Painted From Memory, the 1998 album by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, stands as some of the finest work ever by either of those songwriters, and therefore, some of the finest ever examples of artful, heartfelt pop songs for adults.
The collaboration, which began with the song, God Give Me Strength, written for the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart, marked a return for Bacharach to the kind of music that made him such an iconic composer (with lyricist Hal David) during the sixties and early seventies – music full of unusual melodic and rhythmic twists, complex jazz chords, and artful orchestral arrangements that were utterly idiosyncratic, modern and sophisticated.
When combined with Costello’s musical restlessness, verbal facility and eye for emotional complexity, the result was a series of songs about love gained, lost and in-between that built on both Bacharach and Costello’s strengths. This was music more complicated than that usually made by Costello, dealing with subjects of a more oblique and rocky emotional terrain than had previously been in Bacharach’s catalogue.
The one weakness of the collaboration was the technical limitations of Costello’s singing voice. A fine and passionate singer, there is no hiding the fact that Costello’s voice is strained in its upper register, resulting in a piercing nasal quality. This can get a little fatiguing in the course of listening to over 40 minutes of songs with a wide vocal range.
Singers Michael Falzon and Bobby Fox have built impressive careers in musical theatre in Australia and internationally over the last decade with credits including We Will Rock You, The War of the Worlds, and Jersey Boys. Their performance of the entire Painted From Memory album and an assortment of well-known Bacharach and Costello solo songs at City Recital Hall was a chance to hear the songs done by singers with “voice to spare”.
It didn’t disappoint. Assisted by musical director/ arranger Isaac Hayward, vocalist Laura Bunting, trumpeter Tim Crow and a crack string quartet and band, the concert was like hearing the album as it should have been. Hayward was wisely faithful to the distinctive recorded arrangements, albeit adapted for a smaller group of musicians.
Fox has a fine trained tenor with a dash of Bono and a slight wildness. Falzon has impressive control and emotional range, singing with great finesse. It was a joy to hear these two performers nimbly finding their way through the tricky melody lines and lyrics, alive to all the emotional nuances. The concert was capped by Falzon’s searing performance of God Give Me Strength, the crowning glory of Bacharach and Costello’s collaboration. Let’s hope this concert gets performed again elsewhere.
Painted From Memory – The Music of Bacharach and Costello
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 24 September 2014 – 7.30pm
Image: Michael Falzon and Bobby Fox
Review: Dominic Wong