Alison & Tennessee,
Samson & Delilah,
Anya & Robert
What a great idea: taking songs referenced or excerpted in Tennessee Williams' plays (sometimes used in more than one piece) and putting them together, weaving in some of his dialogue, and finding a versatile actress to make it all work. Alison Fraser fits the task quite wonderfully. Staged as a live music/theatre piece, now it's been preserved on disc. Presented through the prism of the personas of the vulnerable, emotionally shaky Williams women, the songsmostly well-known pieces on their own, before and after such associationstake on new, more complex emotions here. Wise in her own way, A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois begs that a paper lantern be put over the harsh bare bulb. Characters wanting to believe in a pretty world and their own reinvented pasts or projected futures dovetails nicely with songs that paint idealized portraits of romantic devotion and smooth-paved roads of life. Sweet, simple songs feel ironic or sadly empty, in danger of imploding along with dreams. The blues seem a deeper blue, although they're sung lightly (there's that irony againand good ol' subtext). With context and the uniquely heartbreaking Fraser voice, and these special atmosphere-drenched arrangements by pianist Allison Leyton-Brown for a great little band, this is a fascinating ride.
While some previous exposure to Williams' plays enriches the experience, the actress gets a lot of theatricality into the spoken excerpts, with instant characterizations. So very adept at bringing weight and color to words, knowing the power of a pause, her women can be as deceptive as the stage magic of colored light and shadow, sound effects and special effectsand as fragile as the tiny glass animals in The Glass Menagerie (a play which actually doesn't get represented here). The show's creator/director David Kaplan provides helpful liner notes putting it all in Tennessee sense, while noting the way the singer, arrangements, and musicians bring out what's between the lines. Music is played under some of the speeches. In the case of the opening song, "If I Didn't Care," dialogue and French expressions all blend together. (If you remember the original hit version, it included a recitation in the middle of the now quaint-seeming vocal harmonies and high notes.) A surprising touching "Sweet Leilani," another relic that always struck me as just so much innocuous pseudo-Hawaiian hokum, shines as a lovely, lilting breath of fresh air, while remaining quaint. It redeems itself belatedly from its historical footnote of unaccountably snagging the Academy Award over mightier competition. Alison and Allison manage to make something of this Williams favorite associated with his own first loveukuleles and all.
"Yellow Dog Blues" ends with the singer approximating a dog's lonely howl. What could be ridiculous is charming. To be succinct, this whole album is charming. While savvy and smartly done within an inch of its life, its delicacy is steel-girded in strength of musical panache and theatricality, with attention to detail. Alison Fraser consummately uses her wistful, crumpled-velvet, tear-stained voicewhich can fly high on a fanciful musical phrase or sink low and deep to mine so much from the songs and speeches. Note her careful enunciation which lets us hear every end-consonant "t" and "d" without sounding labored, how her Southern accent sounds honeyed and natural, neither the accent nor breathiness ever obscuring any words. She takes her time when needed, to bring out a feeling or just a well-chosen word, as if the character is thinking or the actress is making us wait to relish the word choice with her.
Never overstaying their welcomes to serve as singing showcases, the numbers feel just long enough to make their dramatic impacts, whether that be short and sweet as if wisps of music, or in full length, such as the classic "Sophisticated Lady." (That Lady's airs are pretty transparent as observed here, the charade not standing a chance.) While artful sadness is unavoidable as we draw to a close, the British contribution from Noel Coward informs us, with a quivering stiff upper lip, but we're left with one more spoken excerpt (a second dip into the solitude-seeking of Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen), the final song suggests the life-affirming bittersweet celebration of life and a brighter afterlife as music in a traditional New Orleans style funeral does. It's "Bye Bye Blues," leaving us with hope and perspective without glibness.
As in the perfectly performed play, all the instrumentalists playing are truly in character at all times and show teamwork. The musicians are simply terrific: moody, boisterous, playful, rollicking, or haunting as fits each twist and turn, with some splendid solo moments. The arrangements are unusual and often feel like deeper reinventions, compared to how they are usually encountered. The piano sets the tone, confidently, changing gears frequently, while J. Walter Hawkes (trombone and uke) and Bobby Campo (trumpet and cornet) are superb with their accents big and small, soaring or seductivelikewise, Jason Mingledorff on saxand there's the robust bass of James Singleton and drums by Wayne Moreau. John Eubanks adds another flavor on guitar. Oh, and Miss Fraser picks up the uke, too. What can't she do?
SAMSON & DELILAH
Here's a seemingly earnest musicalization of the biblical story of the Hebrew Samson and Philistine Delilah that sometimes seems somewhat fluffy and light in texture. Did the perky ensemble enthusing about times "When Samson Is Here" in the opening number seem less like warriors and more like cheerleaders and did they really say, "It's party time!!"? OK, so a decision was made to use what creator Ron Yatter describes in liner notes as "contemporary vernacular and music" for "pop/legit songs." The stylings can echo the "American Idol" background of its leads, the often appealingly sincere-sounding Ace Young and the sturdy but more strident and shrill Diana DeGarmo. Hello, melisma, breathiness and nasality and power ballads with big endings where the sensibility is that to make something more powerful, just repeat the line more intensely at the endbetter yet, if it's the already well-established title line, with as much crescendoed anguish or ardor as possible.
"Humanizing" legends and making them believable with words and musical choices is no easy task. Here, the guy with the god-given phenomenal strength rooted in his never-to-be-cut-or-else hair and the dazzling seductress often sound like angsty, melodramatic but na´ve teens. I have to wonder if some lyrics summarizing crucial plot turns would be better stated with words and music that are more matchingly dramatic rather than calm matter-of-factness ("Now that you know about my hair/ You also know how much I care"). Stating the obvious, addressing his murdered brother, Samson sings, "Your young bride is a widow now."
But let me state that I do not dismiss this recording out of hand, as I did find things I liked. What was it that made this piece oddly appealing to me? Is it a guilty pleasure? Perhaps. What's refreshing is the innocence and gentle sweetness that comes through the voices (despite the showboating) and plainness of the writing in discovering and proclaiming love. Joined by five "background vocalists," Young and DeGarmo (a real-life couple, too) jump in and give plenty of guts and grit as they sing of regret and revenge. Rhapsodic with romantic outbursts, they have chemistry when their characters proclaim everlasting love (interrupted by some distrust, deception, blinding, and locks and love both shorn).
The dozen songs (no overture, no reprises) come to just over half an hour of playing time. On the list of songs, a sentence or two (or three) fills us in on the plot twists that lead to the songs (Example: "Delilah and the Philistine women sing and dance in celebration of their goddess of love."). Although there obviously would be plenty of disc time available for dialogue, there's no evidence of the curiously unnamed "wonderful writer" who Mr. Yatter tells us was involved with an earlier version of the book, and it's not clear what book (or whose) now exists, or if this is what's intended to be the full score. Although he wrote all the lyrics, four of the melodies are co-credited to Vassilis Varvarisos. While vigorous and throbbing in some instances, they are not grand and overblown. Although credit is given to arrangers (Elizabeth Hope on most tracks), producer/engineer Joel Moss, photographer, designer interns and a lawyer, etc., no one is credited for conducting or playing instruments except Steve Deutsch getting a "special thanks" mention "for electric bass and instrumental enhancement."
Fans of the singers and undemanding admirers of "modern" musical theatre, with driving declarations of devotion (or deceit) will find satisfactions here. I can't deny that the singing has some excitement and flashes of beauty.
Thoughtful, smart, artful, heartfelt and sometimes funny, the songs co-written and performed by Anya Turner (vocals) and Robert Grusecki (piano and some vocals) make Labor of Love lovelyand anything but labored. There's a serenity here, a professionalism that maintains a maturity and naturalness. The pair's mutual affection and desire to communicate feelings and observations which we can all share make us, as listeners, feel that we know them. In their warmest, most accessible, and most secure outing (and one nicely balanced in tone), they deliver the goods memorably and effectively.
The well-crafted songwriting has grace and elegance, but is always direct and delivered without artifice. They seem comfortable in their own skins. That's evident throughout, and boldly stated in the opening piece as Anya sings smoothly and with bliss about feeling "At Home in the World." The lyric includes plainspoken, confident declarations ("No one can tell me that I'm out of place") and a rewardingly deft, decorative alliteration ("Finding my niche in the nick of time/ No longer lost and lonely"). They can be serene or sincere or saucy. In the strutting nose-thumbing at aging, crowing that "Fifty Is the New Twenty-Five," she tosses off comments about dealing with "hormones, implants, transplants/ Does it show?/No, no, no/ Like all the bitches, I'm just rappin'." As she gets carried away, Robert intones, mantra-like, "Fifty, fifty, fifty" over some of her insistent repeats singing the title.
Totally adorable in music and lyric is the song they wrote about writing a song: "How Do You Write a Song." They sing this one together and its embrace of the process and frustrations ("You hum, you pace, you moan, you mutter/ You laugh, you cry, you curse, you sputter") shows they can practice what they preach ("You weave the music and words/ With deep expression and much compression"). Taking the steps of creativity a step further, they have another number about the trials and tribulations and the long haul of mounting a musical from idea to closing: "We Wrote a Show" ("Rewrites, long nights, don't get sick ... The critics came/ Some of them loved it "). It will ring true with anyone with a first-hand knowledge of putting out energy (and money) for a show from scratch as a labor of love.
Especially tender and strongperhaps like their subjectsare two songs dedicated to parents: "Paul" for the struggles of his father, "Janet" ("And Like That") for the proudly self-sufficient, simple lifestyle of her mother. Both sing with a lot of heart throughout the album. Robert's piano playing is graceful and efficient, never flowery or fluttery. On this album, they're joined by one other musician: guitarist john Putnam, who seems a skillful and kindred musical spirit.
A common wisdom states that, in writing, universality can come from well-etched detail. You get that with Anya and Robert. Add to that sensitive, honest, down-to-earth singing, and more than a touch of class.