If there’s anyone who can bring some grit to the flourishing sub-genre of reupholstered pop standards (a genre probably defined by Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and validated most recently by Cyndi Lauper’s At Last), it would be the incomparable Chaka Khan. She is capable of injecting croaky sensuality into even the most rudimentary and neutered of compositions (look no further than what she did with “I’ll Be Good To You” on Quincy Jones’s Back On The Block), which one would expect to go a long way toward adding a healthy dash of gin to the smooth tonic, so to speak. Typically, these throwback LPs are so drenched in sheets of strings that, as a listener, one gets lost in the satiny smoothness without even once considering the vocalist. Mitchell’s album (awash in Vince Mendoza batheticism) got away with these sins because of the way Mitchell arranged her selections to form a narrative centered around a single love affair. Lauper’s and now Khan’s albums are haphazardly constructed, with the album’s structure resembling nothing more complicated than a set list thrown together at the bar. (That Khan follows a late hours rendition of “Diamonds Are Forever” with a smoky-Herculean version of a second Bond tune—“Goldfinger”—is about as spontaneous as it gets.) Even worse, the production of Classikhan is so sparkling clean and the homogenization of the London Orchestra’s various sections so democratically Teflonesque that even listeners whose entire CD collection is made up of Original Broadway Cast Recordings would find themselves struggling to stay interested (Conductor to orchestra: “French horns, don’t drown out the flutes!”). Not one single standard is given a novel twist, and each arrangement seems to have the exact same crescendos and ritardandos. It’s a Sunday afternoon album for those who prefer spending their day off snoozing on a hammock. But Chaka, trooper (and standards enthusiast) that she is, delivers a solid set of vocal performances that yield a few surprises, such as when she manages to underplay “Big Spender” and accentuate the rarely considered cool disinterest that seems at the heart of a prostitute’s siren song.
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