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This week we look at two male singers and two females, all with their first albums. Each has a different priority in approach to material. That's an important decision. Light, loose and laid back? Or theatrical and thought-provoking? Or the best of both worlds?

Shiny and NewJONATHAN RAYSON
SHINY AND NEW

LML Music

The dream of a music reviewer is to discover a debut album that lives up to its potential, its initial impression and its press release. Jonathan Rayson's Shiny and New is that dream come true, filled with performances that ring true. I received my copy well advance of this week's official release date and have been listening on a regular basis ever since. Each listen brings to light new things to appreciate, and it continues to be very moving.

First of all, Jonathan's voice on ballads is simply arresting. The pure beauty and emotional impact are disarming and riveting. When notes in his higher register float or soar and when he judiciously uses vibrato on a held tone, it's immensely satisfying just as sound. What makes him exceptional is that there's a lot more going on. There's a very real human being coming through, vulnerable, thinking and caring. He also has the musical acumen and theater skills to imbue the material with individuality and a point of view. That's even more impressive when you see that the material is pop songs of the 1970s, not rich musical theater character songs. Much is the cream of the pop, and some of the affection and familiarity with the genre comes from the fact that once upon a time he was a kid singing some of these with the cover band of his father, to whom he dedicates the CD. Jonathan is obviously drawing not only on his fondness for the material, but also on his acting background. The Omaha native has played many leading musical theater roles around the country and, as the Broadway understudy in A Year with Frog and Toad and Little Shop of Horrors, he went on in the lead roles, playing the central character of Seymour in the national tour of the latter. (Our Broadway footnote for this album is that one number made its way to a Broadway stage, as the album opens with Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls," heard in Movin' Out.)

Most of these picks he plucks from the past have some inherent drama, and hemines that drama well. Hear the anguish in Joni Mitchell's "River" as he sings, "I made my baby cry" or the naked honesty of Don McLean's classic "And I Love You So," where he makes a subtle adjustment adjusting the line "all but love is dead" to put the musical stress on the word "love." He throws off all layers of defenses and actor's mask to be bone-honest as he achingly and daringly sings of loneliness or the breathless awe of finding love - both, in fact, in the perfectly realized "Like a Sad Song."

The uptempo selections don't have the same kind of stunning impact as the plaintive ones, but are at the least invigorating, and at the most, inspiring. "Listen to the Music" is the least interesting, and might be a breather if it hadn't been programmed as the second track. But wait, it's not just mindless fun: a line in this ("gotta get a message, get it on through") and a similar one in Dan Fogelberg's "Part of the Plan" says, "some kind of message comes through." A message does come through here and elsewhere: one that's thought-provokingly positive as opposed to pat. There's an underlying life-affirming empowerment there. Other numbers that do this are Carole King's "Beautiful" and the celebratory and encouraging "Brighten Your Nights with My Days" by James Taylor.

Accompaniment-wise, there's appropriate variety, with a band on some cuts (with excellent sound quality, letting us really hear individual instruments like sax, harmonica, trumpets, cello and more). There are several exquisite tracks with spare arrangements find the singer with just one or two musicians, one being his sensitive keyboard player, Dan Chouinard, who with fellow arranger Dennis Curley produced this CD. By the way, it's a line from an early favorite tune of Jonathan and his dad that gives this album its title, and it's heard in a snippet at the end: a hit for Clint Holmes, "Playground in My Mind." But what's "shiny and new" here is the glow Jonathan Rayson gives each dusted-off oldie-but-goodie. What's even brighter than this look at pop's past is the future of Jonathan Rayson as a recording artist and live performer. I can't recommend Shiny and New highly enough.

For more information, visit www.JonathanRayson.com.

Lisa Dawn MillerLISA DAWN MILLER
FLY AWAY

LML Music

Coincidentally, Clint Holmes shows up on our next entry, as a duet on one track ("We've Been Here Before") of Lisa Dawn Miller's enjoyable songfest, Fly Away, also on the LML Music label. It's her album debut, too, but she sounds very much at home in the studio. Hers is a voice the microphone loves, rich and warm. "We've Been Here Before" has a melody that's a collaboration by Lisa and Howard Richman (also heard on piano on the CD), with a lyric by her father, Ron Miller. Half of the 14 songs on the album are those he wrote or co-wrote, including his well-known lyric for "If I Could" (music by Ken Hirsch and Marti Sharron), given a tender treatment. Ron Miller's biggest hit, "For Once in My Life," closes the CD as a duet with the powerfully-voiced Michael Amante. The latter features the rarely included introductory verse with music not by the song's composer, Orlando Murden, but by Lisa's mother, Aurora.

The family affair continues: Lisa's husband, Sandy Hackett, joins her for two duets. One is "Life Saved You for a Rainy Day," sung to them at their wedding by Lisa's father, who wrote it for the occasion. This is the first recording of the understandably sentimental number. Although Sandy has a modest voice, it's effective and unpretentious. Lisa and Sandy appear together in Las Vegas, where comedian Sandy has spent much time. He also portrays Joey Bishop in a tribute show to The Rat Pack. The old standard, "My Buddy" (Gus Donalson/ Gus Kahn) is a heartfelt tribute to Sandy's late father, the wonderful comedian Buddy Hackett.

Lisa often sounds extra-cozy and content; with a few exceptions, there isn't a sense that there's much drama or a lot at stake. Her "Over the Rainbow" is pretty, but more satisfied and serene than yearning. "Smile" has a simple less-is-more arrangement featuring piano and harmonica. It's nicely done - in much of the album, the musical backing is dense and enveloping; though synthesizers are used, it's a case where that sound works better than usual. (There's not a big slice of "cheese" factor, but it's a very produced affair.) It's more lush than mush.

I wonder if Stephen Schwartz ever thought his "For Good" from Wicked would be a wedding song - it was another duet at the couple's nuptials. I find it especially touching in this sincere husband-and-wife context. This is the second cover version of the song on LML, the first being the songwriter himself in tandem with the label's head, singer Lee Lessack on his lovely duets CD In Good Company, a current MAC Award nominee. Another Broadway choice, with a similar theme of gratitude, that comes off quite well is a velvety rendition of Jekyll and Hyde's "Someone Like You."

Amy HotalingAMY
A MIRACLE OF LOVE

Triple Cloud Productions

"Someone Like You" also appears on Amy - A Miracle of Love, Amy Hotaling's debut recording. This version has a basic sincerity, but isn't surefooted. There's a tentativeness, as if she were still struggling with the material, trying to learn it rather than interpret it. Not atypical of the album, it's frustrating to hear, in that some of the performance is awkward, and the big ending (which you'd thing might be the most challenging) is the best part. She has some strong, steady tones in this last part and sounds in control. Amy's other Broadway selection is "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables and it, too, is a mixed bag. A challenging, dramatic song, it needs power and pathos. Again, she tiptoes through some of it and it's more like the singer versus the song rather than being in its skin and living the lament. Nevertheless, it has its moments.

Unfortunately, much of the album does not show off this singer to very good advantage. Some of these versions sound like they needed more rehearsal and thought. Vocally, she is not always in a comfort zone. She doesn't hit all her notes squarely and comfortably. For example, Amy's "It's Magic" (Styne/Cahn) gets off to a rough start in what seems to be a key that's not well chosen. Some of the belted notes are far less sure than when she is breezing through a more relaxed vocal line. On the plus side, her basic sound when she's not pushing is likable and bright. Her diction is especially good and she has gusto and some pretty colors in her lighter tones.

She has a more basic approach to pop and seems to live there. It's an interesting comparison that Amy and Jonathan Rayson (above) each approach one song from Karen Carpenter (Amy's is "Make Believe It's Your First Time") and one from Carole King (Amy's is "One Fine Day," an early collaboration with Gerry Goffin). Jonathan deepens them and finds shadows and meaning in the corners. Amy makes them even lighter than the originals, taking the simpler path without tinkering or reinventing. Four songs were written in part or solely by George Small. I find these four to be somewhat muddled, though there are some lines I like. On all the other tracks, Michael Lavine is the pianist and that's good news. Though he's playing conservatively here, this New York City man of music is an asset to any project. However, the presence of a synthesizer as used here makes things sound thinner rather than fuller. Chip Fabrizi provides drum and percussion on most tracks, and guitarist Kenny Brescia makes a few appearances.

"When I Fall in Love" is the CD's highlight. It's well done on all counts, a minimalist affair with just Amy and Michael, the singer sounding more in touch with the lyric. She conveys the tenderness of this classic, which doesn't sound tired at all, and is in fine form.

UNDER THE RADAR

I'm happy to let you know about this CD that snuck in quietly under the radar, but is full of heart, full of perspective and full of theater songs and other great old tunes.

Joe NortonJOE NORTON
THE KID INSIDE

Joe Norton's voice and attitude are lived-in and comfortable, like a big, fuzzy sweater you've had for years and love. What a smart and effective choice this album's theme is: reflections on time gone by and youth. The Kid Inside is based on his cabaret act, following some study with top instructors. Joe is a retired man who sounds like your wise, loving uncle who has some real wisdom and more than one memory-with-a-moral to share. He's a retired New York City firefighter, one of nine children of Irish immigrant parents, and he and his wife raised three sons and a daughter. His point of view and persona reeks with authenticity and deeply felt emotion. there's nothing glib or plastic about this venture. Its down-to-earth quality make it all the more affecting, as I hear things.

There's a lot of charm right off the bat, on track #1, hearing the playful Peter Pan protest, "I Won't Grow Up" from a man well into life - do we ever have to reach the point where "it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree"? The experience of hearing teen memories still vividly recalled by a person much older than the characters originally written for makes for an even stronger impact. Even more surprisingly, he makes it work. Joe is fully invested in the emotional Stephen Schwartz song "Fathers and Sons," from Working. (I can't help but wonder how he'd be exploring other characters in this musical which features a fireman and a character/song by Carnelia named "Joe" who is a retiree remembering a big neighborhood fire.) Another pairing of theater songs packs an emotional wallop, too: "Younger Than Springtime" and "Young and Foolish." The exultant love song and the bittersweet remembrance together? Joe makes this a kind of stepping in and out of time flashback that succeeds, too, at least dramatically. However, there is a pitch problem on this track - and it must be said that such unsuredness dogs the singing elsewhere. Medleys are a specialty, and the album has five in all.

Two other Broadway songs get warm readings: "Long Before I Knew You" (Bells are Ringing) and a musically relaxed "More I Cannot Wish You," a number he got to do in a production of Guys and Dolls. He places Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" with "Danny Boy," making for a memory piece about his Irish father's favorite song. Several lighter, brighter old-timey tunes fill out the album. Sometimes the singing is light and casual, held back; at other times Joe sings full out in a strong voice. What may be lacking in vocal polish, purity or power is made up for by the joie de vivre in the up numbers and genuineness throughout. The musical accompaniment is piano, bass, guitar, drums and yes, some synthesizers. Try the audio samples at www.CDbaby.com and see if you don't agree that there's "a kid inside" who knows his way to the fountain of youth.

Coming soon: some veterans and more discoveries.


-- Rob Lester


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