By David Browne
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:42 AM EDT

Most Requested Songs

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Earlier this year, acclaimed cabaret singer Susannah McCorkle finished selecting and annotating a retrospective of her 20-plus-year recording career. Then, one early morning in May, she wrote a note, walked over to the window of her 16th-floor apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, and leapt to her death.

Even for those who don’t follow cabaret — especially those who, like myself, were raised on rock and post-standards pop — it was impossible not to be touched and horrified by the story. Although she never achieved the crowd-pleasing heights of Harry Connick Jr. or Diana Krall, McCorkle, who was 55 at the time of her suicide, performed regularly around the country, interpreted songs by everyone from Cole Porter to Paul Simon, and had 19 albums under her belt. But lately her career had veered off track. A regular stint at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel had been canceled, and her longtime record company, Concord, declined, for financial reasons, to fund sessions for a new album. Instead, the label informed her it was interested only in a repackaging of previously released material. That handpicked album, a now-bittersweet farewell called Most Requested Songs, arrives this week.

Familiar with only snippets of McCorkle’s work — and despite only a remote interest in her genre — I was curious to hear a voice so suddenly stilled. What comes across on ”Most Requested Songs” is a no-frills singer ably working her way through a thoughtful selection of urbane, prerock songs, primarily with small-combo accompaniment. McCorkle’s love of Brazilian music is evident on several tracks (especially her gently swaying cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ”The Waters of March”); her facility with after-hours wistfulness is apparent in the way she rescues ”Thanks for the Memory” from its connection to Bob Hope. A version of ”They Can’t Take That Away From Me” may lack the swagger that Sinatra, among others, brought to it, but her calm delivery serves up more subtle delights.

McCorkle’s voice was a smooth, agreeable instrument — unaffected rather than flashy, conversational rather than virtuosic. You’ll find no scatting or vocalese here. Judging by this set, McCorkle didn’t reinvent standards so much as settle comfortably into them. But the most notable, and telling, aspect of her voice is its seeming inability to convey all-out joy. Aside from a wry half-laugh here or there, she rarely strays from a sort of vocal middle ground. Take her performance of Jerome Kern and B.G. De Sylva’s ”Look for the Silver Lining”: ”Whenever a cloud appears in the blue/Remember somewhere the sun is shining,” she sings, and not very convincingly at that. This reserved approach may well have been rooted in a life marked by crisis: McCorkle endured two divorces, the suicide of her father, and bouts with breast cancer and clinical depression (for which she was reportedly on and off medication). One of the anthology’s standout performances is her rendition of E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s ”If I Only Had a Heart.” In her liner notes, she writes that what appealed to her about this ”Wizard of Oz” chestnut was its ”expression of longing by people who have trouble experiencing their own emotions and yearn to feel something, anything.” Based on her recordings, she may as well have been writing about herself.

”Most Requested Songs” is rife with such unnerving moments. The love songs are heavyhearted, filled with remorse and regret: ”The saddest words that anyone has ever said are, ‘Lord, what might have been’/But no one’s said you get to win,” she sings in Rupert Holmes’ ”The People That You Never Get to Love.” The album ends with her rendition of ”For All We Know,” the standard associated with her longtime idol Billie Holiday. The performance is doubly revealing, in both its refrain (”tomorrow may never come/for all we know”) and the way her voice, once again, replaces the pained ache of Holiday’s delivery with one that’s more emotionally reserved, or concealed.

A common complaint from those who prefer pop songwriting from the first half of the last century is that songcraft is dead in the age of rock, hip-hop, and dance music. I don’t know if McCorkle subscribed to that ill-informed theory, but one wonders what interpretive twist she could have brought to the tunes of new-wave sophisticates like Stephin Merritt or Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. Instead, what McCorkle leaves behind is a body of work that communicates the exhilaration we feel when encountering a song that articulates innermost feelings — and the sorrow that sinks in upon the realization that sometimes music just isn’t enough.

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Most Requested Songs

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