This steamy summer, consider giving your world of music a global warming with the CDs considered here. It may not be the most typical listening, but there's some welcome ear-conditioning.
It's a pleasure to get to know more of Annie Dinerman's songs and to hear her sing them herself, in a voice that has an odd but pleasing mix of vulnerability and determination. She projects warmth and intelligence. I knew some of her output from recordings by others. She wrote (or co-wrote with Ned Ginsburg) some peppy things for The Broadway Kids, the ever-changing performing group made up of children appearing in various musicals. Her versatility was obvious from songs I heard on on recordings by Alix Korey, Barbara Lea, Meg Christian ...and there are others. Only two of the songs I'd heard, both memorably recorded Nancy LaMott, are included here. Annie sings them with a sincerity and sense of longing that manage to avoid sentimentality. They are the wistful "Child in Me Again" and "The Lady Down the Hall," a true gem of a song that captures character and a slice of life. Story-songs are clearly a strength, as she sings several that present specific details, setting and mood with the flair of a short story writer. Varied colors come through in her voice as she sings with characterizations that ring true, with moods of joy, caution, resignation and loneliness. There's a genuineness that comes through immediately, and a bittersweet quality that lingers.
Though a skilled wordsmith, Annie gives plenty of attention to the music, with a penchant for catchy melodies and riffs, shifting rhythms and tempi. She often inhabits the sensibilities and sound of 1960s folky pop-rock and gets in touch with her inner mariachi band member. Two or three items make their strongest impact early on, consequently feel a little long, and make me a bit itchy to get to the next thing. But it's a good mix of rhythmic songs, some that make a listener want to move and some that have the potential to move us emotionally.
Especially well done and effective are the harmony and back-up vocals provided by Annie and Jeff Olmsted. He is her co-arranger, co-producer and one-man band on everything except "Child in Me Again" where those duties are filled by Jeffrey Roy. Some of the tracks have a very lively, feel-good vibe, but there's always more than that because of the deeper emotion and tale being told. I especially like "Same All Over" with its commentary about men and women and its attention to language ("He's the kind of potentate who's only got potential to remain the same"), all the while wearing a smile through its upbeat party rhythm. "Halo 'Round My Heart" and "Magdalena, No" are a pair of memory pieces painting pictures of teenage comings and goings, unrequited love and street corner hanging out with Jesse, the boy who sings like Frankie Valli.
The quieter and simpler "Maybe, Maybe" is one of the album's highlights. It presents the dilemma of a woman who has a long-held, troubling secret. Wondering what the reaction will be from the man who she knows is about to propose, Annie's voice captures the uncertainty and anguish as well as the very real hope that it will be OK. It's both heartbreaking and optimistic, as the songwriter leaves the audience knowing neither the outcome nor the secret itself. But whether she is singing of the past, the love that may not last or starting over in a sadder-but-wiser state of mind, Annie Dinerman is a thoughtful, keenly observant and very down-to-earth presence.
An intriguing combination of a warm voice and a cool attitude, Tom Lellis specializes in his own song combinations in the latest of several jazz albums. A laidback and hypnotic "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" from Kismet meets Cole Porter when Tom casually mixes in plenty of "I Get a Kick Out of You," a surprise at first since it's not even listed on the album. A real feast for Beatle fans is his "Norwegian Wood" suite which incorporates little bits of a whole slew of their songs. I don't think his pairing of two other pop hits totally works: rather than a happy marriage, it feels more like Motown versus U2 when he sings "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" against "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
Joined by flautist Jeremy Steig, Tom dresses an inviting and sensitive "Pure Imagination" (the deliciously sweet confection from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) with another melody. It's something called "Waiting for Angela" by Toninho Horta, who appears as guitarist on the next track, "River of Light," along with that song's composer, Gary Fisher, playing keyboards and percussion. "River of Light" is one of seven numbers for which Tom wrote his own lyrics, with no two melodies by the same composer. In "A Choice of Fates," he supplies his own music. His lyrics tend to be pensive, with a fondness for images of nature. The resulting songs are not especially "commercial." Whether languid or wandering, there are many attractive small twists and turns in the melodies as relished by musicians and singer. On all tracks but one, Tom is both, as he suavely plays guitar, percussion or keyboards.
With a flexible voice that navigates smoothly and unhesitatingly through challenging and very different melodic terrain, Tom makes for satisfying listening. His basic salty-sweet vocal sound is consistent throughout the album. There's a becoming touch of gruffness here and there and an invigorating strength on sustained tones on "For Better Days Ahead." It boasts a Pat Metheny melody with Tom's straight ahead optimistic lyrics and is the song I've made my own "repeat play" favorite of the last few weeks. Empowering and encouraging without being the least bit ponderous or sticky, it gets you up on the right side of the bed and keeps you there, even on a bad day. ("Pendulums do swing/ Winter's followed by spring/ So I hope you'll let a note begin to ring ..."). Non-jazz regulars may find some of the other less traditional tunes and interpretations not immediately accessible, but may still find rewards.
UNDER THE RADAR
And now it's time for a look at a musical about menopausal women in "the change" of pace item of the week.
Sometimes warm and fuzzy, sometimes giving the cold shoulder to men, Hot Flashes is a mostly light-hearted, high-energy commentary on women confronting men and menopause. Sometimes going for the wink, occasionally going for the jugular or the heart and often going for cheap laughs, it aims to please and tease, with some success. The material is uneven, with some cause for laughs and some cause for groans.
This show began in 2002 in Portland, Oregon and played theaters in the Pacific Northwest, closing just recently. It bears more than a flashing resemblance to a musical called Menopause the Musical, which debuted in 2001 and has run in various cities, including four years in New York, where it also closed earlier this year. Both feature comic commiseration about menopausal symptoms and aging and use well-known pop-rock songs fitted with totally new lyrics. Hot Flashes mixes this idea with original songs to spotlight hormones and harmonies. Kate Finn and Rick Weiss came up with the lyrics for all the songs as well as the new music, with the exception of two numbers (the saga of "Sally Secretary" and the pseudo-reggae "Love's the Bottom Line," both written by cast member Marvella McPartland). Kate is in the cast as well and plays a few instruments here and there; Rick has a cameo vocal appearance on disc, plays keyboard on several tracks and they also worked together producing the album. The album doesn't identify who sings lead or solo sections, but these are ensemble numbers; the other cast members are Sharon Knorr, Pam Krieg and Lynn Thomas (who plays piano on half a dozen of the 20 tracks). All sing passably well, plainly rather than distinctively. The characters are members of an all-female rock band who age from their 40s to their 70s, allowing for later songs from a senior point of view rather than endless variations on approaching or resisting middle age.
This is hit or miss stuff, the inspired alongaside the tired. Some is well-intentioned but bland. Opening with one of the better attempts at song parody, the cast takes on the feminist landmark hit recorded by Helen Reddy, "I Am Woman." ("I am woman, hear me bitch, I can't seem to find my niche.") There's one musical comedy choice, taking Cats' "Memory" to lament memory loss - also cute. The weaker efforts using recycled melodies suffer from wearing out one-joke premises with lyrics that aren't sharp enough or stumble with false rhymes or awkward scanning. Some of these habits infect the numbers with original music, too. Of these, "I Want a Trophy Husband" is fun fantasy with claws, and "Senior Moments," while not perfect, has its moments. Near the end, there are a couple of sincere, heavy moments that come as a surprise. One is an effective original, "Letting Go," about women struggling for closure, to accept that a daughter has grown up, a son has died, or that there are lingering thoughts about an ex-husband. Another serious turn comes with the final selection on the CD, an unlisted one (bonus track?) that is quite heartfelt and especially well sung, another look at having to let go of the past and say goodbye. The show's website, www.hotflashesthemusical.com gives you some song samples and more info. September 30 will see the premiere of a new musical debuting in Portland, also about women, by Finn and Weiss. News flash: this post-Hot Flashes show is called Flashbacks. So, they'll be back, with some of the same cast back, too.
While we wait for the autumn when releases are more plentiful, there will still be some hot stuff to talk about during August. And I've already heard a preview of a new Christmas album.