Shatner sings again, and he's not alone

Regis Philbin warbles too, and Minnie Driver tries

October 14, 2004|By Eric R. Danton | Eric R. Danton,Hartford Courant

Guess who's back with a new album?

Yes, R.E.M.

But also William Shatner. That's right, Captain Kirk has returned with Has Been (Shout Factory), his first album since Transformed Man in 1968, and this time, he somehow enlists Ben Folds, Aimee Mann, Brad Paisley, Henry Rollins and Joe Jackson to help him out.

If the thought of Shatner climbing the charts isn't enough, guess who ELSE has committed his vocals to tape? Brace yourselves: Regis Philbin, the hyperactive talk-show host, offers up a batch of standards on When You're Smiling (Hollywood Records), his first record since 1968's It's Time for Regis!

We're not finished yet, though -- despite mocking reviews of her performance at the South by Southwest music festival in March, Minnie Driver has gone ahead and released an album anyway: Everything I've Got in My Pocket (Zoe / Trampoline).

The music industry has always exerted an inexplicable pull on actors (or whatever Philbin is): Recent years have brought musical efforts from Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton and Juliette Lewis, none of whom has met with much more than yawns (though Lewis is new enough at it to merit watching). On the face of it, these three new projects make Lindsay Lohan's planned foray into pop music look almost viable -- she at least sang and played some of her musical parts in Freaky Friday.

Yet the albums from Philbin and Shatner have their charms. Driver's, not so much.

Put Dido, Sophie B. Hawkins and Sarah McLachlan in a blender, and you'd have, well, a mess. And that's a reasonable approximation of Everything I've Got in My Pocket. Driver starts with a dreamy folk-pop sound reminiscent of McLachlan, then drifts into wan Americana, punctuated with steel guitar on the waltz "Deeper Water" and "Yellow Eyes." She wrote or co-wrote all but one song on the album. The exception, a morose version of Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," does two things, and neither of them helps Driver. First, her downhearted rendering strips the song of its raffish desperation, which gave the Boss' original its vitality. Second, even in its reduced state, "Hungry Heart" reveals the shortcomings in Driver's own songs: Namely, not one of them is memorable.

Philbin fares better on When You're Smiling, thanks in large part to the material -- the Gershwins and Irving Berlin, making Philbin's performance mostly a matter of interpretation. His are not daring renditions of the songs, but he comports himself with aplomb that's surprising, unless you know that Philbin once sang "Pennies From Heaven" with Bing Crosby on Joey Bishop's TV show in the late '60s. Philbin, who was Bishop's announcer, includes the song on When You're Smiling, along with "It Had To Be You," "Cheek to Cheek" and "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You." He also duets with wife Joy on "They Can't Take That Away From Me." None of the songs on When You're Smiling are definitive versions, but they're sure to impress Philbin's legions of fans.

Then there's Shatner. Much of Has Been is over the top and ought to be ridiculous, yet the album exudes an off-kilter style that makes it an instant cult classic.

Ben Folds arranged and produced the album, which features 11 spoken-word pieces by Shatner. The Priceline pitchman intones with solemnity on "It Hasn't Happened Yet" and brings genuine feeling to the attempted filial rapprochement of "That's Me Trying." Mann and Folds harmonize on the song, which Folds wrote with author Nick Hornby.

The best moments, though, come on the crazy, scenery-chewing tracks, such as "Common People" and "I Can't Get Behind That." The former is a Pulp cover, on which Shatner chronicles an encounter with a rich girl eager to go slumming with "common people." It starts conversationally and builds in bombast until Joe Jackson and Shatner are shouting lines back and forth. The same principle drives the latter tune, which finds Shatner and Henry Rollins griping about things that bother them. The pair leaven their irritation with a flash of humor, too: "I can't get behind so-called singers that can't carry a tune, get paid for talking, how easy is that?" Shatner says, before reconsidering. "Well, maybe I can get behind that."

Maybe he's not a has-been after all.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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