyway. And it’s my belief that cougars probably use that as a rallying song that makes me think they’re pretty cool after all.