OK, I have to admit it. When I got Kidults, the new album by perennial man-child Mandy Patinkin, I was more than a little scared to put it into my CD player. Don't get me wrong; when Mandy combines what can be a subtle vocal instrument with his sharp intelligence and connects with the lyrics of a well-chosen song, he is one of my favorite performers. However, he is the ultimate Jekyll/Hyde performer and will show his overplaying, self-indulgent, 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' histrionic side at the drop of a hat. Lately, the question isn't so much if he's going to spin out of control but when. And quite frankly, waiting for that moment to occur on stage or on disc is enough to give me angina.
Well, I can tell you exactly when those moments occur on Kidults. He approaches the cliff at track two, a medley of "Singing In The Bathtub" and "Singing In The Rain", and finally goes over the edge on track fourteen, a combination of "Everybody Says Don't" and "The King's New Clothes" (a medley that should work better than it actually does). And surprisingly enough, that is it. The vast majority of the album is remarkably low key and effective. This is not to say that he isn't zany or having fun; au contraire. It's just that on Kidults, he manages to strike a balance between amusing eccentricity and downright lunacy. His opening number, a charming rendition of "If I Only Had a Brain/a Heart/Courage" (complete with verses I had never heard before), is brought to life with three distinct voices/characters. He brings a touching tenderness to "New Words," remarkably underplays the frenetic "Minute Waltz," and he has a lot of fun playing with a variety of voices in "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" as filtered through Dragnet. Even at his most over-the-top, he is not nearly as bombastic as in "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," which shattered the otherwise enjoyable Oscar & Steve album (and the less said about Mamaloshen the better!).
Kidults is comprised of an odd mix of songs, however, and I am uncertain as to its general intent. As the name implies, it is a fusion of songs geared towards children ("The Ugly Duckling," The King's New Clothes," and "Inch Worm" from Hans Christian Anderson, for example), and ones that, while not inappropriate for kids, are an odd choice (Harry Chapin's "Cat's In The Cradle," the comical "April In Fairbanks," "Holiday For Strings" and "How Could You Believe Me?" belonging firmly in that arena). The fusion is not always a harmonious one, as the album just doesn't gel; it doesn't seem to know which genre it wants to be and thus doesn't settle into any. The medleys are largely ineffective, as the purpose behind them is oftentimes unclear. A 'School Days' medley ("Inchworm/School Days/Time In A Bottle"), sung with Kristin Chenoweth, does not quite tell a coherent story, and combining "Japanese Sandman" with "Cat's In The Cradle" just does not make sense lyrically, thematically or musically. The solo songs, however, are all gems with their sharp focus and emotional honesty, even if that emotion is simply a sheer delight in singing the songs.
Another album I greeted with mixed feelings was Michael Crawford's Disney Album. Now I greatly enjoyed his first solo album, Songs From Stage And Screen and consider his performance in the original Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera to be one of the most moving I have witnessed. However, over the years he has developed horrible singing habits and is in danger of becoming as big a caricature as Forbidden Broadway ("Put On Your Phony Voice") paints him to be.
As the title implies, his latest album is a collection of Disney songs and manages to be a largely pleasing, if woefully short, CD. The album focuses primarily on Disney songs written in the past decade by writers Alan Menken ("Colors of the Wind" and "If I Never Knew You," the latter being a duet with Sherie Rene Scott), Randy Newman ("When She Loved Me" and "I Will Go Sailing No More"), Elton John (an ill-conceived The Lion King medley and "I Know The Truth" from Aida,which sounds flat-out odd when sung by a man, under tempo, and restrained), Phil Collins, ("You'll Be In My Heart") and Kenny Loggins ("Your Heart Will Lead You Home"). Surprisingly enough, there is only one 'classic' Disney song, "Baby Mine." This is a colossal oversight, especially since at forty minutes in length, the album feels incredibly short. The arrangements are typical lush Disney-esque orchestrations (heavy on the strings and the sentiment), with a gentle, music box flavored "Baby Mine" being the highlight. The number is marred, however, by Crawford swooping to reach nearly every note, at times rivaling The Little Rascal's Alfalfa in terms of affected sentimentality. Overall, the album is pleasant, but will primarily appeal to fans of Disney and/or Crawford.
For me, the Holy Trinity of cabaret would be Karen Akers, Barbara Cook and Andrea Marcovicci. While all three constitute highly distinctive and differing vocal types, they all share one thing in common; the innate ability of becoming one with a lyric and wearing it as if it were tailored for them. Thus I am in heaven whenever any of the three come out with a new CD. As Andrea and Barbara have recently released albums, I am thrilled that Karen Akers has finally released another CD, Feels Like Home, since after a wait of four years I was going into major withdrawal symptoms and desperately needed get a new fix.
Karen Akers' distinctive low alto (more closely approximating a mid-tenor range, actually), was the first voice I fell in love with, thanks to the original cast album of Nine in which she played the beleaguered wife of the lead character, Guido. A video of one of her cabaret shows, Karen Akers: On Stage At Wolf Trap, is a necessary addition to any cabaret performers' educational library, and one of her early albums, In A Very Unusual Way, is one of my desert island discs and has gotten me through many a break up. Karen Akers is a master of the ironic, almost melancholic, lyric and this new album is one of her strongest.
Always continental in looks and presence, Karen Akers has gotten more and more European in her song choices probably as a result of her living abroad in recent years. Feels Like Home should make anybody from France homesick as eight of the fifteen songs are at least partially in French. These songs range in style from tragic ("Drouot," written by French singer/songwriter Barbara about an elderly woman who is selling all her possessions and memories at an auction), to traditional (Jacques Brel's "Marieke" or the classic "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"), and even include lounge (Pink Martini's wonderful "Sympathique" with lyrics translated by Karen Akers) and Broadway ("Chanson" from The Baker's Wife). Two more songs set in Paris augment the continental allure, "Paris In The Rain," perhaps the first Chunnel love song, and "Paris Is A Lonely Town," originally sung by Judy Garland in Gay Purr-ee.
Now this doesn't mean that Karen is neglecting our sunny shores or songwriters. The strongest track on the album, in fact, is her nigh definitive rendition of Jason Robert Brown's "Stars And The Moon," a song that is quickly reaching overdone status in cabaret. In Karen's hands, however, the song has found its home. Performed under the usual tempo with a simplified arrangement, "Stars And The Moon" has become what it always should have been; a bittersweet remembrance of lost chances sung by one nearing the end of her romantic life. The title song is not by John Bucchino (as I had originally supposed) but by Randy Newman, and is a delightful wrap-up to an intimate album. Unlike her previous albums, Feels Like Home uses only piano as accompaniment, which lends an intimate atmosphere as Karen Akers' warm vocals and Don Rebic's masterful piano playing blend seamlessly together.
I can not recommend this album strongly enough. For more information on Karen Akers and to hear samples of her albums, visit her website, www.karenakers.com. And if she is performing near you, run, do not walk, to get a master class in stylish lyrical interpretation.
Another distinctive voice was unfortunately prematurely silenced a few months ago when cabaret and jazz favorite, Susannah McCorkle, ended her life, thus ending a 20-plus-year recording and performing career. Well known as an interpreter of the American Songbook with a library of songs that ranged from Cole Porter to Paul Simon, she never achieved the breakout status that she definitely deserved. Shortly before her death, McCorkle handpicked fourteen tracks for a 'best of' compilation that has been recently released by Concord entitled Most Requested Songs, an eerily poignant and haunting collection.
It is almost impossible to view these songs except through the lens of hindsight and 'what might have been,' and one of the first things one notices (aside from McCorkle's thoughtful phrasing and pleasantly restrained vocals) is the feeling of light melancholy that infuses the disc. From the first track (a subtle rendition of "The Waters of March," with the opening English lyrics, "A stick, a stone, it's the end of the road, it's feeling alone, it's the weight of your load") to the last (an impassioned "For All We Know," whose ending lyrics of "tomorrow may never come, for all we know" are eerily prescient) the album is filled with songs of mild regret or missed possibilities. This is not to say that it is a depressing, angst-ridden album: quite the contrary. Instead, it is a thoughtful album that, largely due to the inclusion of rarely performed verses, contains an undercurrent of remorse or at least the acknowledgment that all may not work out. Thus, chestnuts like "Thanks for the Memory" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" take on a whole new shading.
The most poignant number on the album is Rupert Holmes' "The People That You Never Get To Love," an anthem of lost chances, with some prophetic lyrics: "The saddest words that anyone ever said are, 'Lord, what might have been?' But no one's said you get to win." Most Requested Songs is a wonderful way to get acquainted with a subtle, conversational performer who hopefully is jamming with all her favorite performers and songwriters in jazz heaven.
For something different, you might want to check out the new solo album by Gilles Chiasson, Slow Down, especially if you are a fan Jonathan Larson. Gilles, who appeared in the original cast of Rent, has a strong pop tenor and Slow Down amply showcases it. While not terribly effective on songs requiring subtlety, such as Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's "All The Things You Are," Chiasson shines on the rock/folk style numbers that make up the majority of the album. Of special interest to Rent fans will be "Open Road," which was replaced by "What You Own" by the time the show reached Broadway, and "Why" from tick, tick ... BOOM!, the finest Larson song I have heard.
Slow Down also contains several songs written by Chiasson, who displays a strong ear for lyrics. The Caribbean flavored "Island In The City" is a fun ode to Sheep's Meadow and "My Love Songs To You Are Everywhere," written for Gilles' wife, Sherri, is a touching romantic pop ballad that could easily get picked up by a country singer looking for new material. My favorite number on the album is "Quietly," written by Gilles Chiasson and producer/arranger Christopher McGovern, which has a simple yet sweeping arrangement that blends well with Gilles' vocals. Unlike many singers trying their hand at pop composition, Chiasson actually writes songs instead of setting what are in actuality poems to music.
It is interesting to note that while George Gershwin gets a tribute album practically every other week, Ira Gerswhin's contribution to the American songbook is largely overlooked. Which is a shame, since Ira outlived his brother by 36 years and collaborated with some of the greatest composers of all time: Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Burton Lane, Harry Warren, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill to name a few. Thankfully, Christiane Noll has remedied this deficiency with her latest CD, The Ira Gershwin Album.
Christiane possesses a lovely, lyric soprano that she uses to great effect on this album. She shows great subtlety in "I Was Doing All Right," from the 1938 film, The Goldwyn Follies, and a sense of joy and wit in "In Our United State," from the film Give A Girl A Break (and originally sung by Bob Fosse). My favorite track on the CD is the haunting "There Is No Music," from The Barkley's Of Broadway, which showcases her more legitimate vocal qualities. In fact, she shines brightest on the more obscure numbers on the album, perhaps due to the fact that she isn't competing with the spirits of past performers or influenced by their interpretations. For example, she is not quite right for "The Saga of Jenny" from Lady In The Dark, as she does not have the self-mocking awareness the number requires and sounds too 'pure' (which is a shame, as the arrangement is dynamite!). But she does give a beautifully simple and lyrical performance on "My Ship," also from Lady In The Dark, in which her vocals beautifully blend with the lone guitar arrangement. The orchestrations by Lanny Meyers are all remarkably effective in seeming period without evoking a specific era, imparting a timeless quality to the album.
When many Broadway and cabaret aficionados wistfully recall the perceived 'Golden Age' of the '40s, when the well-written musical and song were commonplace, lovers of pop lovingly recall another golden age: the era of folk/pop masterpieces that came to an end with the advent of disco and the 'rhythm uber alles' mentality of songwriting. In that shining era, songwriters were concerned more with making finely-crafted albums than focusing on individual songs and a great many of them have held up to this day. Their numbers include Carole King's Tapestry, Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmilsson, Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust, and even Barbra Streisand's early albums. Fynsworth Alley has re-released another of that genre, Rupert Holmes' Widescreen: The Collector's Edition , which is essential for anyone (like me) who wondered how the man who wrote the quintessential pop fluff song "Pina Colada" managed to came up with a masterpiece like The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.
Originally released in 1974, Widescreen became a critics' darling and produced a few cult favorite tunes. Holmes' songs are really short stories set to music, oftentimes with sweeping, full orchestra arrangements rarely heard in popular music since the '40s or '50s. The 'hit' song on the album was "Our National Pastime," in which the singer meets a girl at a baseball game and attempts to seduce her to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner." "Terminal," the number that prompted Epic to record the album in the first place, is a poignant love story set in a bus terminal and will stay in your head for days after your initial listening. "Letters That Cross In the Mail" (later covered by Barbra Streisand on an album produced by Holmes) is another example of Holmes' missed opportunities numbers (see "The People That You Never Get To Love" in the McCorkle review). "Phantom of the Opera" and "Soap Opera" are finely crafted audio storytelling gems; the first a beautiful and sad plea for love, the second a very funny satire on TV's daytime dramas. The last track of the original release, "Psycho Drama," is a ten minute radio play with incidental music, sound effects, and guest voices and is a precursor to his work on the AMC series, Remember WENN.
The album is chock full of bonus cuts, including "Studio Musician" and "Brass Knuckles" from his Rupert Holmes album, both of which fit well with Widescreen's larger-than-life cinematic feel. There are demos galore (three songs he wrote for the movie No Small Affair and "The Bitter End," which he wrote for Love Walked In), as well as songs he wrote for TV (the themes from Remember WENN and Hi Honey, I'm Home) and stage (a demo of "There You Are" from Drood in which Holmes sings all the characters, and "By Myself," used in Solitary Confinement, which starred Stacy Keach). All of which makes this album a bargain at any price.