Pop! Go the theatre performers
Here are two new CDs, each with someone who's recently made a splash on Broadway, but these aren't albums of show tunes as is very often the case with such releases. No Sondheim or Rodgers or Porter or Kander & Ebb here. Alice Ripley (Next to Normal) chooses songs introduced by major rock singer-songwriters and Christopher Jackson (In the Heights) presents songs he wrote or co-wrote in a pop/R&B vein.
The naked angst and sorrow Alice Ripley ripped into when starring as a psychologically troubled woman in Next to Normal is very much still in evidence in her performances on her new album, just released this week. Co-produced by Kurt Deutsch, of the proven track record for Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight Records, and the singer herself, many of the songs are laden with lamenting lyrics and, while most of it could hardly be characterized as a "mood elevator" her recent theatre character might have been prescribed, it is often compelling. Select almost any track and you might feel like a voyeur; the performances are tinged with a confessional-approach style and are often harrowing and haunting, intense, raw, dark and powerful. Despite the fact that she has chosen many rock songs closely associated with their performing writers (songs which will be familiar even to those who barely follow the genre), she adopts and sings them as if they are her own thoughts. The nakedness of the emotion is underscored by the decision to have the accompaniment be just her own unpolished and hard-strumming guitar playing.
There are only ten songs on Daily Practice, Volume 1, making this a disappointingly short "practice session," but it's still tall on tumult and drama. Even numbers not so heavy in their original, poppier, highly produced versions bring in a musical weather forecast of storm clouds with any silver lining hard to find. Take the first track as an example: "It's Too Late," the big hit for Carole King, written by her and Toni Stern, is bleaker and deeper, with no bounce. The consequences of the failed relationship look grimmer, the hope slimmer. This is the case, despite the repeated lines "There'll be good times again for me and you" and "Still, I'm glad for what we had." But this is almost light and fluffy compared to what follows.
The singer is fearless in her presentation of fears, taking old radio hits and iconic songs seriously, revealing their grittier aspects, perhaps maturing them. It's admirable and effective, and the qualities of her voice suit the material, with its vulnerability and vehement vigor and seemingly built-in cry of pain and a quick vibrato on high notes.
Those who know Alice Ripley's past work won't expect easy listening. She has recorded other solo CDs, including strong-medicine songs she's written herself, and has three releases sharing or alternating singing singing duties with her Side Show co-star Emily Skinner. She's a force to be reckoned withwith a lightning bolt of a voice, sometimes tempered here when things turned more introspective, resulting in a mix of muttering and bigger-voiced wailing. Still, there is a relentless to some of the numbers midway in the playing order that might have been leavened by reshuffling the track order. But leavening and getting a breather is perhaps not the agenda.
Alanis Morrisette and Glen Ballard's "You Oughta Know" is full of rage and contains some graphic sexual references. The advice in the title of "Take It Easy" (" ... Lighten up while you still can ...") not withstanding, the doom and gloom rarely recedes for long, despite some catchy hooks and innocuous lyrics. References to changing planes in Pittsburgh and singing "la-la-li-li-la" still drip with droopiness in Nanci Griffith's "Flyer." It may be a turn-off to some or a reason to turn away if you're looking for non-challenging fare with "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and other hits. But for those willing to pull away the skin of rock songs and see the wounds and blood and guts, it's riveting and cathartic. Alice Ripley has guts. As one song says, "Everybody Hurts" (but its refrain encourages with the empowering and supportive lifeline line saying, "Hold on! Hold on!").
From In the Heights, with prior experience in the Broadway jungle in The Lion King, Christopher Jackson has an appealing pop-soul sound and ingratiating manner on his album (now available digitally, on disc in late March) called In the Name of Love. He comes across as a life-loving appreciator of the good things in life, emotionally open and sensitive, but with a confident air shooing away any "wimpy" factor.
Here he presents a baker's dozen of songs he either wrote or collaborated on. He wrote four on his own, including the catchy, smooth-grooved admission of feeling fearful and "so confused" called "Paralyzed," wherein he worries his affection may not be returned. Another of his solo writing efforts expressing contentment and vows of eternal bliss is more interesting to listen to than is suggested by its bland, simplistic title"Our Love (Is So Good)"and lyrics ("It's moments like this/ That make life worth living/ Moments like this that remind of us of the reasons why/ Our love is so good").
Throughout the album, lyrical ideas are hardly ground-breaking with few uniquely memorable turns of phrase or strong poetic images. They are straightforward, generally unmannered and may not be captivating to those weaned on rich theatre lyrics that build. Many of the songs make their point early and there's no surprise or twist or new realization/revelation to build to, so we're given repetition or embellishments. Rhyming is sometimes eschewed altogether for much of a song or is very basic (do/new; day/away; show/know) and occasionally settles for the pop world's more liberal policy of accepting near-rhymes (dime/line; plan/hand; attack/react). But the sweet soulfulness, ingratiating hooks and beat distract from this. So do the echoing or la-la-la back-up vocals often present (the voices are not identified by name, and I assume some are his own voice multi-tracked).
Most songs concern themselves with romance (as the album title would suggest) or positive attitudes and integrity. The more ambitious and literate "One More Day," another solo-written number bookended by the spoken poem written by Joshua Bennett, is an ode to his mother's strength in her successful battle with cancer ("And this is her reward/ Another test for her shield and sword"). "Change Your Mind," co-written by Mic Murphy and his sax player Bill Sherman, is the liveliest and funkiest on the set, and moves briskly and likeably. The band is snazzy and joyful, not harsh or overbearing, with Andy Ezrin on keys very strong, aided by a rhythm section and some horns and strings present, too.
The final track, "I Got You," is one written in collaboration with Christopher Jackson's colleague from In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the only song whose lyrics are not in the booklet. It's another unencumbered, sprightly expression of happiness ("Don't it feel good to know we share one heart ... Never gonna let you go as long as I got you ... I got you, I got you, I got you" and such, nothing sophisticated or new in the lyrics (which even use the phrase "like sunshine on a cloudy day," recalling the opening line of the old Motown hit "My Girl") but the energy is fresh and fizzy. "You know me, Mr. Heart-On-My-Sleeve," he crows amiably, and the Jackson heart-on-sleeve presentation is likeable pop sunshine. And sunshine is welcome in the winter listening days or any time.