Britain's Barb & Braun Borrowing Someone Else's Stories
British imports are these two quite different storytelling songbirds. Someone Else's Story is a debut solo CD from Meredith Braun, who's a performer in West End productions, as she takes on theatre songs (and more) introduced by others. Longtime recording artist Barb Jungr, who plays both sides of the Pond and beyond, has someone else's stories on tap, too; the gifted storyteller-of-a-singer continues her association with the tales crafted and introduced by Bob Dylan.
Veteran of numerous British musical dramas in soprano roles such as Lily in The Secret Garden and Betty in Sunset Boulevard, and previously heard on their cast albums, Meredith Braun makes her solo CD debut with Someone Else's Story. She's taken a decade off and, now a mother with three children, is back to work singing. However, listening to her vocal sound and approach here, you'd guess she is a coy, winsome ingénue at times.
We hear this burgeoning "innocence" noticeably on "The Rainbow Connection," that ode to determined optimism and being a dreamer introduced in the original The Muppet Movie by that beloved amphibian Kermit. There are two versions, one in English and another gauzy go at in French as the album's final cut. Without overloading the album with parent/child or girlish perspectives, there are some. For example, she takes on "Meadowlark" by Stephen Schwartz from The Baker's Wife, which begins with the line "When I was a girl, I had a favorite story ...," and her take on this, tellingly, sounds more focused on warmly recalling the tale and its telling, rather than the adult emotions and struggle for a major decision, with the story of the bird being the metaphor for freedom and being caged. (She does rewardingly employ her ample belt sound for the big ending, but it's less effective for the loss of anguish or justifications displayed before that.) I find some of the vocal placement or characterization keening and distracting and wish for more clarity in tones and phrasing that would suggest more nuanced in-the-moment involvement. Words can be glossed over or even swallowed or blurred here and there, while others are embraced and flavored with pluckiness or pouting. I find some compensation with the CD's other pluses and the intentions, as well as the stronger tracks. It's a mixed bag, results-wise and in repertoire, although she doesn't go back to the Golden Age for her musical theatre choices, the oldest being 1976's "Meadowlark."
"Wait a Bit" from the Stiles and Drewe musical of Kipling's Just So stories is a refreshing choice and the Braun brimming-over brightness and sweetness are well exploited there. She sounds more invested. Besides some more-exposed titles, like the opening track from Chess that gives the CD its title, there's the little-known "China Doll" from Marguerite by Legrand/Boubil/Kretzmer which has some wistfulness and wonderment. Gabriel Fauré's famed lullaby "Pavane" is heard in two versions, English and Italian (with Italian words co-written by the singer and Barbara Gosden). I'd always found its intervals and melody line mesmerizing, in instrumental versions and Barbra Streisand's wordless ethereal vocal on her classical album, but its adaptation here makes some of the piece pretty puzzlingly peppy for a cradle crooning and works against its usual gentleness and legato soothing at a slow tempo. But there's still a "cuddle and coo" factor.
There are two tracks pairing Sondheim gems (the four chosen are among those most often sung out of context from their scores on vocal albums and concerts). "No One Is Alone"/"Not While I'm Around"another example of nurturing being on her mind makes for a logical interweaving, leaving no doubt of her sincerity, and they're unpretentious. Although emphasizing the serenity more than the risks referenced in both lyrics, the medley is nicely executed. The other Sondheim set piece is less effective, especially if you've heard the two numbers done together by other female vocalists (memorably, Nancy LaMott): "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By," both from Merrily We Roll Along. Perhaps the British reserve or the elegance of the arrangements add to the sense of sidestepping any emotional quicksand on these two songs of regret and wounds. A former Christine in Phantom of the Opera, Meredith brings us up to date with the title number from its sequel, Love Never Dies, and makes a persuasive case for this piece, this time making one thankful that she holds back and doesn't go for the all-stops-out anthemic approach with throbbing thrusts at the melodrama of the message stated in that title.
Most striking here is the choice to have all 14 selections performed with just cello (gorgeously played by Justin Pearson with rich, evocative work) and graceful, non-pounding piano (Paul Bateman, also the arranger/musical director). Although the singer might come off as resisting the evocative and more "serious" moods they so ably set, others may find it a balance, rather than being at odds, perhaps down-to-earth coziness to complement refinement.
Barb and Bob: perhaps an odd couple, but it has been working like magic. British singer Barb Jungr, for whom unsparing (yet spare) intensity and careful, thorough examination of lyrics are specialties, has a love for and original approach to Bob Dylan's songs. She's been exploring and reinventing them with originality and success for some years now. When I saw her last go-rounds on the material, which she's back at again at the Metropolitan Room in the venue's first extended run, I observed patrons greeting her afterwards and saying they'd resisted Dylan or knew little of his output, but her takes on his work converted them.
It's fairly easy to see why. She makes them more approachable with her laser-beam care and storytelling skills and broad musical and theatrical vocabulary, along with arrangements that redefine them. Skilled actress that she is, Barb puts the emphasis on the key words and phrases not always standing out in Dylan's more introspective, droning versions thatalong with his gruff/muttering vocal soundsome find distancing. The Jungr voice, more generous in its range and prettier, more glowing of tone, offers more artillery. Dylan is a poet and protestor, uncompromising, and can lash out or sob a lament. He's a truly unique icon; a writer's own recordings can't be matched for integrity and guts, but she, generally, in no way apes his style or attitudes or even his cadences and tempi. She is her own person, makes the songs very much her own, and their stories come alive accessibly. She holds on to your attention for dear life (hers, his and yours) and never lets go. A sensitive, strong, non-wimpy, womanly persona/experience informs all the well-chosen numbers. Like the superb and analytical American jazz singer Janet Planet, whose own recent Bob Dylan album and shows mined similar territory in a fresh, intellectualized and personal way, Barb Jungr is finding a new way into the depths of Dylan.
This CD collects some previously released Dylan material from albums released over the years on Linn Records, but is highlighted by four first-time-on-disc selections recorded last year, but which she's had in her repertoire for some time. Especially mesmerizing, they are also particularly intimate as (unlike the other tracks) they are a kind of conversation with just one musical partner, Jenny Carr. They both play percussion and share arrangement credit on three of them ("Sara" is a souvenir of her collaboration with musical director Russell Churney who passed away in 2007). The Carr keyboard manner seems to breathe with the singer at times, and at other times buoys or urges her on, never overshadowing her, nor fading into innocuous background support.
The best known of the four songs recorded for this release is "It Ain't Me Babe," but it is re-shaped here as a far more thoughtful piece, not simply ranting, but edged with rue and ruminating, and a sense of wanting to explain. It's deeper. The loss is less angry and dismissing, more a sadder-but-wiser farewell forged with the resolve and the necessity of self-protection from known consequences of a relationship that is not workable. It's all in the phrasing that favors thoughtfulness over self-pity or a full suit of armor. Break-ups hurt. "With God on Our Side" is potent in a quite different way, the album's title song is cloaked in a sense of intriguing mystery and "Sara," written for the erstwhile Mrs. Dylan as they teetered on the edge of breaking up, is heartbreak with hope hovering as Barb sings with yearning, alone and with her own layered-over voice for harmonies.
The nine previously issued tracks include revitalization of early warhorses such as "Like a Rolling Stone," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and the cathartic "I Shall Be Released" along with others less covered from across the yearsmore likely new discoveries for non-Dylan devotees. All are drenched with the Jungr care and envelopment. Some avoid the Dylan trademark accompaniment associations of guitar and harmonica entirely, which helps cast them immediately in a new light and style. As arranged by Adrian York or Jonathan Cooper or the triumvirate of the vocalist, Jenny Carr, and Jessica Lauren (who also does some backing vocals), instruments heard on various tracks include clarinet, harp, viola, sax and (all played by Lauren) organ, autoharp, mbira, mellotron, and electric tanpura, as well as harmonica and piano. It's a fascinating landscape and with the four Jungr/Carr "duo" pieces making their disc debuts scattered among them, makes for varied listening.
If Barb Jungr were not a singer/actor, she might be a detective finding hidden meanings and clues as she does with these established songs, or someone in a shop who takes watches apart to see how they do or don't work and puts them back together piece by piece, or the world's most irresistible hypnotist. With her committed and compelling way of performing and her arresting sound, she is very much a hypnotist on disc and even more so in person. Come fall under her spell.
The singer's show, with the same name as this CD, continues at the Metropolitan Room through April 28. New convertsto songstress or songwriterwelcome.