Review: Glenn Frey’s After Hours
An American Eagle in Nat King’s Court
Glenn Frey is part of the solution. That is to say, he has decided in the latter part of his recording career to join the ranks of rock icons who have honored the great popular songs of America’s past.
As an exercise in tribute and music education of fans who otherwise might never listen to a swing or modern jazz standard, these efforts are unassailable. But with younger musicians giving more props to the past and aging baby boomers continuing to recognize that their parents weren’t wrong about everything, these records have to be compared not only with the greats who pioneered the standards, but with other rockers who are taking up the mantle of crooner, band singer, or jazz vocalist.
Following on the heels of Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom, Frey’s After Hours (Universal) finds the once and future Eagle unexpectedly exploring territory for which the former Beatle has long declared an affinity. Frey’s album seems less instinctual and less thoughtful than McCartney’s, more spontaneous mishmash than fully realized concept album. Other than the proximity of their release dates, the artists’ rock pedigrees, and some excellent musicianship, the two albums are from completely different ports on the nostalgia cruise.
Frey floats his boat in several pleasant ways. His vocal talents are not noticeably diminished (unlike McCartney’s). Frey can sustain notes, stay on pitch, and reproduce a mostly accurate facsimile of the voice whose smoothness nicely rounded out Don Henley’s grit during the Eagles’ heyday, the way McCartney’s voice complemented Lennon’s.
But citing fundamentals like good pitch sets the bar extremely low when you’re talking about music made famous by Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, and Nat King Cole, whose spirit Frey evokes on the best of the album’s songs. Happily, there are enough well-chosen and well-executed moments to make the album worth having.
As Frey points out on the album’s promo video, almost all the songs on the set are love songs, meaning slow to mid-tempo ballads. Here’s where he miscalculated. Though the album, produced by legendary engineer Elliot Scheiner, sounds terrific, the songs seem to have been selected purely on affection rather than their relationship to each other in building a coherent whole. Some of the songs force Frey’s voice into a lower register where he lacks the power to be convincing, especially with some of the more dramatic numbers he’s chosen.
The album would stand out if Frye had narrowed his focus to the area at which he excels on After Hours: the oft-forgotten gems of the late 1950′s and early 60′s that marked a transition to a simpler, blusier, and country-infused kind of pop ballad that gave rise to Patsy Cline and Ray Charles and lengthened Nat King Cole’s career. Instead, Frey overreaches, looking back to the 1920′s for Al Jolson’s “My Buddy” and into the mid 60′s for Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love” and Mandel and Webster’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Though justifiably celebrated for their compositional integrity, these latter songs, fairly or not, still carry a patina of “lounge” that requires a knockout arrangement or vocalist to transcend. Frey is not able to pull this off.
What he does pull off beautifully is material that calls for a tenor range and the regional character for which he is best known. The one uptempo number, Cole’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” is the album’s strongest track, along with a great cover of the Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon to Know,” originally recorded in 1947 and covered by Washington in 1948 and Etta James in 1961.
Though “Route 66″ is hardly an obscure gem, it’s arranged well for Frey, with steel guitar taking the tune in a western-swing direction that fits Frey like a glove (see video above). Frey channels Lyle Lovett here in adapting his voice to the cool-swing vibe. “It’s Too Soon to Know” lets Frey stretch his still-strong upper range, and its simple melody (often cited as a forerunner to the great country-pop ballads of the 50′s and even as the “first” rock ‘n’ roll song) is a natural for the voice of “New Kid in Town” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
Frey comes close to home runs on other tracks, including Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No,” “Tony Bennett’s “I Wanna Be Around,” and “A Worried Mind,” the great country ballad by writer Ted Daffan (“Born to Lose”) that was on Charles’s seminal Modern Sounds in Country Music. These songs are sonic successes, but neither “Caroline” nor “I Wanna Be Around” differ much in arrangement from the originals, and “Worried Mind” is done with a straight-up Nashville arrangement that comes out of nowhere on this collection. Still, Frey has excellent vocal moments on these songs. Add Bennett’s “The Good Life,” from 1963, to the list, though Frey is one of the only singers you’ll hear who hits the melody’s dramatic first note in a full vibrato and then straightens the note before descending and completing the first line.
Less successful—and just plain odd—are Frey’s choice of “Here’s to Life,” one of Barbra Streisand’s more introspective ballads, and Randy Newman’s “Same Girl,” which belongs on another album, even if Frey gives it much more of a singer’s treatment than the author ever could. But “Look of Love” and “Shadow of Your Smile” remain the most incongruous. Frey’s California voice with its rural underpinnings just doesn’t fit with the lush supper-club arrangements, especially when he sings lines like “a teardrop kissed yore lips,” or “feel mah arms around you.” Frey also loses all power below about middle C, which makes tunes like Cole’s “For Sentimental Reasons” (“Ah love you, fore sentimental reasons …”) a tough sell. Frey’s own “After Hours,” rounds out the set. Written with longtime collaborator Jack Tempchin (“Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Already Gone”), it’s an effective and wistful midtempo ballad that is the perfect closer for a Glenn Frey standards album.
Unfortunately, this album is a mixed bag with some questionable candy inside, and you’re left thinking how great it could have been if Frey had stayed on the cusp of the swing-into-rock era, come up with more neglected numbers and concentrated on rootsy, bluesy, and honky-tonk reimaginings of them. Frey is still the folksy tenor of “Take it Easy” and the bluesy growler of “Heartache Tonight.” But he doesn’t belong to the city—or the worlds of cabaret or theatre. His appeal is in injecting a taste of rural authenticity into mostly stoic readings of simpler, heartfelt songs from the heartland. The ones on After Hours that fit that description are beautifully done. A sequel full of those would be welcome.