"Forget Cabaret," proposes Australian music journalist Glenn A. Baker at the outset of his liner notes to When It Comes Down to It: 1968-1977, Raven Records' Liza Minnelli compilation. Baker, who also conceived and compiled the album, thus sets forward the contrarian view of Minnelli's career that his selections from some of her studio albums of the late '60s and '70s explore. He complains that most accounts of her give short shrift to this material, which interests him because of its connection to Australian singer/songwriter Peter Allen, her first husband, and other singer/songwriters of the period, such as Randy Newman, who is tapped for the first four tracks. Although Minnelli came up as a Broadway stage star and nightclub performer in the mid-'60s, as a recording artist she faced the same problem as the generation of singers including her mother, Judy Garland, in that period. With the onset of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, such singers, endlessly recycling the works of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, were rendered commercially marginal. The solution many record executives hit upon was to have these singers record the songs of the new young songwriters. When Minnelli, still only in her early twenties, signed her second record contract with A&M Records after a 1963-1966 stint at Capitol, the new label had her perform songs by Newman, John Denver, and Gordon Lightfoot, among others, on her first two A&M LPs, Liza Minnelli (1968) and Come Saturday Morning (1970). Baker ignores Minnelli's next A&M album, New Feelin', on which she took the opposite tack, recording traditional pop standards in rock & roll arrangements. He also skips 1972's Live at the Olympia in Paris and Liza with a "Z" since these concert recordings don't fit in with his concept. On 1973's Liza Minnelli, The Singer and 1977's Tropical Nights (both recorded for Columbia Records), Minnelli again tried contemporary material, and tracks from those albums conclude the collection.
The trouble is that Minnelli was much more at home with traditional pop than with the work of the singer/songwriters of the late '60s and '70s. Right from the start of this album, as she tackles Newman's "Love Story," she entirely misses his irony. It's not that she doesn't seem to know the song has more than one level, but as a performer she is only capable of interpreting it on the surface. She can't get away from trying to be a likeable entertainer at all times, which makes her reading of another Newman song, "So Long Dad," sound so foolish. Newman's narrator is glib and mean to his father; Minnelli just can't pull that off. She is actually much better at getting to the heart of a more mediocre pop song like Sonny Bono's divorce ballad "You Better Sit Down Kids," which she does as a medley with "Married" from Cabaret (guess it can't be forgotten even here). Bono's plainly stated sentiments are ones she can sink her teeth into, just as she can appreciate the feelings of separation in "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," a song about the entertainer's traveling life. On the later material, she often sounds like she's just trying to hold her own against unsympathetic dance arrangements of songs like "Dancing in the Moonlight" and "When It Comes Down to It," the latter a Minnie Riperton composition that calls to mind the odd picture of Liza Minnelli fronting Earth, Wind & Fire.
The best performances in this album of oddities include songs actually written for Minnelli or ones she clearly feels connected to. Among them are "Come Saturday Morning," the theme song for her 1970 film The Sterile Cuckoo and "The Singer," which sounds like something she might actually perform in concert. Best of all, especially for Minnelli fans, are the tracks rescued from non-LP singles, particularly both sides of a 45 that contained two of Allen's better compositions, "Harbour" and "More Than I Like You." These are the hidden gems on a Liza Minnelli collection that otherwise fails to prove its compiler's assertion that her work as a pop/rock interpretive singer is worthy of more consideration than this minor aspect of her recording career has attracted before.