It's a starry week. We start with two new cast albums; one is about real-life pop stars
and the other is pure (science) fiction about beings who come from out there
among the stars. At the end is our own weekly discovery, a CD called Just Like Heaven. In between, two cabaret entries: an established star and a rising star -
Karen Mason offering the Sweetest of Nights and then two Days (Spencer Day's two
albums). Things are often as different as night and day around here ...
In case you've been out of the loop, it seems that Broadway has a new hit show. Jersey Boys is the story of the rise of the rock and roll group The Four Seasons and their lead singer Frankie Valli. The show's songs are the group's greatest hits plus some other tunes of the early 1960s and earlier. There are no new songs and no new ideas of how to interpret them as this is a musical biography attempting to recreate the sound of the harmonies and Valli's trademark falsetto. The songs are used almost exclusively as performance pieces rather than extensions of dialogue or as comments on the action. On disc, the singing sounds pretty impressive as a close copy. Those who prefer standards and are being introduced to (or reminded of) The Four Seasons' sound may be interested in knowing that Valli and the group recorded a handful of show tunes and standards. Expectedly, it's their own Top 40 hits that are on hand here: "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Working My Way Back to You," "Rag Doll," etc.
John Lloyd Young comes close to Valli's unusually powerful falsetto on much of the album. He can be eerily right on, although he doesn't strike every match. Valli dominated the hit records, so the other three singers don't get the same kind of chance to shine, although Daniel Reichard, as group member Bob Gaudio who co-wrote many of the songs, has a vocal moment in the spotlight with "December 1963" ("Oh, What a Night"). The real Gaudio produced the album and the sound quality is very, very good. The energy is great. The drums are prominent and the beat goes on.
The hits that take up much of the playing time are still available in their original versions and Jersey Boys' record company, Rhino, won't mind too much if you opt to purchase them since the reissues are on their label, too. In view of the close-but-no-cigar attempt to approximate the sound, what are some other attractions here? After comparing the sound to the original group's, it's actually the earliest tracks that might seem more interesting. Some earlier doo-wop numbers are heard as the group comes up in the ranks, singing other people's hits and doing back-up vocals. The fast-moving rise to fame from rags to "Rag Doll" is well done and some other singers are heard in short bits. There are even quick passes at two Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields songs, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "I'm in the Mood for Love" (as adapted to be known as "Moody's Mood for Love" by James Moody).
Older listeners who grew up in this era and think they've moved beyond the AM radio hits of their youth may find it all a guilty pleasure. No guilt is necessary for a swim in the nostalgia pool. This is an affectionate and polished effort, certainly an enjoyable souvenir of a Broadway night. The Gaudio audio I'll more likely pull out in future years is the original article, but there's no need to be a snob about this. It's fun.
A musical based on a science fiction movie about a video game that comes to life could have been just fluff. It could have been campy or clever. It could have been startling or Star-Trekky. For The Last Starfighter the choice was "all of the above." It's quite an accomplishment, an odd mix that somehow works.
Composer-lyricist Skip Kennon knows an important secret: Humorous and oddball entertainment can be highly entertaining on first exposure, but to be memorable rather than disposable, the songs need to have meat on their bones. His melodies are either intriguing or catchy, his lyrics are full of humor and clever rhymes, and he made sure to include some touching moments. In the midst of the wit and the plot numbers, there's a gorgeous and moving song called "To Make a Hero." It doubly good as it sits in the beautiful voice of Joseph Kolinski as the central visitor from outer space, Centauri (the Robert Preston role in the film). "Love is Like Water," meaning a daily necessity for life, begins with comical man-bashing and then turns into a delicate number for three women - poetry in the middle of some broad comedy taking place in a trailer park. I'm delighted to find the very funny Georga Osborne, whom I've admired in cabaret, among the cast. She stands out in this trio, with both her humor and then her legit trained voice. I wish she had more to do, but she makes the most of what she has. As the evil character of Zur, Bernardo De Paula makes a strong impression.
The piece de resistance is a long track (eight minutes) leading into the big battle, the video game in live action because, you see, the planet in the game really exists. It includes many characters, various musical ideas and dialogue. A big finale is similarly structured, tying things together with reprises.
There are terrific rhymes throughout. I especially like Nevada/ nada and wienies/ bikinis/ Mussolinis, not to mention "pink chablis" rhyming with "Donny and Marie" and "après ski" and more. That last set is in a big number featuring young Travis Walters, doing a good job musicalizing frustration as the 12-year-old brother of our 18-year-old hero, Alex (Charlie Pollock). Charlie sings with high energy and outbursts of joy. His "I want" song, expressing his character's wish for a life more rewarding than fixing broken toilets in the trailer park ("Somebody, Somewhere, Something"), is a smash. He also gets a traditional love duet with his girlfriend, played straight and sincere by Julia Motyka.
There's a little bit of everything here. Credit must be given to Peter Dobbins of The Storm Theatre who directed this crazy quilt, weaving together all the varied threads, and mixing and matching the broad characterizations with the more naturalistic ones. Book writer Fred Landau provides detailed liner notes about the creation of the show leading to the 2004 production and the plot. Many lines of his dialogue, based on the screenplay by Jonathan Betuel, are heard on this entertaining disc. Executive producer Bruce Kimmel presents this on his new Kritzerland label. The sound is clear and bright. If the choice of this kind of material is an indication of what's to come from this new label, the future is bright, too. May the force be with them.
Looking for some nice background music? Well, don't put this album on. Despite the title Sweetest of Nights this is not a sweet little mood-setter for a late-night dinner. It's not "easy listening" background stuff - it commands attention and engages the listener. Karen Mason is a dynamic performer, but that's not news. She's been a strong cabaret singer for quite some time, and has starred on Broadway in Mamma Mia! and went on many times in the lead role in Sunset Boulevard. She also recently played Dorothy Parker in a New York musical, You Might As Well Live. Her acting skills are on full display in her new album.
Sweetest of Nights plays almost like a live performance. Karen is very involved with the lyrics and very present moment by moment. She explores feelings, finding many different shades within a single chorus. She bites into her lyrics. The arrangements also allow her to create and sustain tension and intensity; she stays on the high wire longer than most could ever consider doing. All of her CDs are rewarding listens and she was a pro from the first one, Not So Simply Broadway. This most recent album has plucked some musical theater favorites, too. On the exuberant side, there's a belty "Almost Like Being in Love" from Brigadoon. Karen has long been celebrated as a belter and she can really bring down the house. Although she didn't get to sing the ABBA pop song "The Winner Takes It All" in Mamma Mia!, she takes it on here, finding more drama and anger than most musical excavators could unearth, bringing the material to a more mature level. Her restrained rage and hurt "I don't want to talk," right at the top indicates that this will not simply be a showcase for big voice nor a throwaway in any sense.
Also effective on a sensitive Broadway ballad, Karen's "People" and a medley of "Now I Have Everything" (Fiddler on the Roof) and "Married" find her in fine form with thoughtful phrasing in these happily-ever-after portraits. The other side of that coin is the CD's dramatic highlight about a marriage that's in trouble, "What's Wrong with This Picture?" It's devastating. The song was written by Garry Bormet and Brian Lasser, Karen's late musical director, who left her some strong material and five of the arrangements finally recorded for this CD.
There's also a new song here, "Cold Enough to Cross" with good use of metaphors. It was written by Henry Cory and Paul Rolnick, Karen's album producer and husband. Her long-term relationship musically is with the top-notch Christopher Denny, who is on piano for most of the songs and arranged three of them alone and four others in collaboration with Barry Kleinbort. The CD takes its title from "The Sweetest of Nights and the Finest of Days," from a children's musical based on Judith Viorst's books' Alexander character, written with composer Shelly Markham. Flute, guitar, sax and brass, plus strings in addition to piano, bass and drums add excitement, and accent the emotions Karen Mason etches out with consummate acting skill and her flexible voice. This is solid stuff.
I think you'll be glad to be introduced to Spencer Day. On this first album, you may have to listen a little more carefully than usual to catch some of the words, but it's well worth the effort. In his bluesier, mournful, sultry moments, he won't win an award for diction, muttering in a confessional voice which is appealing and revealing of a sensitive soul. The moody and laidback groove would overwhelm if he didn't have so much going for him. There are times when he uses more voice, floats into a brief falsetto, and shows glimmers of the energy that comes to fruition on her second recording, reviewed below. Multi-tasker Spencer is not only a man of different vocal colors, he also plays piano for himself (sometimes) and does the arrangements, co-produced and wrote seven of the CD's dozen songs.
Spencer is from Utah and has been living in California and New York, but the ambience is more a mint julep-filled lazy day down South somehow, with a stop in New Orleans or a folk club in Anytown, USA. The musicians add tasty, evocative, understated flavors. Especially striking is Yair Evnine on guitars and cello.
The standard "Skylark" is the perfect showcase for Spencer's plaintive soul-searching side and he turns in a creditable version, sounding lonely and lost without getting lost in self-pity. "Oh, Lady Be Good" from the Gershwin songbook is a shot of energy and zing, and a welcome pick-me-up. "Devil Woman," an old Marty Robbins song is taken seriously and finds Spencer taking his time in a hypnotic groove, with the band on the same page. A smart choice is "The Green Leaves of Summer," heard in the 1960 movie The Alamo and rarely since that time. The song's lyric reflects on the days of youth and early love, and Spencer in his mid-twenties turns in a convincing performance. His "Blame It on My Youth" is a success as well. Though his interpretation of this timeless song is quite traditional, it suits him and he sounds like he's in love with it, as he luxuriates in both the lyric and the melody line.
Variety and skill are shown in Spencer's songwriting. The songs are not self-conscious and don't try to show off with "clever" rhymes or too many ideas stuffed into one song. They sound like they could have been written in other decades, as they show influences of various traditions - blues, pop, folk. "On the Stage" deals forthrightly with a person who is most comfortable and at home when in the spotlight. Songs of love and hope mix well with trips into disillusion and loneliness that ring true. "Angel Mine" is a story song of a clear-eyed realist's tale that confronts his own romantic idealism - and has a good hook!
On stage, Spencer is modest and sincere, and those qualities come across on disc, too. I find myself returning to this CD over and over, and recommend it highly. This debut CD has an honesty and a directness that are devoid of calculation and slickness. Still, there's a lot of craft there. And I love it.
Spencer's new release is something that is bigger and smaller. It's bigger in the production sense, with brass and strings in addition to the rhythm section. It's smaller in that it includes only five songs and a video of the title tune. But this half-an-album is wholly outstanding.
Story songs are the order of the Day. The lyrics are more detailed and paint pictures of scenes and specific moments of realization. "Movie of Your Life" is an excellent idea for a song, posing the question: if you could view your life in the form of a movie, would you like the way it plays? "Ernie's Hollywood Party," he explains in his live show, is based on his own experience of feeling out of place at a pretentious social event where he was sneered at for wearing shoes from a discount store. It's satirical but stops short of nastiness. One of Spencer's trademarks seems to be a forgiveness for human foibles and an acceptance of his own. He's self-deprecating in "Last Train to New Jersey," a little tune that's gentle and lovable in its aw-shucks kind of way. In the one-sided stumbling phone conversation, he begs for a chance to plead his case for forgiveness after messing things up. These two lyrics show humor which was not evident on his first CD and a broader range of skills.
Vocally, he sounds more self-assured and vibrant, using greater vocal strength and passion. There's more energy in the vocal production: words sound clearer and seem directed at an audience more than the almost voyeuristic feel hearing some of the first album's confessionals. Vulnerability and the shy, boyish quality that make the CD Introducing Spencer Day so ingratiating are still present, thankfully. This one shows some fire while the first CD was more like smoldering embers with its more low-key feel.
It will be interesting to watch Spencer Day's development. He already shows growth and increasing command. I'm not usually one to make bets and predictions, but I'd be very surprised if his career doesn't continue on the fast-moving roll he's on. I expect we'll be hearing a lot more from him, with strong songs, successfully melding styles. He has integrity and motivation, a sense I got right away and was reinforced in an interview we did last week.
If you're in New York, you can see him Saturday night, November 19, at Joe's Pub. If you happen to be in Australia, well, that's his next stop. More information is available at his website, www.spencerday.com and you can hear song samples there as well.
UNDER THE RADAR
Telling you about Spencer Day's very cool but half-length album reminds me of another abbreviated release I've come across. Twenty-two and a half minutes long, just six-songs, it's short and sweet-- but I'm more than half pleased with this "half an album."
I've been totally charmed by a singer named Nicole Dillenberg. She has a rather rich voice that serves the varied material well. Her diction is especially crisp without sounding studied. She's pretty jazzy, especially on "Blue Skies," and she navigates the challenging melodic hills and valleys of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" with admirable skill. Just as important, she is up to the drama of this lament. This track also brings out some of her lovely head voice which I wish she'd exploit a little more.
Nicole had the luck to stumble upon a hitherto unrecorded song by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, who wrote so many standards for movies. It's a quirky and adorable tune called "A Green Love for Walter." It's full of sweetness and joy with playful lyrics and a bouncy melody. A medley of two songs with the same title, "True Love" is another nifty excursion. The irreverent "True Love" has lyrics with lines like "the Devil drives a Buick." The sincere "True Love" is the Cole Porter song introduced in the film musical High Society by Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. Guess who she came up with as her own duet partner - Bing Crosby's grandson, Phil Crosby, Jr. She's also appearing with him in his Christmas show on December 18. (See www.nicoledillenberg.com for this West Coast event.)
The other selections are "You Go to My Head" and the title tune from the group The Cure, a story song sung with passion but showing restraint. It also has elegant playing by a string section. The piano and arrangements (two more factors making Just like Heaven quite heavenly) are by Bill Cunliffe. He and Nicole produced the CD along with Richard Barron, who plays mellotron (!).
This is a classy affair, not a quickie debut except in length; it shows care. In California, Nicole has played at the Gardenia and will return next month. I definitely want to hear more from this lady.
After taking a one-week break for Thanksgiving, I'll be back on December 1 to tell you about some new holiday albums. Meanwhile, I'm thankful for this week's music and I'll be listening for you and the jingle bells.