Who Do You Think You Are?
Three New Albums Beg an Identity From Harry Connick, Jr.

Well, this year has started to suck already.

Julius “Julie” Schwartz died Sunday morning at age 88. The name Julie Schwartz is probably unfamiliar to you unless you read comics, and even then, you’ll only recognize it if you read beyond the names of writers and artists to those of the editors behind the scenes. Schwartz worked at DC Comics for 60 years, most of those as an editor, and he’s widely credited with directing the so-called Silver Age of comics in the ’50s and ’60s.

Many people don’t know what an editor does, especially in comics, but it goes well beyond correcting spelling and grammar. Among other things, editors at mainstream companies like DC work with writers on storylines, often suggesting entire years-long directions for certain characters. A bad editor can stifle the creative process, but a good one can be like a writing partner, one with an objective sense of story. By all accounts, Julius Schwartz was a good, if not amazing, editor. Opinionated, certainly, but for 60 years he worked with one clear goal in mind – making comics better by making better comics. He was one of the good guys.

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The beginning of the year is starting to fill out nicely with new releases. Next week we have the new Indigo Girls, All That We Let In, and the week after that new ones from Jonatha Brooke (Back in the Circus), Grant Lee Phillips (Virginia Creeper), Starflyer 59 (I Am the Portuguese Blues) and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (the score to Bodysong).

It’ll be the end of March before the major stuff starts seeping out again, including a new Lenny Kravitz called Funk and a blues album from Aerosmith with the un-Super-Bowl-like title of Honkin’ On Bobo. The party really starts in April, though. Just in the first week we have a new album from Todd Rundgren (Liars), an instrumental project from Trey Anastasio (Seis de Mayo), and the long-awaited reunion album from Tears For Fears (Everybody Loves a Happy Ending). Oh, and the new Modest Mouse, with my second-favorite title of the year so far: Good News for People Who Love Bad News. (More on my first favorite in a minute.)

On the far horizon are new things from the Magnetic Fields (reportedly titled i, just that, lower case), Sophie B. Hawkins (Wilderness) and Pedro the Lion (completing their trilogy with Achilles Heel). And then in June comes political punk band Bad Religion, who’ve served up my favorite album title of the year, and perhaps of the past several years, with The Empire Strikes First.

Gonna repeat that: The Empire Strikes First.

Bloody brilliant.

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I’ve been having a tough time with Harry Connick, Jr. lately, and I’m not sure if it’s me or him.

Connick started his career as a piano player in New Orleans, plunking out jazz standards with a confidence that earned him a record contract. When he opened his mouth on his second album, 20, and the soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally, his career took off. He was like a looser, funkier Frank Sinatra for a new generation. From that moment on, Connick has rarely stopped surprising with the depth of his musical ability. He started writing his own songs on We Are In Love, a classic orchestra album. He formed a jazz trio and proved his worth as a player on Lofty’s Roach Souffle. He started arranging all his own songs on the dynamite big band album Blue Light Red Light. And his fans followed him wherever he went, despite the fact that he rarely tread the same ground twice.

And then, sadly, they didn’t. Connick branched out into funk-rock with two wild (for him) albums called She and Star Turtle. (The latter was even an acid-drenched concept album about an alien turtle looking for funky music on Earth to save his dying planet. Really.) And the people turned on him, as he must have expected they would. They walked out of his concerts in droves, and refused to buy his newer work. Which is a shame, because She and Star Turtle are really good records.

Unfortunately, the louder, funkier stuff appears to be where his heart has been since. His scraping return to Sinatra-ville, the ultra-slow, nearly suicidal-sounding To See You, was followed by a lame attempt at a big band album called Come By Me. That one includes an overly dramatic version of “Danny Boy,” for pity’s sake. You can trust me, save for the rollicking title track, it’s a lame record. In fact, since his retreat back into his comfort zone, his output just hasn’t been the same. He made another Sinatra-style record and a children’s album after Come By Me, and neither one sounded like albums he wanted to make.

You can even hear it in his voice. His powerful, soaring tenor, which made the finale of “Buried in Blue” so entrancing, has been replaced by a lazy, sometimes flat, meandering mope. He occasionally pulls it together and wields that voice the way he used to, but it’s no longer a given. Like a singing Jim Carrey, he knows what the people like, and he seems determined to give it to them, even if he’s secretly yearning to stretch out. (The fact that audiences booed his last attempt to stretch, his Broadway show Thou Shalt Not, may have something to do with it as well.)

Connick’s two recent high-profile projects bear this out, for the most part. He just released Only You, a collection of “romantic standards from the ’50s and ’60s,” and it sounds exactly like you’d expect. The songs are mostly slow, the arrangements mostly sweet, and Connick sings them all in that lazy tone that’s becoming his trademark. There are some surprises here, like his percussive reading of “My Blue Heaven,” and his lone solo composition, “Other Hours,” which hails from that aforementioned Broadway show.

There isn’t a moment here, though, that sparkles with the imagination Connick possesses. It’s all giving the people what they want. This is the kind of album he can make easily, and the kind that he believes will sell well for him, as the Valentine’s Day marketing campaign surrounding it makes clear. As pleasant as it all is, I don’t buy Harry Connick albums to hear him sing rote versions of “The Very Thought of You,” or “For Once In My Life.” He could do, and has done, much better.

Far more successful, oddly enough, is his recent Christmas disc Harry for the Holidays. I know, Christmas albums are so lame, but this one vaults over his previous holiday collection, When My Heart Finds Christmas, mostly because it has a pulse. This is a big band Christmas, as you can tell from the superb opening rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” all blazing brass and lightning bass.

Connick stumbles a bit near the end, when, ironically, he tries to stretch out. The white-boy soul of “This Christmas” is too sugary, and the less said about his country-style duet with George Jones, “Nothing New for New Year,” the better. But how can one complain when there are such muscular and inventive things here, like his creepy “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? It’s strange, but his frothy Christmas album is more alive-sounding than almost anything he’s done since Star Turtle.

Or, at least, it would be if not for his other 2003 album, a lower-profile release that works hard to restore one’s faith in Harry Connick, Serious Musician. Other Hours, subtitled Connick On Piano 1, was even released on Wynton Marsalis’ imprint of Rounder Records, for that extra bit of musicianly pedigree. It’s an instrumental jazz quartet album, full of tricky melodic numbers and some flawless playing from Connick and his ensemble. Particularly good is saxophonist Charles “Ned” Goold, a longtime Connick band member, but the foursome plays together remarkably well.

This album is mostly made up of songs from Thou Shalt Not, and in this setting (as opposed to their original Broadway renditions), the songs come alive. I vastly prefer the version of the title track here, for example, to the vocal one on Only You, and to the Broadway cast version. This little album just bops along wonderfully from start to finish, reminiscent in a way of his earlier trio work, but with more skill and force.

This, this is the Harry Connick I want to hear more from – the guy who writes songs, takes risks with their arrangements, and plays them magnificently. In a way, I hope projects like Only You afford him the luxury of making more records like Other Hours, because it’s obvious upon hearing both where his interest lies. He proved long ago that he doesn’t want to be Frank Sinatra, and music-for-grandmothers albums like Only You can only feel forced when stacked next to Connick’s real artistic endeavors. There’s no need for Connick to decide who he is, musically speaking, once and for all. I just sort of wish he’d declare who he isn’t. Or rather, who he isn’t anymore.

Next week, probably the Indigos.

See you in line Tuesday morning.