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Sunday, 5 December, 1999, 16:06 GMT
CD Review: George Michael
George Michael: Songs From The Last Century (Virgin)

By the BBC's Nigel Packer

Finchley's favourite son may have called in Sinatra's old producer to work on this album of classic covers, but the results are generally more sluggish than swinging.

Together with music business legend Phil Ramone, George has fashioned a slice of pre-millennial nostalgia which recreates the lush orchestral sounds of the big band years.

As always his singing is technically excellent, but somehow he fails to cut it in comparison to the many great names who have walked this path before. Maybe it's just that his voice lacks the lived-in, world-weary quality needed to do some of these songs justice.

A collection of tunes spanning 65 years
Opening track Brother Can You Spare A Dime - complete with cheesy phrasing - is just one disappointment among several, although it would be wrong to suggest that the album as a whole is a Christmas turkey.

In reality it's more of a curate's egg, with a fair share of successes to counteract the flatter moments.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is given a sensitive rendition and lilting arrangement, and there's a celebratory version of Secret Love - cleverly chosen to reflect recent events in George's personal life.

Equally effective is an upbeat version of My Baby Just Cares For Me, featuring a brief mention of Ricky Martin and set amid squalls of brass and an exuberant walking bass line.

Performing at NetAid
The album's emphasis on hits from the first half of the century leaves little room for recent songs - although judging by the ill-chosen version of U2's Miss Sarajevo that's probably just as well.

It's a brilliant song, of course - quite possibly the best of the 90s - but its unique and eerie quality could be the very reason why it's so difficult to cover. Michael's over-embellished vocal lacks the direct emotional impact of Bono's original, while the flat instrumental section is no substitute for the spine-tingling intervention of Pavarotti.

With a collection of tunes spanning 65 years - and songwriters ranging from Cole Porter to Sting - no-one could accuse Songs From The Last Century of lacking scope. But as Christmas presents go, fans may have preferred George to gift wrap some new material of his own.

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