Sound Advice Reviews
Singing the songs of ...
More songwriter collections this time out: each from a female vocalist. Lisa Howard gives William Finn a spin, then it's Nightlife Award winner Karen Oberlin's live show saluting Frank Loesser, and Shepley Metcalf with songs by lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Simon Wallace.
What we have here is a thoroughly successful and extremely impressive album, Lisa Howard's debut solo CD. She's taking on the songs of William Finn (a natural fit, as she was a stand-out in the original cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), who doesn't toss off light and lightweight songs, but rather presents challenging ones with naked emotions and passions throbbing or a polished blizzard of lyrics. Without signs of vocal strain or breaking a sweat, but embracing the intensity, Howard triumphs time and again, sounding thoroughly involved, and she aces the musical demands. In the "bigger" pieces, like "Infinite Joy" that are like the musical equivalents of Olympic events, she's like the athlete who you know will go forand getthe gold. And she sails through "Sailing" with real beauty and ease, freshening this number that has been tackled by many singers, and making the song thoughtful and pretty.
Michael Starobin, with Finn projects also on his résumé, superbly and interestingly orchestrated six of the 11 tracks. And we have the formidable presence of musical director/CD producer/pianist Vadim Feichtner conducting the orchestra; he's an alumnus of Spelling Bee and other Finn projects, who clearly "gets it" and gets it right. There's nothing from that musical here, but several other musicals are represented. Notably, The Royal Family of Broadway, a 1994 score without its own full-score recording, is royally treated by having four of its numbers presented, including the CD's delicious showbiz saga opener, "Listen to the Beat." Finn's Falsettos forays are sampled twice, both in song pairings with something from another theatrical source: "Trina's Song" is coupled with "I Have Found" from Royal Family and the tender "Father to Son" is matched up (not mashed up withit blends well) with "That's Enough for Me" from Romance in Hard Times (that score's "Hold My Baby Back" gets its own airing).
Two male vocalists make appearances: Sebastian Arcelus joins in on the CD's title song and Derrick Baskin basks in the glow of love with another Royal command performance, "I Don't Know Why I Love You" (known also as "I Don't Know Why You Love Me"shades of Show Boat's ardent contentment, but with more guts). Back-up singers join the party a bit, too. Special mention must be made of "How to Make Chocolate Pudding," the long, quirky, quick-paced story-song of a zillion words, and Lisa Howard is just the woman to tackle it. The cavalcade of words were set not by our fine friend Finn, but by Deborah Abramson.
The CD is a satisfying mix of styles, moods and tempi, throbbingly sincere readings accompanying rich melody lines, and some leaner renditions. Singers often make the mistake of over-singing Finn songs because their statements can be so bold and devotionally declarative. Lisa Howard trusts the materialwhen the song's colors are intense, you don't need to add neon of your own; when a song's heart is pounding overtime on its own is not the time to bring out the defibrillator. Her voice is more than just a gloriously attractive instrument at her disposal: she infuses believable character and personality, shades words nicely, and projects a been there/done that/survived it sensibility. When humor is called for, and it often is, it's woven into the characterization and phrasing naturallyrather than used as a tool to hit one over the head.
Lisa Howard has the tools of her singing trade sharpened and uses them with ultimate skill and infinite joy. And it's a joy to state unequivocally that this is one of the finest vocal CDs to come down the pike in some time.
For her third solo album on Miranda Music, Karen Oberlin brings her considerable charms and warmth and class to the work of one of the greats of the Great American Songbook. Recorded live during her engagement at the historic Oak Room of Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel, the recording includes most of the songs she sang and just a little of the patter. "Lovely" is the unavoidable adjective for Karen Oberlin, given the warm, attractive, ladylike, cozy sound of her voice and her beauty pageant-worthy looks and carriage. Guys and Dolls' rock-solid score gets the most prominence here, with four representative samples, including the breezy cut song "Traveling Light." And from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, we get "I Believe in You," delivered with cheery affection and unaffected sparkle. "Lovelier Than Ever," Where's Charley?'s one delight presented here, is dreamily delivered.
Not a belter and not a wimpy whisperer, Karen Oberlin's style is more the crooning, sometimes cooing, breathy balladeering that is exceptionally endearing. She has done shows centered around Doris Day (marvelously so) and, at the end of the day, there's still a lot of that singer's style (more sugar-free, though) that one really notices. It's all to the good and fits her like a satin glove.
But it's not all sweetness and light. With a playful wink and a twinkle, Karen can spice up the night with humor and spunk. Examples on hand are the jokey, sassy synopsis of "Hamlet" (a puzzling Loesser assignment to add material to Cole Porter's score of Red, Hot and Blue for its movie version) and, also from film (Thank Your Lucky Stars), a collaboration with composer Arthur Schwartz: the bright and buoyant "Love Isn't Born (It's Made)." On these two tracks, we hear appreciative laughter from the audience on numerous lines enhanced by Karen's knowing, stylish, well-timed delivery of a punch line. Affection of the inter-human kind (song subject matter) and affection for the finely crafted material and writer celebrant comes through in the two oh-so-brief remnants of patter.
The musical settings are a result of conferencing and idea-sharing between Karen and the act's superb pianist/musical director, Jon Weber, whose knowledge of, and admiration for, Loesser is evident in how he plays and treats the songs. Jon's musical creativity and attention to detail are on full display, as he plays as one who's lived inside this music for a long time and thought things through, knowing each corner and color possibility, making satisfying and subtle choices. He also chimes in merrily a bit here and there. The only other musician on the gig is the fine bassist Sean Smith, who is particularly swell on the cute "Snug as a Bug in a Rug" (a 1939 movie song with a plucky and plucked melody by Matty Malneck).
In addition to winning a Nightlife Award for the show, Karen is nominated for both the act and this recording of it by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) who present their annual awards show and open those envelopes on May 10 in Times Square at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. Meanwhile, this souvenir is a ray of very warm and welcome sunshine.
Sly, hip, humorous, gently sophisticated but down to earth, tinged with a clearer-eyed sadness and definitely lightly tastefully jazzy, the fairly recent collaborations of witty lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Simon Wallace are modest but meaty treats. Little slices of life and love, with a mostly bemused point of view, they are grown-up and grow on a listener, rather than knocking one out on first listen. Singer Shepley Metcalf, based in Massachusetts, is their champion and cheerleader, but cheers with a gentle voice. Spotlight is on the material, treating the ballads reverentially with hushed, vulnerable tremors, employing a careful approach to the carefree flip attitudes on the froth.
Fran Landesman, now in her eighties and living in England, is best known for long-ago collaborations with composer Tommy Wolf, particularly the classic ballads "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," the latter from their 1959 Off-Broadway musical The Nervous Set, based on a book by her husband Jay Landesman. Those two heartfelt heartbreakers bear virtually no resemblance to these lighter, brighter songs and the much more reserved, self-aware numbers flavored with serenity, irony, or lived-in wisdom. (The lyric giving the CD its title goes, "There's something irresistible in down," acknowledging that self-pity can be self-satisfyingly safe.) Older-but-wiser advice urges valuing what's "rescued from the vaults of yesterday" in invaluable photos that let us "peek into the past" in the memory lanes strolled in "Save the Photographs." And there's something soothing and encouraging in a piece called "Scars" reminding us that everybody has them in some way, big and small, "from our various wars on our way to the stars." It's one of Simon Wallace's prettiest, most languorous melodies, subtly haunting, in his own arrangement.
The amusing songs, with conversational lyrics and low-key music, are more the kind to bring out smiles and chuckles than big guffaws. "Feet Do Your Stuff," with its brisk and likeably rhyme-rich lines about knowing when to cut your losses and vamoose, is a treat. Cheeky and cute is the little number where the no-longer-young person will be happy to have "One Good Scandal" ahead. In another, "Did We Have Any Fun?," it's a morning hangover and memory lapses waking up with a stranger. The attitude in presentation here and elsewhere is often more like a shrug than a strut. Shepley is not a grandstander, her smallish voice snuggling into the songs, making mellow moments cozy or coasting through the breezier tunes. A sardonic, self-knowing chuckle in her phrasing is a trademark overused a bit. Sometimes one wishes she would let loose more, relax, as there is what feels like methodical meticulousness or muttering in spinning out the lyrics, a couple of tempi that feel turgid or slow-mo ("What Love Knows") as if she wants to underline every line.
These songs have only recently been published and most are little known, although the zingy "In a New York Minute" has been picked up by some swinging singers lately, such as Ian Shaw and MAC-nominated Deb Berman who included it in her show this year debuting at the Metropolitan Room, where I also caught Shepley Metcalf performing all of this material. Of the album's 15 tracks, 11 clock in at under two-and-a-half minutes, as they tend to make their point in a no-nonsense way, without extended jazz instrumental solos or big endings.
Accompaniment is led by less-is-more pianist Ron Roy, who seems to be right with the singer at every turn of phrase and adds solid support and drive when needed. He did all the arrangements except the one for "Scars." He's joined, admirably, by Chris Rathbun on acoustic bass and drummer Gene Roma.
The CD is more like a platter of mostly appealing appetizers with no big main course or rich desserts. Non-splashy, lower-drama, small-scale songs they are, but a menu well worth sampling and savoring. These mostly short, mostly modest songs sung with a modicum of elegance and care by Shepley Metcalf are, by and large, small pleasures to treasure.