CD Review of Forever Neil Diamond by Various Artists

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Forever Neil Diamond
starstarstarstarno star Label: Shout! Factory
Released: 2006
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There once was a time, not so very long ago, when Neil Diamond was viewed by the general public as a kitsch icon along the lines of Barry Manilow and Tom Jones…and, in all fairness, it has to be said that it was a hell of Diamond’s own making. It’s, like, you sensed trouble brewing when he performed a duet with Streisand in ’78, then he starred in a really bad movie (“The Jazz Singer,” which, to be fair, had a pretty awesome soundtrack album); by the time Diamond released his tribute to E.T. in ’84 (“Heartlight”), his name had become all but synonymous with schmaltz…and since the records kept selling, he didn’t really go out of his way to escape from the niche called Adult Contemporary.

The turning point, most critics will agree, came when Urge Overkill recorded a version of Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” for the soundtrack to “Pulp Fiction.” The track became a sizable hit for the band, and people started to raise their eyebrows at the realization that the song had been written by…Neil Diamond? Really?!? Suddenly, folks were reinvestigating Diamond’s older material and realizing that, hey, this guy wrote some great songs back in the day! Perhaps spurred on by this recognition, Diamond finally got back into proper songwriting mode again, releasing 1996’s country-rock Tennessee Moon to solid reviews, but, to keep his blue-haired fan base happy, he followed that with a string-laden two-disc set where he covered songs from Hollywood’s greatest soundtracks. (Appropriately, he received further songwriting recognition courtesy of a soundtrack in 2001; Smash Mouth covered “I’m A Believer” for “Shrek.”) In the last half-decade, Diamond’s been on a roll: he’s released the underrated Three Chord Opera in 2001 and, more importantly, a full-fledged comeback album in 2005 with the Rick-Rubin-produced 12 Songs.

Trying to grab a little of that success for themselves, Shout! Factory has compiled fourteen Diamond covers in a nice package entitled…what else?...Forever Neil Diamond. It’s to the label’s credit that they mix the familiar (UB40’s ubiquitous take on “Red Red Wine”) with the obscure (“Solitary Man” as done by Crooked Fingers, a.k.a. Eric Bachmann, late of the Archers of Loaf), placing the superstars (Elvis Presley’s version of “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”) alongside the cult heroes (Shane McGowan and the Popes’ snarling interpretation of “Cracklin’ Rosie”). Among the discoveries here are the soulful versions of “Sweet Caroline” and “Glory Road” by Bobby Womack and Arthur Alexander, respectively. And although it’s not impossible you might’ve heard Deep Purple’s raging “Kentucky Woman” (it actually scraped into the top 40 upon its initial release), it’s less likely that the Four Tops’ “I’m A Believer” has crossed your path before. The liner notes to the disc, by the way, are particularly thorough, giving a history of each track as well as the artist performing it.

Don’t waste your breath complaining that you’d rather have heard Chris Isaak’s version of “Solitary Man” or that someone should’ve included Altered Images’ “Song Sung Blue” instead of Jr. Walker’s “Holly Holy.” If you already know them, then you already own them, so go listen to them on your own time. For now, however, spin Forever Neil Diamond, dig the versions you know, absorb the ones you’re hearing for the first time, and then go buy one of Diamond’s own albums. I’m partial to Tap Root Manuscript, myself.

~Will Harris