Carly Simon's Torch is a gorgeous throwback to the Fifties and early Sixties, when pop music divas and crooners routinely released two or three albums a year, each record utilizing a full studio orchestra instead of session musicians. The typical pop LP of that era was a high-toned vocal showcase, with moody orchestrations that refined the romantic movie music of the time into an intimate background style. Until now, the only rock singer who's really embraced this genre has been Harry Nilsson. On 1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, Nilsson sang a bevy of standards, beautifully arranged by Gordon Jenkins, with impressive fluidity.
Torch easily eclipses A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, however, because it transcends nostalgia. By blending old and new material, and by incorporating a hint of jazz-fusion music into a studio-orchestra sound, Simon and her producer, Mike Mainieri, begin to suggest a continuity between Fifties torch and Eighties pop.
Since it doesn't try to titillate us with marital confessions or strain to be trendy, Torch is also the first album on which Carly Simon the pop celebrity doesn't interfere with Simon the pop artist. The focus is squarely on the music, and the singer's magnificent alto, with its rough-and-tumble lows and wistful highs, has never sounded better. Five of the LP's eleven numbers ("I'll Be Around," "Body and Soul," "Spring Is Here," "I Get Along without You Very Well," "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good") have been covered often enough to acquire the status of popular art songs. Simon does these evergreens proud in low-keyed, elegantly heartfelt versions that owe more to emotional tone than they do to finger-snapping swing. Though Carly Simon acknowledges the swinging, bigband style of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others through her carefully syncopated phrasing, she basically performs the compositions with an art singer's awareness: i.e., elocution and timbre, rather than rhythm, prevail.
Whereas most vocalists treat the flat-out irony of Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along without You Very Well" with varying degrees of coyness, Simon plays the lyrics for straightforward drama–as a rejected lover attempting to stifle her feelings in a face-to-face confrontation. The star delivers Alec Wilder's "I'll Be Around," which is usually milked for its masochistic pathos, as a matter-of-fact vow of fidelity to a straying sweetheart. In the disc's dreamiest performance, "Spring Is Here," Simon turns Rodgers and Hart's ballad of abject despair into a sensuous mood piece.
Mike Mainieri's settings, which spotlight exceptionally rich orchestrations by Marty Paich and Don Sebesky, sound custom-made to enhance Carly Simon's aesthetic, albeit powerful, approach. And the standards are nicely balanced by some newer, less familiar numbers. Nicholas Holmes' "Blue of Blue" scores as an effective vocal tone poem, while Holmes and Kate Horsey's "What Shall We Do with the Child" is a poignant vignette about an expendable "love child." (Both songs boast additional lyrics by Simon.) The singer slinks through "Pretty Strange," a Jon Hendricks-Randy Weston Fifties jazz tune, like an Eighties Julie London. A revival of Timi Yuro's hit, "Hurt," provides a rock change of pace. Simon's one original, the acoustic "From the Heart," links torch style to the singer/songwriters of the Seventies.
Torch's moment of truth is Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By," from the new musical Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim rarely writes compositions that are concise enough to engage the pop mainstream, but this big, direct ballad is a fantastic exception, and Simon knows exactly what to do with it. "But I just go on thinking and sweating/And cursing and crying/And turning and reaching/And waking and dying" goes Sondheim's wonderful lyric, which details the physical anguish of living through a romantic breakup. Carly Simon's vocal makes you feel each stab of pain.
Though Torch may be too sophisticated to storm the charts, it's nevertheless a superb example of modern mood music, performed with grace, gusto, sensuality and intelligence.