Sound Advice Reviews
Two Females Far Apart
Two female vocalists, of different stripes and stances: soprano Shana Farr projects an elegance, refinement, and reserve; Teresa Fischer is a kind of down-home, good-time gal whose emotional side comes out just as directly.
I've been keeping an eye and ear on Shana Farr in various Manhattan cabaret settings for a while now. Rewardingly, she keeps getting deeper and deeper into lyrics, seeming more present and communicative on stage, becoming far more than another pretty face with an inarguably pretty voice. With experience in operettas, there remains a formality in her soprano which is both a blessing and a bit of a curse. It's a glorious sound, but has sometimes lacked personalization in the phrasing and lyrical involvement. That's definitely changed over the last year, and there's evidence of this on her CD, Out of the Shadows. If she hasn't totally escaped the shadows of her predecessors in this material and recital-style stylisms, there's much to relish. There are some magnificent and strong high notes, a marvelous clarity, and she's a musicianly singer. Shana recently did a Julie Andrews tribute, and some of that star's songbook is represented here. Make no mistake: formal and stuffy are not the same thing. There's an old-fashioned dedication to tradition and purity that does not slip into cardboard, bored posing.
The selection referenced by the album's title comes up as the next-to-last track, "Living in the Shadows," and it joins "Crazy World" as souvenirs of the latter career landmark, Victor/Victoria. These two show some of the most pensive lyric involvement, as if choosing or reacting to the words as they tumble out or traipse tenaciously. (Example: reacting to the word "crazy" with the slightest of a shrugged chuckle, the tinge of melancholy and self-awareness about what comes learned hard hiding in the shadows.) Also here are other items Andrews sang on recording or in films, including the welcome choice of something from the generally overlooked score to High Tor (Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, for TV), "Once Upon a Long Ago." It's a gem. But there are other things, too. The CD weaves its melodies from one number to the next by having the arrangements quote from what we heard on the previous track. It may be a strong instrumental reprise segueing us in, done more than once, or a subtle or more buried hint, and may zip by unnoticed by some.
The out-of-genre/era but charming "I'd Settle" by indie artist eric-jon incorporates some strains from the CD's first piece, "Pure Imagination" from the non-Andrews film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Its not-so-strained honey tones of an idyllic land of the mind melt into a more grown-up wistful wish for "Moon River." Rich and serene rather than replete with bittersweet longing, the beauty of song and voice. But have no fear: the exquisitely emotional and textured playing of musical director/pianist Jon Weber, cellist Adam Fisher and clarinetist Dan Levinson provide subtext and longing, enriching and broadening the feelings. The numbers selected can support this kind of co-existence of broader strokes by voice and subtle shadings by these superb musicians. And when Shana's skills of phrasing and mood-painting with extra colors in the voice are at their best (as in Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's mature "Whistling Away the Dark" from Darling Lili), it can be an embarrassment of riches.
Extra points for including the verses to classics like the Noël Coward items and Irving Berlin's immortal "Always" ("Everything went wrong/ And the whole day long/ I'd feel so blue/ For the longest while I'd forget to smile/ Then I met you ..." gives the backstory, making it more than just an idyllic promise in the present looking at the future).
On Thursday, April 11, there's a performance at Guild Hall in Manhattan as Shana and biographer Robert Windeler, author of "Julie Andrews: A Life On Stage And Screen" pay tribute through music and words. And a few days later, and seven blocks south, Shana opens a brand-new, and unrelated, act at the Metropolitan Room. In May, it's off to London's new cabaret room, Crazy Coqs where she'll sing "Crazy World" and the other Andrews repertoire. There's nothing crazy about her golden tones and talent.
Sleeves rolled up, tongue in cheek or heart on sleeve, Missouri-born Teresa Fischer is a notably unpretentious, down-to-earth soul. When she puts the gear shift into "S" for serious and/or slow on her album, it's not for cathartic unloading of personal hurts and hells. Instead, her "all kidding aside" side mostly comments on common human experiences, hope, or philosophy. Throughout Let It Go, there's an encouraging, life-affirming attitude. For example, it's prominent in the title song. Strong messages indicating that optimism and confidence can triumph over despair and discouraging situations dominate there and especially in "The Age of Miracles" (Mary Chapin Carpenter). "Shine" (by James Valcq and Fred Alley, from the musical The Spitfire Grill) brings in these perspectives, and has an even more varied arc, acknowledging hurts and worries and building to a potent pleadingness illuminated by belief that things are going to work out. But the emotion doesn't dissipate anti-climactically; the song builds instead. With it, the performer gets her best vocal showcase, solidly soaring on notes with the song's title, sustaining them musically and dramatically. On many other tracks, she seems more of a plucky entertainer than a nuanced vocalist. "Shine" and Amanda McBroom's "No Fear" prove she's got the goods, the guts, and the gravitas.
I've seen a few of Teresa's cabaret shows at Don't Tell Mama (she has three this month, beginning this Sunday) and I know to expect a mix of the sly and the sincere and the silly. However, the first impression of a CD is its first cut, and I think it should be representative of the album, so if I were new to this singer, my first impression would be of being mildly amused. The opener, "Half a Man" (Jeff Steele/ Kent Blazy) doesn't even show half the singer she can be. It's the rowdiest, most glib and galloping of the lot, and a one-trick pony kind of number which also lays on the down-home country-music-styled sass and strut pretty heavily. The lighter songs dominate the first section of the CD, which would make the thoughtful things to come that much more of a surprise. They are, however, swift fun. The zingy Betty Hutton specialty, "Murder! He Says" (Frank Loesser/ Jimmy McHugh), with its litany of jive phrases of another era is a swell romp. Even if it holds back some from the more raucous and frazzled approach of Hutton, the Teresa treatment is a treat nonetheless. The quaintly cute bon-bon "Row Row Row" had just turned 100 years old when this recording was made last year. It's still very catchy in its rather innocent, blushing tale of courting (delivered with a wallop and a wink).
The Fischer modus operandi shies away neither from goofy glee nor earnest trust. Either can be turned on pretty high, and one must welcome that. If "Crayola Doesn't Make a Color for Your Eyes" sounds simple and extra peppy and repetitive, despite its implied agenda of infatuation, note that its win in the John Lennon songwriting competition for writers Kristin Andreassen and Megan Jones Downes came in the children's category. A couple of shades less bright and bouncy would have suited me, and I think the piece has potential as a more mature ode in the "less is more" school, but I still enjoy it.
The album-ending medley of songs written or co-written by Carole King suffers from too much sugar and doesn't hold together as well as it want to. While some may find it like a playful encore/bonus after the deeper material clustered at CD's end, the jam-packed mash-up minimizes whatever true nostalgia or punch these old songs could have. The agenda of moving pretty quickly from one number to the next to the next to the next in an eight-minutes-plus segment perhaps suggested the thought of not getting much into the songs or just almost referencing some that are decidedly teen-age-y and would seem coy if done "straight"? While it gets richer in some later parts, there's a sense of a poking in the ribs and "Remember this oldie?" and chuckling at them. As happens in other places on this 12-track album, there's a habit of breathing and popping out words whose sounds are given birth in a way that sounds somewhere between a squeak and a squeal of joy. This mega-medley is arranged by musical director Andrew David Sotomayor (who also co-produced with the singer), but four of the arrangements are by others, including longtime cabaret musician Paul Chamlin who is on keys on all but three tracks. Hiroyuki Matsuuri comes in on percussion on four tracks, and that's it for instrumentation.
While a few tracks would have benefited from the emotional textures other instruments could bring, there's a cozy, home-made musical ambiance with the bare bones that suits much of the material. It's got equal amounts of the heart and soul and common sense sensibility that make Teresa Fischer a special and direct song saleswoman.