Songs For The New Depression, a 1976 release, was the first album I ever heard by Bette Midler. I had heard her cover of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy on the radio from time to time, but I had never been all that curious. Something about the cover of this album caught my eye, though, plus I had read somewhere that Todd Rundgren, a longtime fave of mine, had played on it and produced a few cuts, so I picked it up. Don't really remember where. The inner sleeve was very nice, with illustrations by Richard Amsel of Bette as an mother and on the flip, as a daughter, surrounded with tiled borders depicting various fairytale scenarios surrounding the album credits. Damned if I know what it had to do with the rest of the album, but Amsel was an excellent illustrator and the sleeve was well done.
Basically a collection of songs that seemed to me to showcase Midler's goofy sense of humor and way with a ballad, Songs was not the hit record she felt that she needed at the time and the reviews were, to be honest, not kind.
Of course, I didn't read any of the notices (except the lukewarm Christgau capsule) until well after the album had gotten under my skin, so I was a bit nonplussed by the savaging Songs got. I found this record charming, touching, and well played, with the straight R & B/disco songs as tuneful as the retro novelty numbers. It is, I suppose, an example of the disconnect a young music fan gets when he doesn't live in one of the major media centers like NYC or LA. I had no expectations of Midler, so I wasn't disappointed. It was entirely consistent with what I had been conditioned to expect with Bugle Boy. A little later, I hunted down the two previous records she had made, the Divine Miss M and Bette Midler, and while I came to like them as well (especially the excellent Bette Midler), those efforts were a bit more straightforward and earnest (well, as earnest as Bette's wacky persona would let her be) and didn't engage me like Songs did.
In the interest of completeness, I'll run through the tracks: A disco-fied cover of Strangers In The Night, which kicked off the album, probably didn't endear her to those who revere Sinatra, but hey-I thought it was breezy and fun, even though Bette is a bit flat (how often would she be accused of that?). A nice, soulful cover of Phoebe Snow's I Don't Want The Night To End is next, and is a nice contrast to the hysterics of the Sinatra cover. Mr. Rockefeller is a charming phone call type song which she makes a bit poignant before it's over with sheer vocal chutzpah. Old Cape Cod sounds like a radio commercial, has a nice melody, and is the first time she does her nostalgia thing. It's short and sweet. An odd duet with Dylan on his Blood On The Tracks number Buckets of Rain, with some rewritten lyrics for the occasion is also light-hearted and while it's not better than the original, it's still listenable. Love Says It's Waiting is a inconsequential but pleasant enough orchestra-backed track which is over before you know it. I especially liked her cover of Tom Waits' Shiver Me Timbers, a nautical-themed song of goodbyes and regret which many thought was cheesy but pushed all the right buttons in my head. It's really quite touching and sad. It fades out into the goofiest song on the record, Samedi Et Vendredi, which cleverly mixes celebrity names and random French phrases. No Jestering, a Garland Jeffreys reggae tune which gets a lackadaisical performance, succeeds because of its strong melody and nice lyrics. Next up is the pining lost love song Tragedy featuring a echo-laden, orchestrated treatment accompanied by choral vocals. Some thought it overdone, I thought it was lovely and again, sad. Funny how I can get enjoyment from so many sad songs, isn't it. Kinda gives you some insight into what a drag I was at 16. Anyway, next up is the cute 30s styled novelty number Marihuana, which always sounded to me like something Leon Redbone should have covered. Finally, the album concludes with Let Me Just Follow Behind, another pining love song with generous help from Todd Rundgren's Utopia. Don't worry, the sound is more Something/Anything than Ra. It's a really nice song.
Bette never really stretched out like this again, most likely due to the reception this album received, which is a shame. She did some other fine records in the years to come before her acting career took off, most notably Bette Midler: Live at Last and No Frills, but Songs For The New Depression will always remain my favorite of her recorded efforts...maybe because of the period of my life when I first heard it, maybe because in spite of its critics these are great songs.