Thursday, October 12, 2006

In a Perfect World...

...PBS would not waste our time with the likes of Andrea Bocelli or the Three Tenors. This schlock is hawked as high European culture, when in an ideal world PBS would be airing the greatest TV moments of Mina Mazzini. She had to wear the “Italian Streisand” moniker for many years, and her specials from the 1960s well into the mid-1970s certainly look and sound as if they were filmed on the same soundstage as “My Name Is Barbra,” though in Italian mind you. She even included “Gente” (People) and "Minute Waltz" on some of her shows. But around the time that Streisand’s career and sense of taste kept going south, Mina's got even better as she covered Brecht-Weill tunes looking like she stepped off the set of The Damned. It’s as if she never left the world that produced “Belle of 14th Street” and kept getting increasingly interesting instead of knocking out crap like “Evergreen” or “Enough Is Enough.” She really sounds more like Ute Lemper than Streisand and has the same "biting" sharpness of Lemper but never resorts to the showy weirdness that can ruin the best efforts of the German chanteuse.

Take her version of “Mack the Knife” for example, perhaps the only Lenya-worthy version not sung by Lenya. She looks like Rosel Zech in Veronika Voss or an extra from Rocky Horror. Her work just kept getting more deliciously and odd in a good way through the years, even though she retired from the stage. But when she sings in English, which she often did, she could be simultaneously disconcertingly familiar and downright weird in a way that forces you not to look away. Her take on "The Man That Got Away" makes her look and sound like the bastard child of Marlene Dietrich and Joey Heatheton. And believe me, coming from me that is not an insult. I usually don't like it when Romance-language artists sing in English, but with her it works. It sounds as if she doesn't know the exact meaning of the words, but she puts her own emotions into them so they feel artfully chopped up and reassembled -- sort of a Cubist interpretation of American pop standards.

Over the past 45 years she has put out consistently interesting albums though they are hard to find the U.S. At a time when Streisand is making something like her third tour after her “retirement” concerts and propping herself with the wind-up faux operatic Il Divo, it’s not surprising that her New York appearance last week got at best lukewarm reviews. By comparison, as Mina’s recent Oggi sono io proves, a real diva does not need props. She has kept being interesting and non-conformist. There is a bit of Elis Regina on this tune, but also something distinctly her own. She belts, emotes and stays wonderfully weird as if still on the set of Belle of 14th Street but evolved and matured but grounded in the same quirky sensibility of that show from 1967. Maybe she'll do a duet with Nina Hagen some day.

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