CD Review: Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow
Barry Manilow II
Tryin’ to Get the Feeling
Even Now
Barry Manilow Live
Arista/Legacy
By David Chiu

How Barry Manilow became a huge star in the ‘70s—the same decade that brought arena rock, disco, and punk—is still one of pop music’s greatest mysteries. Then again, it was the ‘70s. Manilow’s sound owed more to Tin Pan Alley, (definitely) Broadway, and jazz than conventional rock. For better or worse, the combination of memorable hooks, a little flash, and that boyish Brooklyn charm are some of the factors that explain his enduring popularity.

Three of Manilow’s ‘70s prime-era studio albums, now released in expanded editions, don’t really distinguish themselves from each other stylistically and draw on the same blueprint: pining romantic ballads and brief flirtations with rock and jazz. Barry Manilow II (1973) was Manilow’s breakout hit, thanks to probably his best song ever “Mandy,” an interpretation of a song that was originally titled “Brandy.” The rest of the album is laid back pop from the funky opener “I Want to Be Somebody’s Baby,” the semi-autobiographical “Something’s Coming Up,” and the propulsive disco strands of “It’s a Miracle. The record’s most adventurous track is “Avenue C,” which features some scat singing, a harbinger of Manilow’s latter direction towards jazz in the ‘80s.

Again, the formula doesn’t change much on Tryin’ to Get the Feeling (1975) although Manilow varies it up a bit with the upbeat and dramatic New York City Rhythm (with a Latin-esque/Santana coda towards the end), the swinging ‘Bandstand Boogie,” and that golden chestnut “I Write the Songs” (written by Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston) . The ballads also keep-a-coming with the title track and “As Sure I’m Standing Here.”

Manilow’s best album during this period is Even Now (1978), which contains three of his popular songs: the swinging showtune “Copacabana (which doesn’t have a happy ending if you read the lyrics), “Can’t Smile Wthout You.,” and the dramatic title tack. Here, Manilow sounds more confident and assured even on like “Somewhere in the Night” and “”Where Do I Go From Here” that sound less ingratiating than his previous ballads.

The double-disc Barry Manilow Live (1977) may seem at first an anti-climactic pat-on-the back (it was the first album to displace the amazing chart-topping run of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours). It’s actually an enjoyable listen where the performances sound spontaneous and it explains Manilow’s natural finesse and gifts as a showman then and now. It’s hard not to crack a smile upon hearing “A Very Strange Medley” of commercials he either sang and/or penned (McDonalds,’ State Farm Insurance, and Dr. Pepper) before he became hugely popular. The spirited set also contains the hits that were not on the aforementioned reissued studio albums: “Daybreak,” the heartfelt “Weekend in New England,” and “Looks Like We Made It,” and tacks on several tracks not on the original release for the full Barry live experience. (“Let Me Go,” “One of These Days”). Even for all its Vegas-like show glitz, the newly reissued and expanded Live is strictly the Holy Grail for his fans.

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