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Review: Paul Anka, “Duets”

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Paul Anka - DuetsWhether you prefer your “My Way” by Sinatra or Sid (Vicious, that is), you have Paul Anka to thank.  It was Anka who took the melody to the chanson “Comme d’habitude” and crafted the ultimate anthem of survival and tenacity with his English-language lyrics.  When Sinatra recorded the song, a gift to him from Anka, he was just 53 years of age yet could still ring true when singing of that “final curtain.”  Today, Paul Anka is 71, and his new memoir is entitled, what else, My Way.  Thankfully, the end seems far from near for the entertainer, who has kept busy not only with the book, but with an album from Legacy Recordings.  Duets (88765 48489 2) is a blend of new and old tracks with one thing in common: the unmistakable voice of Paul Anka.  (He also wrote or co-wrote all but two of its songs.)

The Ottawa-born pop star scored his first hit at the ripe old age of 15 with 1957’s “Diana.”  It earned him a No. 1 in the U.S. Best Sellers in Stores and R&B charts, as well as No. 1 in the U.K., Canada and Australia. But overnight sensation Anka was a teen idol with a difference: he was a true singer/songwriter, writing both music and lyrics for his own songs. By the age of 20, Anka was reportedly raking in $1.5 million a year and selling some 20 million records, but he knew that he had to take himself to the next level. The singer poised himself for a reinvention for the adult market with more mature material aimed at the supper club crowd.  Throughout his chart career, Anka has successfully balanced contemporary pop with timeless showbiz tradition.

To its credit, Duets isn’t a rehash of the formula enjoyed by so many superstars, from Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett, of remaking “greatest hits” with familiar partners.  There’s no “Puppy Love,” no “Times of Your Life” or “One Woman Man/One Man Woman.”  Nor is Duets a career retrospective, per se, as the only vintage tracks are drawn from 1998’s A Body of Work.  In many ways, Duets is an update of that Epic release.  A Body of Work included seven duets among its eleven tracks, and four of those have been reprised on Duets.  (That album also included a posthumous duet with Sinatra on “My Way.”  Frank and the song are here, too, but in a newly-created recording.)  None of Anka’s hit seventies duets with Odia Coates like “One Woman Man” or “You’re Having My Baby” are heard here.  Though Jay-Z reportedly denied Anka’s invitation to participate, a number of top talents did show up to celebrate Anka’s 55 years in entertainment, including Dolly Parton, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson and Michael Bublé.

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Anka is in strong voice throughout. Of the many styles in which he has made his mark over the years, from rock-and-roll to big band swing, Duets is squarely in a sleek, adult-contemporary vein, with prominent use of drum machine rhythms.  A little Auto-Tune goes a long way, though, as proven by the catchy “Find My Way Back to Your Heart.”  Written by Anka with producer-arranger Michael Thompson, it’s the only solo song here.  (Background vocals are provided by Tita Hutchison.)  Similarly slick is “Walk a Fine Line,” the Duets opener with George Benson and Michael McDonald.  It’s one of two songs here from the 1983 album of the same name (unfortunately out-of-print as of this writing).  McDonald co-wrote the song and sang on the original track, and repeats his duties for this new version.

The instantly recognizable McDonald is just one of the many talents here who are well-versed in the art of the duet.  Dolly Parton joins the pretty “Do I Love You (Yes, In Every Way)” with hushed, whispered vocals that soon make way for a power ballad-style guitar and chorus.  Arranger Johnny Mandel’s trademark strings swathe “Crazy,” with its writer Willie Nelson as relaxed and subtle as ever as he and Paul pine after the object of their affection.  Another enjoyable match is made with Anka’s Canadian compère Michael Bublé.  The great Patrick Williams’ brassy arrangement of “Pennies from Heaven” is a swinging highlight of Duets although it sonically clashes with the rest of the album’s more “modern” slant.  (The young crooner’s solo “Pennies” was an iTunes-exclusive bonus track for his 2009 album Crazy Love.)  Joining “Pennies” in lending Duets a classic air is “Les Filles de Paris,” first recorded by Anka in 1971.  It gets a smoky, lush treatment thanks to Chris Botti’s horn and Mandel’s arrangement.  Trumpeter Botti takes an expressive solo while a concertina-esque sound lends a Gallic atmosphere; Anka even sings a bit in French. “Think I’m in Love Again,” of 1981 vintage, is sung with Gloria Estefan.  The song, co-written with country-and-western songwriter Bob McDill, is pleasantly delivered by and older and wiser singer this time around (“I think I’m in love again, wearing that silly grin/Look what a fool I’ve been, think I’m in love again”).

Much more surprising is “I Really Miss You,” sung with Leon Russell.  The Master of Time and Space’s rough-hewn, growled vocals are the least expected match for Anka’s on the album, but he brings grit to the reflective, low-key track.  But Russell’s isn’t the oddest duet here.  That honor goes to “This is It,” the second posthumously released version of the song co-written by Anka and the late Michael Jackson.  When “This is It” debuted in 2009 to coincide with a documentary about the recently-departed King of Pop, many seemed to overlook that the song boasted a rather felicitous melody.  On Duets, Anka gives Jackson’s demo yet another makeover.  The production by Anka and Michael Thompson is much busier than the Jackson solo version, which threatens to obscure just how pretty the tune actually is.  Other than one particularly jarring key change that introduces Anka’s vocal, though, it’s a respectable treatment of the song.  Anka’s full-throated vocal and the big, gospel-tinged production contrast with Jackson’s much gentler tone (in his familiar “soft” voice) but “This is It” remains an enjoyable slice of pure pop.

“Hold Me ‘Til the Morning Comes,” with an uncredited Peter Cetera, joins Celine Dion’s “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye,” Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady” and Patti LaBelle’s “You Are My Destiny” as the four tracks carried over from A Body of Work.  “You Are My Destiny” is the only song here from Anka’s pop idol years.  It’s given a Latin flavor from producers David Foster and Humberto Gatica , who dominate the latter portion of Duets.  It was a more successful update than “She’s a Lady.”  Tom Jones’ brash 1971 single of Anka’s song has aged far better than the 1998 version.  Anka’s final Top 40 hit, 1983’s “Hold Me ‘Til the Morning Comes,” also first appeared on the Walk a Fine Line album.  It fares well in the 1998 treatment, though the original version (also sung with Cetera) would have made a fine addition to the Duets line-up.  The 1998 version is nearly identical, but among the alterations made is the replacement of the “big eighties” power guitar with a nylon-style guitar part.   (That classical/Spanish guitar sound is quite prevalent on Duets.)  In any event, though, “Hold Me” as produced by Foster still sounds like a great lost Chicago song circa 1983! 

“My Way,” naturally, closes Duets, as it did A Body of Work.  For that album, it was arranged by Johnny Mandel as a tribute to Sinatra: “He did it his way,” and so on.  In David Foster and Bebu Silvetti’s arrangement here, Anka, not Sinatra, opens the song, and Anka takes it in the first person. Surely, at 71, he’s earned it.  Yet, duetting with a young(er) Sinatra, it’s far from the most organic track here.  The Chairman’s vocals lack a natural sound on the duet, and Mandel’s stately, elegiac arrangement is superior to the more “MOR” version for 2013.  Still, it’s an effective valedictory for Anka’s own, well-deserved celebratory album.

My Way, the book, promises to be a juicily entertaining memoir from a performer who’s never been afraid to speak his mind.  If you’re looking for an ideal soundtrack for your reading, you might want to start with Duets and remember those times of your life as scored by Paul Anka.

You can order Duets here!

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