REVIEW: Betty Buckley, ‘Ghostlight’ (Palmetto Records)

By John Sobel,
September 2014
“I have never understood the need we have in our culture for the limiting categorization of music…Music is music. Good songs are good songs.” – Betty Buckley
 Betty Buckley and T Bone Burnett are about the same age, and have been friends for most of their lives. They were not yet 20 when Burnett made the very first archival recording of his friend Betty Lynn singing. Decades later, they reunited in the studio to record Buckley’s remarkable new album, Ghostlight.

Buckley is that rarity, a stage and screen star in equal measure. Her credits range from her Tony Award-winning performance as Grizabella in Cats to the friendly but helpless Miss Collins in the film Carrie (the 1975 original, of course). Her Broadway credits also include Carrie, as well as Triumph of Love, Sunset Boulevard, 1776 and more. TV watchers of more than one generation have known her very well too (Eight Is Enough, Oz).

For years now, though, she’s also had a thriving career as a cabaret singer, and it’s that side of Betty Buckley that T Bone Burnett has captured on this restrained, subtly innovative mix of songs from the Great American Songbook, Broadway, the 1960s and contemporary songwriters. The disc opens with Lerner and Loewe’s “Come to Me, Bend to Me” in a minimal, almost pop-country arrangement, a little reminiscent of Willie Nelson, that focuses the attention on the haunting melody. It’s a high point of the disc.

As Jeremy Gerard writes in the liner notes (to which the singer and the producer both contribute usefully as well), Buckley is “the opposite of a belter; she is, instead, an artist of restraint. We’re disarmed in her presence.” Perhaps no songwriter has ever been able to disarm us as Jacques Brel did, and Buckley’s “If You Go Away” set to Spanish-flavored acoustic guitars, martial drums, and sorrowful strings is a model of dark, restrained passion.

The Broadway milieu returns with Irving Berlin’s “Blues Skies,” which has a jazzy fizz and a thrumming tension from strings which call to mind “Eleanor Rigby.” The song climaxes with a hint of melancholy as Buckley flattens out the mood by repeating the words “nothin’ but blue…”–without the resolution of “skies”–then drops into the initial minor chord before neatly closing up shop. A slow, deliberate “Bewitched” leads into a bewitching “This Nearly Was Mine,” one of the most beautiful show tunes ever written, especially touching in Buckley’s exquisite phrasing.

Abbey Lincoln’s lovely “Throw It Away” showcases the effectiveness of Buckley’s subdued delivery. Not all of the contemporary material on the disc works as well as the standards, but this one does, probably because of its dramatic melody, again burnished by the singer’s muted, intimate approach.

I imagine Burnett took his cue for the atmospheric “Lazy Afternoon” from Barbra Streisand’s laid-back, dreamlike, almost spooky version of the song. But here it’s extended to more than 10 minutes, bathed in electronic (or electronic-sounding) effects and turned into an Eno-esque ambient piece with touches of psychedelia. If that’s not what you’d expect on a record with Betty Buckley’s name on it, welcome to the club. For me, it works.

A warm though someone colorless “Body and Soul” veers too far into easy-listening territory for my taste, even with Bill Frisell on electric guitar, but the album then switches gears to the folksy, gently passionate “Comin’ Back to Me,” a Marty Balin song from Jefferson Airplane’s iconic album Surrealistic Pillow. Delicate and tense, it took me a few listens to appreciate, but it’s become one of my favorite tracks on Ghostlight.

Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (from Peter Gunn) is another slow jazzy number whose conclusion of “Here we are, here we’ll stay” Buckley’s understated treatment makes a little creepy; intended or no, it works for me.

The album closes with “Take It With Me When I Go” by Tom Waits and the beautiful, supremely sad lost-love ballad “Where Time Stands Still” by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Carpenter is one of my very favorite songwriters, but Buckley’s perfect tone and precise diction aren’t the ideal match for the latter song, which loses something without the coolly uneven delivery the marked the original. The same goes for the transposition of Waits’s rough rasp into the mellow clarity of Buckley and Burnett’s production, which highlights the simple, lovely melody but hangs it a little uncomfortably in a too-perfectly timed setting–I can’t help hearing the click-track.

Those caveats aside, the tasteful and often imaginative arrangements, consistent and well-imagined atmospherics, and, to my mind, mostly well-chosen material make Ghostlight a worthy testament to the long-running success of both Betty Lynn Buckley and T Bone Burnett, two of the standout artists of their generation.