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And Then He Wrote ... :
(Some Songwriter Showcases)
Horne, Coward, Rodgers, Mercer

First comes the song. Here are some collections of songwriters' works ... First, First Things Last, the last to be released, followed by collections of work by old masters we catch up with this week, now that we're past our look back at 2010's "best of" items and our holiday break and holiday albums.

Lance Horne First Things LastLANCE HORNE AND VARIOUS ARTISTS
FIRST THINGS LAST

Yellow Sound Label
Amazon Exclusive

Welcome, Mr. Eclectic. How to describe the songs of Lance Horne in this often strikingly impressive new album? That's the tricky part. Hold your labels. Pop? Rock? Musical theatre? Art song? Anthemic power ballads? Somewhere where these avenues of music cross and cross-pollinate lies this Horne of plenty enjoyable stuff.

Some are these are from musicals, and the songwriter has collaborators on several of the numbers (one is the setting of just the last eight lines of the poem "O Tell Me the Truth About Love" by W. H. Auden, sung gently by Aneurin Barnard). Accompaniments vary, but Lance plays keyboards on all, did the arrangements on all but one and is on backup vocals on some, but has only one vocal solo—on the quirky little charmer "Little White Asparagus Blues." It is sung, yes, from the point of view of a lovestruck vegetable in a low-key, winking manner. Lea DeLaria delivers a sassy tour de force, force-feeding her assertiveness and (prettiness be damned) jazz-bent notes on "Hurry Up and Take Your Time"; and Ricki Lake brings a splash of pop-inflected sunshine as she's reveling about being "in the middle of a really good haircut"—she's easy to please—in a song simply called "Haircut."

But let's get to the serious side, because that's the meat of this album with the desserts spread out between courses. A youthful perspective comes through with a mix of carpe diem and deeply felt feelings and angst with life as the great adventure. Cases in point: an invitation persuasively presented by Julie Atherton to "Leap" into life ("Who wants to wait again when we can leap like the raindrops on the flowers/ Leap like the minutes to the hours") and a fervent plea to take life seriously and live it fully as if it's your "Last Day on Earth" sung with integrity by Hannah Waddingham.

There are some arresting moments, including the very first one at the beginning of the CD with Horne's spare accompaniment of Alan Cumming's beginning of "American" before its accompaniment swells and its very long list of behaviors morphs into a searing, raging rant. Daphne Rubin-Vega's "Orpheus," with her crushed-velvet vulnerable voice employed to full advantage, is atmospheric. Though powerful and pungent, a few numbers may seem overblown or repetitive as they develop (or, melodically, don't so much). All are sung with commitment. Less can be more here, as evidenced by a standout track: the touching treatment of "Strange Bird" by a sweet-voiced Cheyenne Jackson whisper-crooning and then building in vocal power as he describes personalities "You're arresting in that kind of way that never lets you rest" and "arresting and entrancing." This can describe this track and album at its best moments.

Christine Ebersole Sings Noel CowardCHRISTINE EBERSOLE
CHRISTINE EBERSOLE SINGS NOËL COWARD

Ghostlight Records

Welcome to the salon. Enter Christine Ebersole and accompanist, clutching the Noël Coward songbook. There's no denying the prettiness of the lady's voice. Those seeing the recent Broadway production of Coward's (non-musical) comedy Blithe Spirit, in which she appeared, heard a kind of "preview" of the pristine Christine voice singing Coward, filling the air and filling time briefly during scene changes. Now, here are longer versions and an album's worth of the writer's treasured songs: haunting, sophisticated and playful.

Deftly accompanied by pianist Larry Yurman, her conductor in Grey Gardens, this is a respectful recital. I use the word "recital" purposefully as many of the tracks are formal and presentational. Though done with musical competence and care, I often felt an emotional disconnect or, at least, much reserve as much as my ear was pleased by vocal sweetness and legato loveliness. It's as if the performers are on the outside of the song, respectfully observing its riches in music and lyrics rather than owning and wrapping themselves in them. Conservatives have won this election. Gilded songs are left in pristine condition tightly wrapped so as not to be infected by anything in the visit to the present.

With her prim-sounding soprano and its rounded tones, those numbers with operetta pedigree and more poetic, stylized language are most corseted in another era (" ... Though my heart may go awry/ In my heart will ever lie/ Just the echo of a sigh" in "I'll See You Again"). The famously British stiff upper lip attitude in some songs is stiff indeed when emotions are kept in check. In a few songs the music does bounce and that upper lip curls into a smile: "Chase Me, Charlie," the playful tale of frisky feline frolicking is fun and cheerily loose and "Any Little Fish," another visit to the animal kingdom, is adorable and energized.

Howard McGillin makes a guest appearance to duet in stoic, heroic voice for "A Room with a View" for another discretion-assured impression. And so it goes, with feelings held at bay in "If Love Were All" for what can be a heartbreakingly resigned admission and self-appraisal; "Mad About the Boy" is fairly generic by choosing not to take on any of the specific various characters and ages it was written to display. Although choosing to float on the gorgeous waves of melody and elegance, rather then diving into depths of drama (or soaking up possible above-it-all sarcasm when an opportunity presents itself in "World Weary"), an hour with Coward or Ebersole is a classy time with rich melodies.

There's something to be said for invoking another era in a non-fussy way. Meanwhile, back in 2011, Christine Ebersole is singing various songwriters as she finishes her engagement this weekend at New York's Cafe Carlyle and collects another Nightlife Award for Major Engagement at The Town Hall on Monday.

Shirley Jones Tribute to Richard RodgersSHIRLEY JONES
A TRIBUTE TO RICHARD RODGERS

Encore Music Presents

Considering that she starred in two iconic films of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals—Oklahoma! and Carousel—and got her first job with them on her first audition in New York (on a trip as a teenager), it makes sense that the voice that so long ago graced those melodies comes full circle with this Tribute to Richard Rodgers.

Shirley Jones, lately back in the recording studio after so long an absence, gives more attention to the songs Rodgers wrote with Lorenz Hart. There are only two Hammerstein lyrics: One is a quieter exploration of The King and I's "I Have Dreamed"; and listeners will find her still sounding agelessly wistful wandering through that well-described restless state in State Fair's "It Might As Well Be Spring." "Spring Is Here" (lyrics by Hart) lingers in its dark, stark shadows of loneliness amid the seasonal brightening. These are the highlights of this album for those wanting to hear more thoughtfully involved lyric interpretations, and the arrangements on these suit a more considered approach.

As bandleader Les Brown, Jr. explains in the brief liner notes, he asked Miss Jones about "lowering her keys and singing in a more intimate style" for the recording studio. She is definitely taking things more lightly here, but also seems to be giving a once-over-lightly treatment to some songs that have more potential colors in them—things are subdued or have the brightness turned up extra high with some of the busily blithe and brassy, whirling and swirling orchestrations created by the keyboardist John Raczka for the orchestra. The brash arrangement for "Where or When" sounds like something hastily or accidentally borrowed from a hard-swinging Sinatra Rat Pack show, with the singer gamely repeating and repeating the words ("But who knows, baby, who knows ...") for an extended Vegas-style tag. Huh?!

With the stinginess of the CD's mere ten tracks, and some being very brief or oh so breezy (or both), one is left wanting more songs and more substance. Still and all, and most rewardingly, qualities of her warm, distinctively graceful sound, with some creamy high notes and attentiveness to diction, are all recognizably the Shirley many of us have long loved.

While some arrangements are more along the lines of a Pops concert with frequently changing mini-spotlights for reeds, strings and rhythm, a serenity and focus remain in her singing. "It Never Entered My Mind," while not blindsided by surprise or bleak and defeated, is still effective as it suggests the still interesting point of view of someone who has had more time to adjust, accept and reflect—and mourn the loss of a relationship. As with her 2010 Christmas album with the same musical colleagues (but no chorus of voices this time), this is an often laidback but still glowing Shirley Jones.

Tom Culver Sings Johnny MercerTOM CULVER
I REMEMBER YOU
TOM CULVER SINGS JOHNNY MERCER

Rhombus Records

Surely the famous songs of Johnny Mercer have been well covered for years, especially after his 2009 centennial embrace. Here we go again. Tom Culver, a California-based cabaret singer, is a genial, unpretentious presence on disc, throwing his own hat into the musical ring. Singing the material with affection and a voice that shows some wear, a little strain and thinness on "reach" high notes (but plenty of heart), his approach sometimes recalls an easygoing, smiling old-time big band singer "selling" the melody's merits and the lyric's overall mood, without getting too deep into the passion or sadness in the lyrics. The problem is, the man being celebrated here was more of a lyricist (only two of the 18 melodies here are Mercer's own) and there's no energizing big band to give us that blast of danceable punch or lush sweep: we have keyboards, bass and percussion, a guitar, a trumpet, there's a flute heard, and there's a sax on several tracks. We also have clarinet on "And the Angels Sing," famously swung by bandleader/clarinet player Benny Goodman in those big band days.

A dozen of Mercer's numerous composer collaborators are represented, from the early days to Barry Manilow's setting of leftover "orphan" lyrics years after Mercer's death: "With My Lover Beside Me" is the choice, and it's done in a mellow mood, respectfully with appropriately contented sentiment. A refreshing choice, and also treated to the tender treatment, is the rarely recorded "Love in a Home" from Li'l Abner, the Broadway musical with Gene de Paul's music.

Some arrangement choices are puzzling. I'm all for experimenting when it works, but some of these ideas do a disservice to the songs' potential power. A shuffling rhythm, hand claps and an offhand approach to the sorrow of the words in the barroom lament "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" just makes the brew and brooding tepid. (The singer's liner notes describe the arrangement as "funky.") "Drinking Again," covering a similar mood and setting, is far more successful, the atmospheric gloom and doom preserved. "Charade" starts gently with the haunting quality of the music box mentioned in the lyric, then suddenly is hijacked into a frenzied jazz guitar-dominated instrumental section, then a tug of war between the two approaches.

"Free and easy, that's my style," goes the opening line of "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home." When Tom Culver settles into a freer, easier and at-ease comfort zone—as he does with this cozy track, where the musicians are on the same page, pages of the Johnny Mercer songbook get the smooth, caring touch they need.


- Rob Lester


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