Bette Midler

Bette (Warner Bros.)

No, it's not a misprint, addressing the Divine Miss M, the movie star with the terrible new sitcom, the singer who's spent most of her 28-year-career living in either the Coven of Camp or the Safe Haven of Schmaltz. It may not be easy to start taking her seriously at this late date, but Bette would make one heck of a debut release for a new song interpreter.

Midler recruited Don Was to give her some much-needed credibility with the middle-aged-hepster set, and he went to work helping her choose songs and arrangements. Was can seem like a genius when he gets a cooperative artist's work to produce, and this might be one of his finest projects.

It takes some chutzpah to record a new version of "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)," a classic solidly ingrained in the public's collective memory as being a part of the Temptations' very being, not a song open to new interpretation. Midler has to fumble a bit to switch the gender pronouns, but all that presto-changeo stuff succeeds, either intentionally or not, in directing the listener to the lyrics themselves; a ballet performed on a tightrope strung between pathos and bathos, Midler sings this song so tenderly, with such familiarity, you'd swear she's been carrying a torch half her life.

"God Give Me Strength" was the first and best result of the Burt Bacharach/Elvis Costello collaboration a couple of years back, and it's been screaming to be interpreted. Midler slips right in and creates a classic. For one thing, she can hit the high notes Costello just skirted in the original, and for another, she imbues the song with a greater sense of vulnerability; the revenge she wants to impart on her jilting ex-lover sounds as if it will require a greater chunk of her self to achieve. To her everlasting credit, she's not going to let that stop her from getting it.

Other high points include a Dionne Warwick-styled approach to Baby Washington's "That's How Heartaches Are Made," a delightfully sassy take on Kirsty MacColl's salsaesque "In These Shoes," a poppy rendition of Patty Griffin's folksy "Moses" and deliciously sensual versions of Teddy Pendergrass's "Love TKO" and the Manhattans' "Shining Star." You can forgive the aggressively chirpy theme song to her TV show and a couple of returns to her schmaltzy comfort zone, because Bette Midler has achieved so much on the rest of the album. Throw away your preconceptions and give this one a try.

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