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Associated Press photo by Mark Allan

Resting on laurels

Music | Tony Bennett's Duets II has pleasant moments, but it's an album only record sellers and Grammy voters could truly love

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

"There is nothing," wrote G.K. Chesterton a century ago about the unimaginativeness of female education, "but plodding, elaborate, elephantine imitation."

He might well have had similar thoughts about the Grammy Awards.

The 54th edition of America's longest-running annual music showcase won't transpire until Feb. 12, 2012. But signs that it has become nothing but a plodding, elaborate, elephantine imitation of its former self are already afoot. In fact, according to the U.K. Guardian's Hadley Freeman's take on the recently broadcast Grammy Nominations Concert, they're running rampant.

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"As is always the way with these shows," wrote Freeman, "the nominations themselves were the least memorable part of the event, primarily because they were both predictable and daft."

Nothing can be "predictable," of course, unless it's unimaginatively imitative. As for "daft," surely that term includes elaborate and elephantine plodding.

Freeman aimed most of her criticism at performers whose over-the-top celebrity and sales (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Kanye West) practically made their nominations faits accomplis. But she could've targeted more venerable prey as well.

Consider, for instance, Tony Bennett's thrice-nominated Duets II ("Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album," "Best Pop Duo/Group Performance" for the Amy Winehouse-featuring "Body and Soul," "Best Instrumental Accompanying Vocalists" for the Queen Latifah-featuring "Who Can I Turn To [When Nobody Needs Me]"). The Roman numerals alone denote roads more traveled by-Bennett released Duets: An American Classic in 2006-especially when you consider that Frank Sinatra also released similarly configured albums called Duets and Duets II in 1993 and 1994, respectively.

All four albums were produced with care by Phil Ramone and were greeted warmly if largely for sentimental reasons. All four can be played unobtrusively in the background of upscale soirées and not all that obtrusively elsewhere. And if they aren't among either Bennett's or Sinatra's best work, they aren't among his worst either.

Yet, coming from singers known for their taste, there's something off-puttingly uncreative, and thus unartistic, about them-as if, bereft of new ideas and unwilling to "pull a Johnny Cash" and hire Rick Rubin to steer them toward material they'd never otherwise notice, Bennett and Sinatra realized they could rest not only on their laurels but on those of younger, hipper microphone partners.

Bennett's Duets II is cushioned with 17 other platinum-selling superstars, and it's not without its share of pleasant mini-revelations (that Winehouse, for instance, could've matured into a 21st-century Billie Holiday, that Andrea Bocelli might yet mature into another Julio Iglesias, that Bennett still sings better than all of them).

But the main idea is obviously to tap into the sales potential represented by whatever fraction of the guests' audiences will buy anything with their names on it. Even if that fraction is, say, only one-tenth, the combined revenue generated by one-tenth of 17 multi-million-member demographics covereth a multitude of questionable aesthetic judgments.

Or at least it does in the minds of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, who will no doubt nominate Duets III from Bennett should he live long enough to record it.

He certainly expects to live long enough to record an album with Stevie Wonder, as he has already announced such plans. But even that sounds like Ebony and Ivory Redux.

What Bennett should do is enlist Keith Richards, whom he recently met for the first time, for a collection of Rolling Stones songs. To say the least, it would be interesting.

Especially since, by his own admission, the 85-year old Bennett has never heard a single one.

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