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The way she was After more than a decade of so-so releases, Barbra Streisand eases up on the mellowness and gives fans more uptempo flair

It has been a joke around the office for years that I'm the go-to gal for all-things-Streisand.

I've worn out dozens of her albums playing them relentlessly since I was a teen; I've seen her movies multiple times; I interviewed her in L.A. before the opening of her film "The Mirror Has Two Faces," and saw her sing live in 1994 in New York City.

But the music stopped, at least for me, around 1997 with the release of "Higher Ground," a CD of inspirational/quasi-religious tunes and tribute to Bill Clinton's mother, which was close to unbearable. I should have been tipped off by the cover photo of the mantilla-draped Streisand, but even I couldn't believe how bad that CD was. (A black lace mantilla, really, Barbra?)

That was followed by "A Love Like Ours" ('99), "The Movie Album" ('03), "Guilty Pleasures" ('05; an unfortunate rematch with Barry Gibb) and "Love Is the Answer" ('09).

With the two "Love" CDs, the problem became clearer: Streisand had grown mellow, apparently not just in her personal life after her marriage to James Brolin, but also in her music. Don't get me wrong; Streisand's voice is as good as ever. She always sings with the best musicians, wrapped in the romantic sound of strings and lush orchestrations.

The more recent CDs, though, have been marred by too much lushness and songs that are too slow, too syrupy and too similar. Those CDs were (and I never thought I'd say this about Streisand's music) boring, so I stopped listening.

The mellow factor may be lessening ever-so-slightly with this month's release of "What Matters Most," subtitled "Barbra Streisand sings the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman." Actually, she has been singing their words most of her career, and they have provided some of her most popular songs -- "The Way We Were," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "Papa, Can You Here Me?," "A Piece of Sky" and many more.

This newest CD contains 10 songs Streisand hasn't recorded before, with music written by Johnny Mandel, David Shire, John Williams and others. There's a bonus disc with previously recorded Bergman-Streisand collaborations going back to 1971, and a 24-page booklet detailing the singer's long relationship with the writers, which is mutually adoring, on the professional and personal levels.

This new collection is heavy on love/relationship themes, with gorgeous melodies -- and more syrup. But there are some bright spots when the tempo picks up and Streisand displays some of her old musical flair. One of the best is the classic "Nice 'n' Easy," which starts out mellow and picks up midway through, proving there's nothing wrong with Streisand's sense of rhythm.

She also returns to her perkier musical side with another classic, "That Face," so familiar a tune it's hard to believe Streisand hasn't recorded it before, but illustrates how in synch singer and lyricists are. (I think a snippet of "That Face" was blended into a melody on one of her long-ago TV specials.)

It's the opening track, "The Windmills of Your Mind" (music by Michel Legrand) that stays with you long after the CD turns off. First you notice its eerie similarities to songs written for "Yentl," and then you realize Streisand opens the song solo -- just her voice and the Bergmans' words.

I was moved by how beautiful "Windmills," from the movie "The Thomas Crown Affair," remains, and though the song is new to her, it's another example of how powerfully Streisand communicates emotion the Bergmans' create with their lyrics.

"[Streisand] always gets exactly what we mean in a lyric. And more," the Bergmans write in the liner notes. "Shadings, feelings, nuances, emerge that never fail to surprise and thrill us." And for the listener, move us.

The Streisand/Bergman collaboration has endured for decades, and for that, Streisand fans should be grateful. Now, if only she would pick up the pace, and give us the musical moxie that's been missing. When Streisand belts out a tune like "Lover Come Back to Me" or "Cry Me a River," you can't help but feel on top of the world.

> MUSIC REVIEW

What Matters Most

Barbra Streisand

Columbia Records

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

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