Sound Advice Reviews
One Man, Two Guvnors, three female singers
Currently playing on both sides of "the pond," having landed on Broadway, the British comedy with glibly cheery songs prefacing and punctuating the action between scenes, One Man, Two Guvnors offers these custom-written numbers on CD. With a few exceptions, the 15 selections are performed by the on-stage band from the National Theatre of Great Britain production, featuring the project's own songwriter, Grant Oldingthe irrepressible but offhand lead singer, keyboardist, harmonica player and one of two guitarists. The recently opened New York version has a completely different band, but the cast members featured on three tracks are in the Broadway company. Top-billed James Corden (the "one man" of the title) participates in the summing-up lively group finale ("Tomorrow Looks Good from Here"), which he begins with a spoken bit. It is a collaboration between Olding and the show's playwright, Richard Bean. Also heard on this recording are Martyn Ellis, who has a rowdy lead vocal on the fast-paced story-song about gluttony, "My Old Man's a Gannet," and the three female cast members (Claire Lams, Jemima Rooper, Suzie Toase) who are delightful in a close-harmony, cheeky change-of-pace cutely bouncy "Lighten Up and Lay Low." That catchy number is a zippy bit of deliciousness advising leaving the scene of a crime and keeping a low profile to avoid being caught.
There are two appealing instrumentals, "The End of the Pier Blues" and what's listed as a bonus track, "Calypso Jones," which is all of 37 seconds long. The numerous band numbers are decidedly pastiche, aiming to recreate the music style of skiffle, popular in England in the early 1960s period where the action is set in this wild comedy based on the old play The Servant of Two Masters. Skiffle music, with its kind of intentionally unpolished, homemade sound, is informed by old blues and folk styleswith simple chords and a carefree or rambunctious attitude.
Olding's bandmates all sing backing vocals, with Phil James on lead guitar and banjo, Richard Coughlan on bass (electric and acoustic) and percussionist Benjamin Brooker. The high-flying spunky energy has its appeal, but it can feel like a series of brash struts or almost one long party, despite some variety in the not-terribly-meaty musical dishes served up. Much of the quick-strumming romps are smile-inducing and irreverent, with some quirky moments. Certainly unpretentious, Olding and his unflagging fellow musician-singers seem to be having a ball. But it certainly doesn't have the theatrical "feel" of a cast album. Some tracks certainly give a sense of winking at the storylines in the lyrics, like "The Ballad of Ted and Calista" about a brother and sister who wear each other's clothes. However, the musical styles and energies feel whole-heartedly and affectionately embraced, not condescended to or self-consciously filtered through latter-day sounds or sensibilities or sophistication. It's flashback time with a grin.
The song heard first, "The Brighton Line," is reprised before the finale in what's called the (self-explanatory) Car Horns version (promotional video footage online shows the large set of honkable horns - more of this musical humor/sound effects and jug band trademarks would have been welcome). The smooth, instantly ingratiating and folky "The Columbia River" is a treat, holding up better on repeat listens than some of the thinner, rougher numbers and those with more attitude and frenetic flash than musical substance. Knowing the basics of the storyreferenced in general terms in the liner notes about how the original expectation of a little music became a whole set of songshelps one appreciate the lyrical content and stance more.
In her mixed-bag solo debut CD, musical theatre actress Julie Reiber, who has also done some cabaret work, includes a couple of songs from roles she's played, a couple of other items from musicals, pop covers, folk, and three pieces she wrote herself. She's currently on Broadway in the company of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a gig she got the call about on the last weekend of her prior assignment as the standby for the lead female role in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Love Travels includes a big song she got to do when starring as one of the more recent in the parade of women who've gone green-faced in Wicked. Her "Defying Gravity" begins promisingly, then, with electric guitar and assertive percussion screaming and enabling, veers pretty soon into an accelerating steamroller effect with broad strokes of energy, but little pause for reflection or a sense that one line of lyric is more key than another.
Another part under her belt was Cathy in the two-character musical by Jason Robert Brown, The Last 5 Years and her take on its "I'm Still Hurting" is nicely nuanced and vulnerable. It shows a more fully realized characterization that depends less on fireworksand it works to demonstrate how Julie can, on disc, be quite sympathetic and involving. In what could be similar "still hurt and wounded" territory, less successful is the old Bacharach/David hit "Walk on By," getting an electric update that almost upstages its broken heart.
Purlie's exuberant "I Got Love" lets her be bouncy and burst with frolicking celebration. Yes, vocal bursts and blasts come often on the CD, especially on the non-theatre numbersin that territory where high-toned R&B wailing that can be nasal but nailing a sense of fierceness. The decision to add some extra vocal layers on some cutswhich are all her own voiceemphasize the vocal qualities that some will find intensely strident, but will cause others to be juiced as the enthused singer appears to be. A little of that might go a long way, but there's commitment to each style and stylizations whether she's bristling, bubbling or belting. For me, the most appealing vocal quality comes with the purer open vowel sounds which can be very pretty, and I wish that aspect of her voice were taken advantage of more on the recording. Her thoughtful side informed by the actor's storytelling instincts stands her in good stead on "Little Green." This very tender and personal early Joni Mitchell song, in later years un-coded as the story of the baby girl the songwriter gave up for adoption, lets us see the wistful, more rueful Reiber who can be quite moving.
Judging by her trio of original songs here, she writes material that highlight her various vocal assets, with the rhymes simple, un-showy, and unforced and almost always true rhymes, but not the most sophisticated of language or original/articulate thought. "When You're Around" has some lovely moments, but its many forceful repetitions of the title as it goes on burst the romantic bubble that began gently and reveals it to resemble bubble gum. Her own "Be My Love" is lyrically a seesaw of doubts and determination about a new relationship solidifying or not ("The fear, the joy, the rush, getting carried away/ But I wonder ..." and "I know you're scared, I feel the same as you/ But I wonder if this love is true"). The third piece, "There's a Way," steps away from the romance arena and discusses the world situation, discouraging complacency, suggesting that there's hope for things to get better ("Watchin' the news today was bad/ More bombs and faces, all so sad/ It weighs heavy on my heart ...").
With samples of the songbooks of other pop writer-performers like Stevie Wonder ("Knocks Me Off My Feet") and John Mayer ("Back to You"), Julie Reiber seems game to wear almost any musical hat and to be enjoying each. Accompaniment, however, often seems rooted in a busy hive of activity with guitars, brass and drums workin' hard and keyboardist James Sampliner co-producing with the singer, whose vocals were laid down on top of the instrumental tracks recorded first. (By the way, should you leave the CD in "play" mode for a few minutes after the last track, you may be startled to hear an ill-advised inclusion of a sudden, brief screech after a few minutes of silence.)
There's an enthusiasm and bright energy to Julie Reiber which I still remember from seeing her in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Godspell several years ago. It is prominent on her CD, too.
In recent times, singer-actress Gay Marshall has been seen and heard (on CDs) wrapped up in the songs of the iconic Edith Piaf and in the revival production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Next month, she returns to that piece in the recurring performances with a revolving cast at NYC's Upper West side venue The Triad, and she also has a couple of nightclub nights set on the East Side at Feinstein's at Loews Regency. In Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night, she re-invents herself very convincingly as an old-timey bluesy-with-attitude (and humor) personality. In a consistently secure and solid outing, she dives fully into the period genre and pose of a woman who has her jaded eyes wide open and may not have had it easy, but she's not easy to push around by any means. The persona she presents splashes aroundrather than drowning inthe blues. If the shelf life of her time with that no-good scoundrel of a man has expired, she's ready, willing and able to chalk it up to experience and slam the door. And you can bet if he comes knocking, the locks have been changed or she's packed up and moved on. There's some variety in tone, tempo, tenor, and always-quite-low teardrop quota, but the set list feels very much of a piece. As the subtitle accurately characterizes the album's overall style, Gay has her say with "foot stompin' hand clappin' good time blues." With mostly vintage material, wrapping herself gleefully and comfortably in the styles of such predecessors as Bessie Smithbut with a light touch and a touch of funshe is in her element.
Much of this has assertive personality and pure entertainment as its strong suits. A couple of numbers skim over their material's potential of anger or vulnerability. For example, the classic "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" stays squarely in the middle, not much showing seething or simmering, not demonstrating bitterness or driving determination. The vast majority don't "go there" and the material chosen doesn't have much depth and layers: what you see (hear) is what you get. However, within this framework and specific ambiance, it's good work and done with flair and command.
Gay's wailing voice can pull back, mutter or purr, croon or growland the more exultantly happy releases, such as "Guess Who's in Town" (Andy Razaf/ J.C. Johnson) about the return of her man (one of the good guys) make for jubilant jamborees. She doesn't find much of anything new to bring to the familiar standby "Sweet Georgia Brown" which seems oddly tepid. Here and there, tracks stay in one groove or color for a longish while and start to feel less engaging, a danger in a theme album without tremendous variety in overall style and genre. Buthallelujah!it's a welcome relief to have a singer taking on a famously double entendre song such as "My Handyman Ain't Handy No More" and not overplay the suggestiveness and sexual heavy winking. You don't sense her hitting you over the head with the lines that others linger over lasciviously and laboriously.
The five-man band serves the singer well, giving her room to stretch, but contributing majorly to the guts and grit as well as establishing and embellishing the musical territory. Particularly effective is sax man Tony Koussa, but there's fine work from all: trombone player Bruce Lehtinen, pianist Mike Sands, bassist Martin Block, and drummer Roy King. With her band, Gay Marshall, in her self-produced album, makes this material a comfort zone she seems to own. She revels in it, pulls her weight, and often pulls us in.
In her latest CD, a generous-length collection of 17 tracks, Nancy Stearns has a theme: all numbers deal with the weather or the seasons and how they affect peopleand, in one case, ducks ... and, in another, "Wendell's Cat" (a charmer by singer Daryl Sherman). As in all her past CDs, New Yorker Nancy, a retired attorney who follows (and expresses) her heart through music, is accompanied by the same two outstanding and classy musicians: bassist David Finck and pianist/arranger Gregory Toroian. It's very much a team effort, with the instrumentalists shaping, illuminating, and fleshing out the musical landscapes. Although they are prodigiously gifted players who can be commanding and dynamic in a cabaret-style set or as jazzmen, they never upstage the very low-key lady whose folksy, conversational approach favors no big notes or big finishes or flourishes, but conveys the gist of lyrics in a down-to- earth manner.
She'll sometimes speak a phrase rather than sing it and an extended mellow or murky mood may risk lags in energy, but there's amply evident sincerity in her manner. And these two musicians often buoy her and feather her nest with beautifully layered sounds or simply keep a flow ensured. Respect for and deference to each other is ever-present, as is the ultimate commitment to the very fine material chosen. While her phrasing on two Irving Berlin numbers, "Blue Skies" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)," meanders in places, the sincerity shines through. The Fantasticks's sweet "Soon It's Gonna Rain" is sprinkled with an apt sense of wonder.
With songs whose lyrics go beyond just cute references to mundane meteorological matters, the album never risks feeling like the soundtrack to television's The Weather Channel. Depth and laments and catharsis come into play with Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" about a flood in that year and place and Loonis McGlohon/Alec Wilder's emotionally hefty, haunting and mature exploration of the uneasiness of "Blackberry Winter" (with its pained realization "I'll never get over losing you/ But I've learned that life goes on"). And Nancy, while she's nobody's weepy drama queen, rises to the occasion with a mix of the restrained and pained choking back of very present (or past) tears. For me, although she wins points for grace and smiling good spirits (Francesca Blumenthal's endearing "Christmas in New York" and the sprightly splash of fun in Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman's "It's Nice Weather for Ducks"), where she really impresses is when she takes on something invoking a philosophical bent or reflective element. A good example here is her dignified and pensive reading of Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise," carrying real weight in the way she expresses the mix of serenity and hope. In Noël Coward's "Come the Wild, Wild Weather," with its quiet but firm assurance that "we will always be friends," is persuasive and warm. The use of elements of Nature as powerful metaphors in both pieces is something that suits the Stearns style of communication, transmitting a well of feeling and considered perspectives.
Gregory Toroian's arrangements capture the singer's humanity and bring extra depth and shadings when she underplaysquite the balanceand the rich fabric of some marvelous melodies get both loving care and informed emphasis in his playing. His settings have real character and form, avoiding clichés (some playing on selections about rain more subtly suggest the rhythms or tinkling of raindrops without risking a "sound effects" punctuated approach). And his jazzier excursions on solos are pure pleasure. Once again, he'll be at the keyboard with Mr. Finck in his place on bass, as Nancy Stearns and the fourth talented member of their returning creative team simpatico director Helen Baldassaredebut another cabaret show, titled A Wish, tonight (May 3), repeating it on Sunday, at NYC's Metropolitan Room. After ten consecutive years of these thoughtful collaborations and explorations, several of which I've witnessed, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that we'll be set for another intelligent and informed presentation.