Joe Beck / Laura Theodore

Golden Earrings

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This was Joe Beck's last project -- an album of duets with the throaty-voiced Laura Theodore devoted to the repertoire of singer Peggy Lee and her onetime husband/guitarist Dave Barbour. It could have led to a much more ambitious project, a musical theater production on the life of Lee featuring just Beck and Theodore. But shortly after this album was completed, Beck was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to drop out (the musical went on to open in Cleveland with a conventional full band in Oct. 2007). As it stands, the Lee-Barbour project finds Beck in terrific shape, darting around in several styles, always inventive, always supportive of Theodore. Beck divides his time equally between a Martin acoustic guitar and a custom-designed Martin Joe Beck alto guitar that effectively combines the characteristics of a bass and a guitar. If truth be told, the difference in sound between the two instruments is not that great because Beck's clear-cut timbre and touch stamp an indelible signature on whatever he does. The main difference is in how the instruments are used, for Beck often seems to go with the acoustic whenever he wants to chonk away with rhythmic urgency while the alto lends itself to more intricate work. Theodore's voice and delivery only faintly resemble Lee's, but that's OK, for she imposes her own, deeper-voiced, more overtly dramatic creative personality on Lee's material. The most interesting transformation occurs on, of all things, the covered-to-death standard "Fever" -- now reharmonized and revitalized, capped with a wonderfully weird avant-garde ending in which Beck makes his guitar sound like a CD player skipping on a defective disc. "Manana" is an interesting case -- a period piece in which Theodore dares not mimic Lee's original faux-Mexican accent in the politically correct 21st century, but instead interprets it cheerfully without apologies. Given the sometimes questionable commercial zigzags that Beck's career took, it's heartening to report that his final recordings were so classy.

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